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Drone flies through whales' spouts to sample their breath

Getting a breath sample from a whale isn't the easiest task in the world. But with the help of a hexacopter, scientists are getting the job done.

Whew! What did you have for lunch? John Durban, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA/Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

Drones have been used for years to film whales and dolphins swimming near the surface of the water, but in a new study conducted by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI), researchers used an unmanned aerial vehicle to do a bit more than spy on the sea creatures. They had it collect breath samples from humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off the coast of Massachusetts.

Working with scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the WHOI group piloted a drone containing six rotors (which makes it a hexacopter) over the Atlantic. First the drone flew about 125 feet above the surface of the ocean to take full-body photos of 36 whales.

Next, the drone dropped down to 10 feet above the water's surface where it was steered through the spouts of the whales -- the air being exhaled from their blowholes. The drone was able to collect 20 breath samples from 16 whales.

In addition to getting breath samples, the drone also captured important aerial photos, like this one of two humpbacks engaged in a behavior known as bubble-net feeding. John Durban, Southwest Fisheries Science Center, NMFS, NOAA/Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

"With breath samples, scientists can analyze whales' DNA, hormones, and bacteria for things such as family history, stress levels, and health," said the WHOI in a statement. The samples will now be analyzed to identify the microorganisms in the respiratory tract of the creatures, which is the most common cause of cetacean disease.

The institute said that this was the first time the difficult task of collecting whale breath samples was executed along with capturing aerial photos of their bodies. It's not the only group working on studying whale spouts with drones, though; for example, there's a whale-drone Kickstarter supported by Sir Patrick Stewart.

Next winter, the team plans to fly their hexacopter over whales living near the Antarctic Peninsula. The whales there live in a much more pristine environment than those in Stellwagen, which is beset by comparatively more pollution and ship traffic. The samples of the two groups will then be compared. "This will give us a new understanding of the relationship between whale body condition and health in the context of habitat quality," said Michael Moore, the director of the WHOI Marine Mammal Center.