How a snot-collecting marine drone is giving us an exciting new view of whale life

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10 July 2018

A flying device combined with some nifty software is serving up invaluable information about the health of whales — and our oceans. For this TED Ideas piece sponsored by Intel, I interviewed whale scientists about using drones to collect whale spray.

Back in 2011, researcher Iain Kerr was having a frustrating day chasing sperm whales on the Gulf of Mexico. Kerr, CEO of the nonprofit Ocean Alliance and chief scientist of Parley SnotBot, would wait to spot a whale surfacing. As soon as he did, he’d tell the crew to bring the research vessel to the mammal as quickly as possible so a researcher could shoot it with biopsy darts and extract a plug of skin and blubber to be analyzed.

That day, the researchers found themselves rushing after surfacing sperm whales only to watch them dive before they could reach them — the whales can plunge as deep as 3,800 feet and stay below for more than 90 minutes. And this kept happening.

As Kerr sat in the bow of the boat and contemplated the day’s failure, a sudden cloud of whale blow — the spray exhaled by a whale — settled over him. And he had an unpleasant but scientifically fruitful realization. “It’s pretty fishy, pretty stinky stuff,” he says. Kerr knew the stink meant that biological material, not just water and air, was present. Which meant it might be worth sampling. But how could he get close enough to surfacing whales, and quickly enough, to catch the blow before they dove? Kerr, a drone aficionado, had an idea: why chase down a 4–6-mile-per-hour whale that can dive at any moment by using a boat that goes 8 miles an hour, when you could launch a drone that flies at 50 miles an hour?

Keep reading at TED Ideas.

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