How do you make sure a humpback whale is healthy? Unlike your cat or dog, you can’t simply take a whale to the vet. Dr Vanessa Pirotta, a marine scientist from Macquarie University, has come up with a new way to monitor whale health and it involves two things - whale snot and drones!

When whales come up to the surface and appear to spray water out from their blowholes, it’s really a mixture of biological material, including DNA, hormones, and bacteria from their lungs. This mix of substances can give scientists important information about the health of a whale.

Currently, to collect whale snot samples, scientists need to get very close to the whales in a boat and hold out a long pole with a petri dish attached. This method can be quite dangerous for both the researchers and the whales, so Vanessa has come up with a new way to tackle this problem.

Her method? Collaborating with Heliguy Scientific drone technician Alistair Smith, they created a custom-made drone that is fast, light, waterproof, and, most importantly, has a petri dish attached to it.

To collect whale snot, Vanessa and Alistair worked off a boat, with Alistair piloting the drone while Vanessa looked for pods of whales. Once whales were spotted, even as far as 200 metres away, Alistair would fly the drone to the whales, wait for them to surface and on Vanessa’s mark, remotely open the petri dish to collect the whale snot sample. After collection, the petri dish would be remotely shut, the drone flown back to the boat and loaded up with another petri dish, ready for another collection. Simple, effective, and a method that is much safer for both the whales and researchers.

Using this method, Vanessa collected 59 samples from migrating humpback whales off the coast of Sydney and identified whale snot-specific bacteria. This information can be used to monitor changes in the health or population of humpback whales, and will help us to protect these whales in Australia and worldwide.

Now, Vanessa is excited to apply this technique to other whale species.

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