Drone zooms through humpback whale breath

Story highlights

Scientists use a hexacopter to study humpback whales

Drones are a noninvasive way to get biological samples

Aerial photos can provide clues about whales' health

CNN  — 

The remote-controlled drone whirs through a whale’s spout at 10 feet above the sea to capture exactly what it exhales.

Researchers are using a remote-controlled hexacopter to study endangered humpback whales in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary off New England, according to a statement released by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

Whale breath condenses on the sterile surface of the drone, giving a more accurate picture of health in the humpback.

Using the toy-looking tool, scientists can non-invasively test whales for stress levels, family history and general well-being by analyzing DNA, hormones and bacteria levels, according to the statement.

A hexacopter at Woods Hole has taken aerial photos of 36 humpbacks to find out how fat they were and whether their skin had lesions.

A sense of scale is needed here: The hexacopter is about 3 feet in diameter. Humpback whales can measure as long as 60 feet.

Their scientific name, Megaptera novaengliae, means “big-winged New Englander,” due to the 15-foot-long fins they use to traverse thousands of miles in an annual migration.

The whales are known for their complex songs that can last for 20 minutes. The songs can be heard from miles away. All males sing the same song, but the song keeps evolving, making it different from year to year, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration website. The why of whale song is one of nature’s great unsolved mysteries.

An estimated 60,000 humpbacks exist worldwide, the International Union for the Conservation of Nature Red List reports, and numbers are rising.

Scientists plan to compare samples from humpbacks living near the unpolluted Antarctic Peninsula with samples taken in Stellwagen, where there is much more ship traffic and pollution, according to WHOI.

“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 WHOI Marine Mammal Center.