Drone enthusiasts have been filming fish and sea mammals for years. Mostly, it’s been scientists seeking to document aquatic migration, predation and mating patterns. With drones, scientists have learned intimate details about the habitats and life conditions of sharks, seals and sea turtles – among other species – that earlier field researchers, using more conventional tracking methods, overlooked or failed to explore. Drones have a unique capacity for continuous aerial and underwater surveillance. With advanced zoom and thermal imaging cameras, they can film their subjects in extreme close-up but still surreptitiously – and if need be, in dark murky water or at night. To date, drone ocean surveillance has led to important scientific discoveries that can enhance marine conservation.
But it’s not just scientists; private drone hobbyists are doing their part, too. Paul Dabill, a local restaurant owner in south Florida, spends most of his leisure time flying drones, mostly at sea. Over the past decade, his devotion to filming aquatic animals has allowed him to document little-known behaviors practiced by a wide array of fish and sea mammal species. His stunning videos, mostly posted on YouTube, have earned the 48-year old drone enthusiast admiration and praise, and a steady following on social media.
Last October, Dabill filmed a large school of crevalle jack fish off the coast of Juno, FL that had swirled into a large heart shaped formation for about a minute before dispersing into the glistening turquoise water. Dabill had actually gone out with his DJI Mavic Air Pro 2 drone looking for mullet fish to film. He was surprised to discover hundreds of crevalle jack fish swimming together and then marveled at their seemingly spontaneous decision to create a large circle resembling a human love heart. Were the fish trying to send him a signal? Crevalle jack fish in search of prey – usually minnows – are known to swim in a pattern known as “daisy chaining” but the pattern Dabill observed was unique. Stunned, he zoomed in and captured a remarkable phenomenon that even avid fish scientists say they cannot fully explain.
Dabill’s latest fish video is just as dazzling. In this case he stumbled upon a large pod of 50 bottle-nose dolphins off the coast of Jupiter, FL. His 90-second video shows s0me of the adult dolphins playfully competing for control over a long strand of sargassum seagrass while their young progeny frolic nearby. Dabill filmed the pod for a full 30 minutes then posted a brief excerpt on YouTube that is beginning to make the rounds of major online news organizations – and dazzling viewers worldwide.
Is Dabill some kind of fish “whisperer”? He seems to have an unusual knack for capturing sea mammals and fish that for reasons unknown have welcomed him into their inner circle, displaying a previously unseen part of their nature. In recent weeks Dabill has posted stunning aerial views of a manta ray, a tiger shark, a manatee and a tarpon, among other aquatic creatures. His January 12 video of an extremely rare right whale and her calf swimming together near Juno beach has already received nearly 200,000 views on his personal Facebook page.
Dabill attributes his unusual finds to good preparation and dedication to his craft. But others sense he has a special gift. “How do you attract all these creatures?” one Facebook follower commented after viewing his latest video. “Just amazing!” marveled another.