Above a surfacing humpback whale in the waters off New England, a six-rotor hexacopter hovers, waiting to be soaked by spray from the majestic creatures’ spout.
On a nearby boat, marine biologists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution patiently keep the specially-kitted drone in position. The drone’s attached sponges will absorb the moisture – brimming with microorganisms, DNA, hormones and bacteria from the whale’s respiratory tract. Once collected and returned to the lab, these samples will open up a wealth of data and can be used to determine family history, stress levels, and the whale’s overall health. Meanwhile, a high-resolution camera is used to alert scientists to any skin lesions as well as indicate the whale’s fat levels
‘With blue whales and humpback whales we have yet to detect any reaction when doing photogrammetry overflights at higher altitudes or with breath sampling at lower altitudes,’ explained Michael Moore, director of the WHOI Marine Mammal Center. ‘Interestingly, there are often seagulls around the drone. They are more or less the same size and the copter seems to blend in.’
After a successful test with humpback whales in Stellwagen, off the coast of New England, the biologists hope to take the drone to analyse the same species living near the Antarctic Peninsula. By analysing both sets of results, they will compare the health of humpbacks living in pristine conditions against those living nearer to shipping traffic, pollution and fishing.
‘This will give us a new understanding of the relationship between whale body condition and health in the context of habitat quality,’ said Moore.
This article was published in the October 2015 edition of Geographical Magazine.