Science, Science / Environment

Why Scientists Are Flying Drones Into Clouds of Whale Snot

For most of us, moments of inspiration come when we’re daydreaming in the shower, or when an apple falls out of a tree and hits us on the head (or doesn’t—it in fact fell near Newton). For Iain Kerr, CEO of the conservation group Ocean Alliance, inspiration comes when you’re on a boat in the Gulf of Mexico, covered in whale snot.

Let me back up. Whale experts like Kerr want tissue samples to determine the health of the beasts, the problem being that it’s somewhat difficult to do a biopsy on an enormous creature that only periodically comes to the surface to breathe. So Kerr uses a crossbow that fires a special arrow to extract a bit of flesh the size of your pinky fingertip.

On one fateful day, Kerr was chasing whales, but finding them particularly uncooperative. When the whale finally surfaced, it did so right next to the boat, exhaling a cloud of snot that enveloped the conservationist.

“It was wonderfully horrible, it was sticky and smelly,” says Kerr. The bouquet contained notes of a fish market where everything’s a year old. “A blue whale’s lungs are about the size of a VW. So imagine they’re exhaling this. I mean, you are immersed in this cloud of the worst bad breath you’ve ever smelled.

“That’s when I realized, maybe I smell an idea here.”

That idea is SnotBot, a drone like no other. Now instead of dangling off the side of a boat, crossbow in hand, Kerr flies SnotBot—a consumer drone with petri dishes stuck to the top—right over a whale. With each exhalation, the whale spouts some of its bodily cells along with some of the hormones and organisms that make up its microbiome. (The mist you see isn’t actually seawater. It’s warm air from the whale’s lungs turning to vapor when it hits the cold atmosphere—like how you can see your own breath on a cold day.) This fine mist carries a wealth of information about the health of the whale. By tracking the same individuals over time, which he does by identifying the unique shape of their flukes, he can monitor fluctuations in their health. It’s less invasive than the crossbow method, and way more fun.

To learn more about the intricacies of being a whale snot drone pilot, we sat down with Kerr in the video above.


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