Researchers fly drones through whale blow sprays to help measure humpback health

Researchers are using a drone to obtain samples from the blow sprays of humpback whales on the B.C. coast and analyzing the contents as a way to measure health.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, a whale scientist with the Vancouver Aquarium, said Saturday that a drone used last August off northern Vancouver Island flew three to four metres above humpbacks.

In an interview at a marine mammal symposium at the University of B.C., Barrett-Lennard said that the drone is flown off a small motorized research vessel, first conducting flights at an altitude of about 45 metres to obtain images of the overall health of the whales.

Then new batteries are put in the drone for a separate flight in which it hovers low and flies right through the blow plume collecting “whale snot, basically,” he said.

“They have a V-shaped blow,” he noted. “Sometimes we’d be right in the middle. It takes a while to get used to. It’s flying through a cloud with droplets in it. The drone ends up all slimy and rusty.”

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