Beautiful Science


Whale snot - the spray that comes out of the mammal's blowhole - is a treasure trove of DNA, hormones and bacteria. Marine biologists study samples to analyse each whale's hormone levels, and gather information about its reproductive cycle and stress levels. Since whales are increasingly affected by human activities such as pollution, their snot also stores toxins, which give conservationists clues about the ocean's health. United States-based marine conservation organisation Ocean Alliance uses drones to collect the snot. It tracks the health of whales around the world with environmental group Parley for the Oceans. Appropriately named Parley SnotBot, the drones hover about 4m above each whale's blowhole. As the whales exhale, the spray is caught by sponges and petri dishes attached to the drones. Before drones, scientists would chase whales with loud motorboats and shoot them with sampling darts to collect skin and blubber samples. So far, the two groups have carried out research missions in Patagonia, at the southern end of South America; the Sea of Cortez, which is also known as the Gulf of California; Alaska, in the US; and Gabon in West Africa. In its Alaska and Gabon missions, the SnotBot team leveraged Intel's artificial intelligence and advanced drone technology to analyse real-time data concerning humpback whales.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on March 16, 2019, with the headline 'Beautiful Science'. Print Edition | Subscribe