What can whale breath tell us?
Whale breath contains answers to many mysteries. It often contains dead cells that have information about DNA as well as hormones, lipids, proteins, and microbes from the whale’s respiratory tract. This provides scientists the ability to not only diagnose sick whales, but also keep a record of what a normal tract looks like for a healthy individual. Breath sampling can also be used on certain species to detect pregnancy.
There are two main ways to collect a breath sample:
- Using a pole: In this conventional method, a Petri dish is attached to a long pole that a person holds above an exhaling whale from a vessel. Before approaching a whale, the research team collects data on the animal and records its breathing sequence to better predict its surface intervals. Though it is a good way to gather a sample, this method requires the vessel to be in rather close proximity to the whale, thereby resulting in a possible increase in stress hormones.
- Using a small UAS (Unmanned Aerial Systems):
For whales that have a prominent blow, the answer to the above problem is a UAS. It is a comparatively less invasive method and consists of a UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)—often referred to as a drone—a payload (often a camera or anything else attached) and a ground station. With the advancement of aerial technology and its user-friendliness, the market is filled with UAVs of all shapes and sizes. However, a UAS designed to collect breath samples from an ocean giant cannot be just any UAS; it has to be waterproof and have the ability to withstand the massive upward thrust that accompanies a whale’s blow. Additionally, using a UAS at sea is not necessarily an easy job. It takes skill, accuracy and precision, especially when working with marine mammals. Not only that, taking off and landing from a moving platform (a boat, in this case) requires training and coordination between team members.
Video: A UAS with a Petri dish can also be flown towards the whale’s blow to collect a sample in a less invasive manner. Researchers from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), NOAA Fisheries Southwest Science Center, SR2 Sealife, and the Vancouver Aquarium analyzed the samples collected using the UAS in this video to identify a core group of bacteria found in respiratory tracts of healthy whales. © WHOI
Skilled UAV operators work in a team of at least two people: a Pilot-in-Charge (PIC) and an observer. For at-sea operations, the observer also often has the responsibility to launch the UAV and help with its retrieval.
To collect a breath sample, the UAS is equipped with a Petri dish attached either on the top or the front. Before approaching a whale, the research team collects data on the animal and records its breathing sequence to better predict its surface intervals. When everything is set up and ready to go, the UAS is flown over the water and towards the surfacing whale to obtain a sample of the blow.
After samples are collected using either of the methods, they are stored at -80 degree Celsius to ensure they stay usable for analyses.
Note: Special permits are required to fly a UAS in close proximity to marine mammals for research.
Last updated: November 2018