WATCH: A drone collecting snot from a humpback whale off the Australian coastline

Collecting whale snot, a drone moves in. Image: Macquarie University

Australians researchers have built a drone to hunt and collect the snot of humpback whales as they pass Sydney.

Vanessa Pirotta from Macquarie University says the microbiota living in the blow mucus can tell a lot about the health of the humpback whale population.

Humpback numbers have been recovering since the International Whaling Commission banned whaling in the Southern Hemisphere in 1963.

“Gathering baseline information of whale lung microbiota provides a snapshot of health information from an animal that is uncatchable,” she says.

But first is the tricky business of collecting samples. The solution was a custom-built, waterproof drone to fly over and collect the exhaled vapours from the blowholes without distressing or hurting the whales.

The project brought together an array of experts including drone pilot and engineer Alastair Smith from Heliguy Pty Ltd, sea vessel experts, microbiologists and marine biologists.

Watch the drone in action:

“We have developed a low-cost system which incorporates a sterile petri dish with a remotely operated and novel flip lid,” says Pirotta.

“This can be attached to a drone along with a GoPro camera in order to sample whale blow with minimal disturbance to the whales. This system allowed us to collect samples safely and reliably, by minimising external contamination such as air and seawater from outside the blowhol.

“This means we will be better able to monitor the health of recovering whale populations over time and look for changes in their environment. We also hope to adapt this method to learn more about the health of other species such as the much smaller Southern right whale population.”

The researchers in this study collected mucus samples from 59 humpback whales migrating northwards off the coast of Sydney. Bacterial DNA was then sequenced to identify the bacteria present.

Humpback whales were found to have bacteria in their blow mucus from non-mammalian species.

“We were able to see that many of the whales had types of bacteria that are found in the respiratory tracts of dolphins and oral cavities of other mammals, but we also found some bacteria that has been associated with fish,” says Pirotta.

“In the marine environment, drones are revolutionising the way we study marine species. Due to their small size, the fact that they cause minimal disturbance to wildlife and offer improved safety for both operators and animals, makes them an attractive option for studying marine wildlife.

“In addition to collecting health information, we were also able to capture a different perspective of whale behaviour off Sydney not seen from a boat.

“We saw whales interacting with each other underwater and huge numbers of dolphins escorting whale pods as they travelled north.”

The drone is a 4-motor electric multirotor machine 500mm across with a high power to weight ratio making it fast and maneuverable.

However, the researchers say the drone requires a high level of skill and effort. Predicting when a whale is about to surface, positioning the drone and opening the petri dish in time is challenging.

The whale snot drone. Image: Macquarie University