How Drones Are Being Used in Whale Research

Is Whale Watching Safe?
August 9, 2019

As humans, we should be focusing our attention on the environment around us. As a species, our future is in our oceans. We need healthy oceans, as they are the largest mediating force on the planet. By understanding how humanity impacts upon the oceans and wildlife, whales included, means that we will be better able to conserve it.

Whales are one of the most enigmatic creatures on the planet and scientists time and time again have struggled to gain deep insights into the behavior and anatomy of whales. There have been many innovations in use of drones over recent years that have been pushing the frontiers of whale research. We’ll take a look at how this drone technology has been transforming whale study, and what insights have been gained.

The SnotBot: Capturing Whale Biopsies

Perhaps one of the most innovative uses of drones has to be from the SnotBot, a DJI drone used in the scientific study of whales. The purpose of SnotBot is to collect physical and biological data, video, and photographs from a whale without the whale’s knowledge. The way it works is the SnotBot hovers above the whale a dozen feet as it travels along the surface of the ocean, so it is in a prime position when the whale spout occurs. The SnotBot has a net fabric attached to a pole that allows it to get even closer to the water so that when the whale exhales it can collect the mucus released in the spout. There are also two petri dishes placed on the top of the drone that collect even more mucus sample that sprays higher.

You may be asking yourself, what’s so useful to scientists about “whale snot”? The mucus that’s released from whale’s spouts has actually been found to have rich DNA, hormones, pesticides, microbes, and viruses, which are all significant chemical markers that can provide rich insights into the lives of whales. The beautiful thing about the SnotBot is that it can collect whale DNA evidence without interfering with their lifestyles, so it is much less invasive that other methods of research. The photographs and videos allow scientists to observe intimate behaviors between whales without the use expensive and dangerous helicopters and airplanes.

Traditional Methods of Whale Research

Traditional methods of collecting whale biopsies involve large motorboats equipped with long sticks and modified crossbows to collect whale biopsies that can typically take weeks. That is why the DJI drone is an exciting and highly efficient system, because it allows marine biologists to gather 20 samples of whale snot in one day, that would otherwise take a week with a 90-ft boat with a dozen people on staff.

Traditional research method of renting a vessel for a remote location can cost upwards of $20,000 for the whole trip. The SnotBot, on the other hand, can sometimes eliminate the need for that kind of ship altogether. To rent a SnotBot package (cameras and equipment included) is around $4,500.

Other Drones Used to Study Whales

EarBot Drone: Another drone in the works is the EarBot drone, designed to land on water and study whale behavior underwater. When it lands on water, it powers off and listens for whale calls under the surface of the ocean and records them. Because so much of a whales’ life happens underwater, having technology that can provide insights into whales behavior is highly valuable.

Saildrone: The Saildrone is a motorless drone that relies on a combination of battery and solar power to navigate. Researchers simply input ocean coordinates to direct the drone to the precise location. The Saildrone has been very helpful in studying the North Pacific right whale, a species that researchers believe to be less than 100 left existing. Similar to the EarBot, the Saildrone sits on top of waves and listens to and records whale sounds. It can be at sea for many months at a time and can be crucial data for species conservation.

ScanEagle: This drone is an aircraft drone that has been used by the military. The ScanEagle is used in whale research to count whale populations from the sky. The images and video captured by ScanEagle, however, takes many hours to analyze so is not overly ideal.

Drone Innovations

The use of drones is helping scientists and marine biologists better understand the critical and complex interactions of marine habitats, whales and people while providing prime documentation on the natural behavior of whales, without the intrusion of boats, helicopters and other traditional research equipment.

If you’re interested in whales as much as we are, we invite you to join us for an exciting whale watching cruise at Harbor Breeze. On our whale watching cruise in Long Beach, you can enjoy spectacular views of the ocean and these incredible marine giants while hearing expert narrative from our naturalists who are aboard every trip. Ready for an adventure of a lifetime? Contact Harbor Breeze for ticket information and book an excursion the entire family will love!

Buy Tickets