Bird's- Eye View

May 27, 2018
By Damond Benningfield

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Snot released from whales’ blowholes is tested to check on their health. Photo Credit: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration

To keep tabs on the health of whales, marine biologists sometimes catch the “snot” from the whales’ blowholes -- a mixture of water, mucus, and other substances. And in recent years, they’ve found a new way to catch it: with drones.

The small remote-controlled vehicles fly above a whale and wait for it to clear its lungs. A plate or dish then catches some of the material expelled through the blowhole. Biologists check the “blow” for the whale’s DNA, hormones, algae, bacteria, and other substances.

That’s one of several ways in which drones are contributing to marine research. They can collect samples or snap pictures for a fraction of the cost of more conventional techniques, and allow researchers to keep an eye on marine critters without spooking them.

One project uses drones to study waves and their interaction with the atmosphere, while another uses them to count gray seals on the coasts of New England and Canada.

And yet another project used drones to study Olive Ridley sea turtles in Costa Rica. Researchers wanted to study the nesting behavior of these rare creatures. The drones revealed that the turtles congregated in groups that were a good bit larger than expected.

Drones still aren’t perfect tools. Small ones have limited range and payloads, while big ones can be expensive. And there are restrictions on how and where they can be flown. Even so, they can give scientists a bird’s-eye view of the oceans and coasts -- and help them with such icky tasks as catching whale snot.