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How Drones Are Helping Scientists Study the Future of Whales

The drones capture important genetic material from the world's largest animals — and it's less intrusive, because the whales likely think it's a bird.
In this Jan. 23, 2005 file photo, a humpback whale leaps out of the water in the channel off the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii.AP

The sight of a 50-foot whale breaching is breathtaking. Water slides down the whale’s back as it leaps above the surface, shooting spray in the air and then crashing back into the water. The powerful ocean giants make their own waves with mighty, mid-air twists and turns.

Every now and then, a powerful spray blasts into the air from the creature’s blow hole. The average onlooker just sees a cloud of vapor, but marine biologists view it as important genetic material.

Researchers at Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit dedicated to conservation efforts, are using drones capture the breathtaking image with aerial photography — as well as the genetic material in petri dishes.

Ocean Alliance created the "Snotbot," a drone they designed to capture both images of the whales and live biological samples of the "snot" the animals exhale through their blow holes. The team mounted petri dishes to the drone's base so that when the drone hovers above a breaching whale, the propellers create a vortex. This pushes the whale's spray down into the sample trays.

Related: SeaWorld to End Breeding Program for Orcas

"We know this tool is replicable and powerful," Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr said. He and his team have used the Snotbot to collect images and samples from blue whales in Mexico, right whales in Argentina and humpback whales in Alaska.

This fresh approach allows biologists to gather new insight into the world's largest creatures without them even knowing it. Typically, scientists need to biopsy an animal in order to collect biological data.

"To do that you need to get pretty close to the whale and it's hardly a non-invasive procedure," Kerr said. "When someone takes blood from us, we know it and we don't like it."

In this Jan. 23, 2005 file photo, a humpback whale leaps out of the water in the channel off the town of Lahaina on the island of Maui in Hawaii.AP

Taking a blood sample from a blue whale, weighing in at 150 tons, is no easy task. They are so enormous that a human could stand up in the right ventricle of a blue whale's heart, Kerr said.

Imagine trying to capture photos of these giants from the dock of a 13-foot research boat. The gray whale is 50 feet and the blue whale is 100 feet — only a drone, collecting images overhead, can put their size into perspective.

Related: Japan’s Whaling Fleet Set to Embark on Hunt for 333 Minke Whales

The aerial point of view allows Ocean Alliance to capture identifying photos and intimate moments, like a mother nursing her calf. The animals are more likely to act natural because they probably think the drone is a bird, Kerr said.

That means less stress for the whales and a more accurate biological sample. For the first time ever, the team is able to peer into the lungs of the world’s largest animals without disturbing them. The samples they collect contain a biological treasure trove of mammalian DNA, microbiome, stress and pregnancy hormones.

At Oregon State University, Professor Scott Baker is adding the information collected by the Snotbot to a catalog of 3,000 whales that he and his team have been studying for 35 years. He analyzes the whales' identities by looking at age, health and any signs of environmental threats.

"It's not just about learning about this population now, but understanding it over the next 10, 20 or 50 years."

"The same way you would in the case of a human forensic analysis," Baker said, "to tell us about its history in terms of its population, its associates and relatives."

They compare the biological data to the aerial images captured by the drone and contribute the physical markings they see to the animals' identity profiles. As they continue to add information to the catalog, they can draw more and more conclusions about the future for the biggest animal on the planet.

"It's not just about learning about this population now, but understanding it over the next 10, 20 or 50 years," Baker said.

In this July 11, 2008 file photo, a trio of humpback whales break the surface of the water as they work together in a group behavior known as "bubble feeding" off the coast of Cape Cod near Provincetown, Mass.AP

Ocean Alliance doesn't plan to stop anytime soon. Kerr said that for whale biology, this innovative use of drones is just as groundbreaking as the 17th century invention of the microscope. He hopes other nonprofit groups will start using the technology responsibly in their research as well because it's a much cheaper option.

"There's probably a lot of charities in North America that can't afford a $50,000 research tool, but they can afford a $2,000 research tool," Kerr said. "It's just amazing."

While some whale populations are slowly recovering from near extinction, others are still in danger. Countries like Japan and Iceland still hunt whales, but Kerr said the new research could help save them.

And hunting might not be the only problem. It's hard to know what has an effect on whales. There may be other human actions stressing them that researchers haven't even considered.

"We live on planet ocean," Kerr said. "Humanity's future is in our oceans, so we want to know what human effects cause stress for these species. This Snotbot will help tell us that."