GLOUCESTER, Mass. — Heading directly into powerful Northwest winds off the coast of New England, Chris Zadra does his best to navigate choppy seas as this researcher and his team make their way to Stellwagen Bank in search of whales.
But Zadra is not braving these rough conditions just to take pictures of whales; he's hoping to be able to collect DNA samples from the world's largest mammal while using a drone.
"We’ll approach the animal from behind to minimize the chance of reacting," Zadra explained.
Once he has the boat in position, Zadra gets behind the controls of SnotBot®. Aptly named, SnotBot the drone hovers over the blowhole of a whale coming up for air and waits for it to exhale.
"We’re flying with a first-person view from the drone," Zadra said.
Covered in mucus SnotBot® then flies back to researcher Alicia Pensarosa who is waiting on the stern of this nonprofit's boat. Pensarosa catches the drone in midair and carefully removes the four Petri dishes attached to the drone.
"Well put all the samples in a cooler with ice until we process it," she explained.
The DNA samples collected by SnotBot® are then brought back to a lab and study these whales' lung microbiome.
"We really want to study the health of whales," she added.
The entire operation is being done by Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit based in Gloucester, Massachusetts, that has spent decades researching whales, their habitats and habits.
"We’re learning how important whales are not only to ocean survival but humanity's survival," said Iain Kerr, who serves as the group's chief executive officer.
Scientists estimate up to 80% of the oxygen on Earth is produced by the ocean, meaning two out of every three breaths humans take is from the sea. A majority of that oxygen originates from drifting plants and algae. They, in large part, get their nutrients from whale poop, so understanding the health and well-being of whales takes on new importance.
"Whales are clearly far more important to ocean health than we thought," Kerr added.
Researchers have been studying whales for decades, but using a drone is the least invasive way of looking at them and allows scientists the chance to observe these mammals without disturbing them.
"You don’t put the animal in danger and you don’t affect its behavior," Kerr noted.
There are broader implications for SnotBot® beyond the sea. This kind of non-invasive technology can study other endangered species on land.
"I don’t think traditional methods are going to save the wild world, thinking outside the box, bringing in new tools," Kerr said.
The hope is to take this technology and sample as many whales as possible. Giving scientists better insight into population numbers and health, of one of the most beloved creatures on the planet.