Skip to main content

Aerial photogrammetry of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the Bay of La Paz, using an unoccupied aerial vehicle


Measurements obtained from aerial imagery can be used to calculate body shape, condition and growth rates of large surface-associated marine megafauna. In this study, an unoccupied aerial vehicle (UAV) was used to obtain aerial images of an elasmobranch species, the whale shark (Rhincodon typus). Pre-caudal length (PCL) and multiple body width measurements were taken from aerial images of 26 juvenile whale sharks, obtained between November 2020 and February 2021 in the La Paz Bay, Mexico. PCL ranged from 2.98 to 6.43 m, with a mean of 4.93 m (SD = 1.00). Body width was found to be greatest in the region by the snout and anterior contacts of the pectoral fins. Body width decreased in a near-linear manner from ~ 18% PCL at the midpoint to ~ 10% PCL at the posterior end of the body. There was a significant linear relationship between whale shark dorsal surface area (SA) and PCL on the log–log scale (LM: F1,24 = 647.7, P < 0.001), showing that whale sharks increase exponentially in overall body size as they increase in body length. However, there was no effect of PCL on the relative body width at the different measurement sites, suggesting that body shape of whale sharks was similar across the size range measured in this study. Finally, the body condition of the sharks, measured as the residual of the relationship between SA and PCL, varied between − 21.6% and  + 14.0%. This study highlights the benefits of using UAV photogrammetry to measure large marine fauna, to obtain valuable morphometric data to study their physiology and bioenergetics.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5

Data availability

The datasets analysed in this study are available from the corresponding author on request.


Download references


Fieldwork and logistics were supported by Pelagios Kakaunja A.C with the support of the Instituto Politecnico Nacional, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas (CICIMAR). We thank all the volunteers who have contributed their time and resources into the collection of these data and to local authorities for granted the necessary permits. F.G.M would also like to thank the Instituto Politécnico Nacional for fellowships (EDI, COFAA).


The authors have not disclosed any funding.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



DAW, KAA designed the study; FC preformed the data analysis; DAW, KAA, JHG collection of data and assisted in coordinated the field work activities; DAW, FC, KAA, JHG prepared the manuscript and FGM, JTK reviewed and contributed to the final version of the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Darren A. Whitehead.

Ethics declarations

Conflict of interest

The authors declare that they have no conflict of interest.

Ethical approval

All applicable international, national, and/or institutional guidelines for the care and use of animals were followed and were also authorized by Mexican wildlife authorities under the permit SGPA/DGVS 04579/20 provided by the Dirección General de Vida Silvestre from the Subsecretaría de Gestión para la Protección Ambiental of SEMARNAT, as well an additional permit for the use of a drone in the refuge area of the whale sharks in the Bay of La Paz F00.DRPBCPN.1167/2020 provided by the Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas.

Additional information

Responsible Editor: J. Carlson.

Publisher's Note

Springer Nature remains neutral with regard to jurisdictional claims in published maps and institutional affiliations.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Whitehead, D.A., Ayres, K.A., Gayford, J.H. et al. Aerial photogrammetry of whale sharks (Rhincodon typus) in the Bay of La Paz, using an unoccupied aerial vehicle. Mar Biol 169, 94 (2022).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • DOI:


  • Rhincodon typus
  • Photogrammetry
  • Drones
  • Gulf of California