Humpback whale “snot” samples gathered by Vancouver Aquarium and NOAA researchers are helping to protect whales in the wild.

Humpback whales can be identified at the surface of the ocean by their bushy, two- to three-metre blows, or exhalations. In a joint research project by Vancouver Aquarium’s Coastal Ocean Research Institute and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), scientists are taking a look at those blows in a new way, by flying an unmanned marine hexacopter (UAV) through them, and collecting breath samples to help achieve a greater understanding of these giants of the deep.

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The custom-designed hexacopter carries a collection plate for the breath samples and a special camera system.

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To collect the breath samples, the hexacopter is flown through the exhalations of surfacing humpback whales.

The collection technique is just one aspect of a study conducted on humpbacks this field season by Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard, senior scientist at the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre, and NOAA scientists Drs. John Durban and Holly Fearnbach.

“Humpback whales have increased in numbers on the coast in recent years, so they’re particularly interesting to us,” said Dr. Barrett-Lennard. “We want to better understand that recovery, why this species is thriving while others are not.”

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Aerial photographs taken by the UAV of a humpback whale coming up to eat a fish mass.

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By studying photographs taken by the UAV researchers can assess the overall health of whales.

The team’s research is multi-faceted. They used the UAV to take aerial photos of both northern and southern resident killer whales, and of the humpback whales. The custom-designed hexacopter weighs about 4.5 pounds, with a roughly 30-inch wingspan, and carries a special camera system. The small, quiet aircraft allows researchers to collect high-resolution images at a relatively low altitude without disturbing the whales. The photographs allow researchers to assess the animals’ body condition and health, in a method called photogrammetry.

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The plate attached to the hexacopter is used to collect condense vapor from humpback exhalations.

To collect the breath samples, the hexacopter was flown through the exhalations of surfacing humpback whales to collect condensed vapor on an attached plate. The samples are being used in two separate studies. At Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, the breath samples are being used to learn about the microbiome of a healthy humpback respiratory tract: what kind of microorganisms live in the blowholes, trachea and lungs of the animals. In B.C., veterinary pathologist Stephen Raverty is using samples to look for specific pathogens of concern that may be found in animals on our coast or possibly introduced by long migrating species such as humpbacks and pose a threat to southern resident killer whales and other species of interest.

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The breath samples are being used in two separate studies to help protect wild whales.

Research on the humpback whales was permitted in Canada under the Species at Risk Act (Marine Mammal License 18) and flight authorization from Transport Canada (SFOC #10854645).

 A grant from the SeaWorld & Busch Gardens Conservation fund helped fund the startup and operational costs of the research.

Humpbacks were killed by the thousands for their blubber in the first half of the 20th century. The North Pacific population was previously estimated at 6,000 to 8,000 individuals, but an estimate based on 2004-2006 data was slightly over 18,000. It is listed as threatened, but the Committee on the Status of Wildlife in Canada recommended in 2013 that it be downlisted to Special Concern; the change is expected to occur soon.

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