U.S. drones capture breath samples from humpback whales in study

BOSTON (Reuters) - Researchers at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute in Cape Cod have begun using a helicopter-style drone to monitor humpback whales off the coast, collecting breath samples from their blowholes and taking aerial pictures.

The scientists first deployed the 32-inch “hexacopter” drone in July to help assess the health of whales living in the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, about 45 miles (72 km) east of Boston, where there is significant ship traffic and pollution, Woods Hole said in a release on Monday.

“Rigged with a specialized camera system, the unmanned airborne vehicle flew 125 to 150 feet above sea level to get full-body photographs of 36 animals. It swooped down to 10 feet above seal level to collect 20 breath samples from 16 whales,” according to the release.

The breath samples provided scientists with DNA and hormone and bacteria measurements, Woods Hole said.

Researchers plan to use the drone next winter to collect samples from the same whale species living near the Antarctic Peninsula, which is relatively pristine, it said.

“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, director of the institute’s Marine Mammal Center.

Humpback whales are among the world’s largest at up to 60 feet long (18.29 m), and migrate thousands of miles between their summer and winter feeding grounds. They were listed as an endangered species in 1970 after decades of fishing caused their populations to plummet.

Reporting by Richard Valdmanis; Editing by Doina Chiacu