Estimating the spatial position of marine mammals based on digital camera recordings

J.P.A. Hoekendijk, J. de Vries, K. van der Bolt, J. Greinert, S.M.J.M. Brasseur, C.J. Camphuysen, G.M. Aarts*

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review

2 Citations (Scopus)


Estimating the spatial position of organisms is essential to quantify interactions between the organism and the characteristics of its surroundings, for example, predator-prey interactions, habitat selection, and social associations. Because marine mammals spend most of their time under water and may appear at the surface only briefly, determining their exact geographic location can be challenging. Here, we developed a photogrammetric method to accurately estimate the spatial position of marine mammals or birds at the sea surface. Digital recordings containing landscape features with known geographic coordinates can be used to estimate the distance and bearing of each sighting relative to the observation point. The method can correct for frame rotation, estimates pixel size based on the reference points, and can be applied to scenarios with and without a visible horizon. A set of R functions was written to process the images and obtain accurate geographic coordinates for each sighting. The method is applied to estimate the spatiotemporal fine-scale distribution of harbour porpoises in a tidal inlet. Video recordings of harbour porpoises were made from land, using a standard digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) camera, positioned at a height of 9.59m above mean sea level. Porpoises were detected up to a distance of 3136m (mean 596m), with a mean location error of 12m. The method presented here allows for multiple detections of different individuals within a single video frame and for tracking movements of individuals based on repeated sightings. In comparison with traditional methods, this method only requires a digital camera to provide accurate location estimates. It especially has great potential in regions with ample data on local (a)biotic conditions, to help resolve functional mechanisms underlying habitat selection and other behaviors in marine mammals in coastal areas.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)578-589
JournalEcology and Evolution
Issue number3
Publication statusPublished - 2015


  • porpoises phocoena-phocoena
  • harbor porpoises
  • habitat selection
  • wadden sea
  • north-sea
  • marsdiep
  • inlet
  • cetaceans
  • currents
  • density


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