Scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) are studying the health of critically endangered whales—using drones. This spring, a research team led by WHOI biologist Michael Moore and NOAA researchers John Durban and Holly Fearnbach sailed out into Cape Cod Bay in search of North Atlantic right whales feeding just off the coast. They used a remotely controlled, six-rotor hexacopter to take detailed aerial photographs of the whales and collect samples of their “blow”—the moist breath that a whale sprays out of its blowhole when it exhales. Over the course of three weeks, the researchers completed 67 drone flights, photographing about 35 different whales and gathering 16 blow samples.
The photos you see here show the research team in action—and the amazing images the drone took of these rare whales, some of which are almost as long as the 55-foot sailboat used for the project.
The next step for the researchers will be to analyze the data they collected. Using the photos, Durban and Fearnbach will work with NOAA colleague Wayne Perryman to assess each whale’s size and body condition and to look for any injuries or scars. At WHOI, Carolyn Miller and Amy Apprill will sequence genetic material they find in the blow samples to determine what kinds of bacteria, viruses, and fungi make up the blow “microbiome.” By comparing blow samples from different whales—and different whale species—the researchers hope to figure out what the microorganisms in a whale’s respiratory tract can tell us about an individual’s overall health.
Understanding the health of North Atlantic right whales may prove critical to their survival: there are fewer than 500 of these animals left. They spend most of their lives within 50 miles of the East Coast of North America, making them vulnerable to human activities. Based on available data, more than half of right whiles die in collisions with ships or by becoming entangled in fishing gear. In addition, climate change and a warming ocean may be reducing their main source of food—tiny crustaceans called copepods—leaving some right whales undernourished and less able to reproduce.
Funding for this research project was provided by NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Large Whale Team led by Peter Corkeron, through the Cooperative Institute for the North Atlantic Region (CINAR) Grant #NA14OAR4320158.