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    Drones are providing a powerful new tool for whale research and conservation. Here, NOAA’s John Durban (center rear) uses a remote control to guide a hexacopter into the outstretched hands of his NOAA colleague, Holly Fearnbach, as WHOI microbiologist Amy Apprill (seated) and New England Aquarium whale specialist Marilyn Marx look on. Durban makes it look easy, but maneuvering a drone from a rocking sailboat is anything but. (Photo by Véronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    Sitting on the deck in the bright sunlight, Fearnbach uses a towel to shade a monitor screen showing a video feed from the drone’s camera. By looking at the video, Fearnbach sees what the camera “sees” in real time—and can tell Durban which way to fly the drone in order to position it over a whale to take high-resolution images and sample its blow. (Photo by Véronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    In the past, getting aerial photographs of whales meant taking them from a plane or helicopter. A small drone equipped with a specialized camera can get close to a whale without disturbing it, resulting in images of unprecedented quality and detail. In a process known as photogrammetry, a team led by NOAA’s Wayne Perryman will use the images to estimate the size of the whales, assess their body condition, and draw conclusions about their overall health. Research approach of whales using the hexacopter was authorized by NMFS permit #17355 and flights were authorized under an MOU between NOAA and the FAA (Class G MOU #2016-ESA-3-NOAA). (Photo by John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    This close-up image was taken as the drone approached a whale to collect a sample of its blow; the animal's still-closed blowholes are visible as two slits in the center of its head. The whale is filter-feeding on tiny crustaceans near the surface of the water, so its mouth is open, revealing its baleen plates. High-resolution photographs like this one allow scientists to identify individual whales by their unique pattern of callosities—the patches of rough skin on the whale’s head. The dark callosities are covered with light-colored cyamids or “whale lice,” making them appear white. Research approach of whales using the hexacopter was authorized by NMFS permit #17355 and flights were authorized under an MOU between NOAA and the FAA (Class G MOU #2016-ESA-3-NOAA). (Photo by John Durban and Holly Fearnbach, NOAA Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    The drone hovers in the whale’s blow to collect a sample. The V-shaped spray pattern is characteristic of baleen whales such as North Atlantic right whales, which have two blowholes through which they breathe. Whales with teeth—such as sperm whales—have only one blowhole. Research approach of whales using the hexacopter was authorized by NMFS permit #17355 and flights were authorized under an MOU between NOAA and the FAA (Class G MOU #2016-ESA-3-NOAA). (Photo by Véronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    To get a sample of a whale’s blow, the researchers attach a sterilized petri dish to the top of the hexacopter. After a successful flight, they transfer the collected liquid to a small plastic vial and freeze it. Back at WHOI, Apprill and her colleague Carolyn Miller will use a technique known as metagenomics to analyze genetic material and identify microbes in the blow. (Photo by Véronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)
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    WHOI biologist Michael Moore collects a sample of seawater off the back of the boat. Apprill and Miller will compare the water’s microbial community to what they find in each blow sample, to distinguish microorganisms that live in the water from those specific to a whale’s respiratory tract. Respiratory system microbes are the most common source of disease in whales. (Photo by Véronique LaCapra, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Scientists Reveal Secrets of Whales

Thar she blows!

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Using drones to fly into the misty “blows” of exhaling humpback whales, scientists have found for the first time that the whales had a common set of microorganisms—a respiratory microbiome that may help maintain their health.

In recent years, scientists have learned that vast communities of symbiotic microbes live in and on humans and play crucial roles in supporting people’s immune systems and metabolisms. The discovery of a shared respiratory “microbiome” in whales could help scientists monitor the health of whales.

In turn, “whales can be sentinels of ocean health,” said Amy Apprill, a scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “The more we understand about their health and the causes of decline in their health, the more we can understand about the health of the ocean.”

Apprill and her colleagues wanted a new way to collect samples of whales’ blow—the moist breath that whales spray out of their blowholes. Traditionally, scientists tracked whales in a small boat, getting close enough to hold a long pole with a large petri dish at its tip as close as possible to the blowholes. The method works, but it can potentially stress the whales and change their behavior.

Seeking a less intrusive approach, the researchers turned to the skies and some high-tech equipment—a custom-made, remotely controlled hexacopter. The research team also included scientists from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), SR3 (Sealife Response, Rehabilitation and Research), and the Vancouver Aquarium.

The scientists were using a camera on the hexacopter to take high-resolution aerial images of whales to assess their body conditions and overall health, NOAA scientist John Durban said. “Because of the stable flight performance of our hexacopter, we quickly learned that we could reliably fly through whale blow without disturbing the animals.”

Durban, WHOI biologist Michael Moore, and SR3’s Holly Fearnbach collected their first samples using a drone off Patagonia in early 2015. They brought the technique back to sample the blows from 17 humpback whales off Cape Cod and nine humpbacks off Vancouver Island, Canada, collaborating with Lance G. Barrett-Lennard of the Vancouver Aquarium.

Fearnbach called positioning directions at a rapid pace that would rival that of a veteran auctioneer, and Durban piloted the hexacopter several feet above the blowhole. Some of the blow landed on a sterilized petri dish on top of the drone.

“The whales don’t seem to know the aircraft is there,” Moore said. “We want to study whale health, but not affect their behavior. The drone helps us do just that.”

Apprill and WHOI laboratory colleague Carolyn Miller identified 25 bacterial groups present in all of the whale samples. “This strongly suggests that regardless of where the animals live, or even their age or sex, they have a shared blow microbiome,” Apprill said.

Next, the researchers will take samples from whales with poor body conditions that possibly indicate illness.

“From this study, we have a good idea of what a normal, healthy whale microbiome looks like,” Apprill said. “Now we need to understand what the microbiome of an unhealthy whale looks like.”

The new study was published in October 2017 in mSystems, a journal of the American Society for Microbiology. The research was funded by the Ocean Life Institute at WHOI.