Whales are regularly exhaling a lot of valuable data. Scientists from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are capturing samples of whales’ breath, using a small, remote-controlled UAV to collect data on the health of endangered whales. 

Though a whale’s spout looks like a stream of water, that’s actually water vapor from the warm breath being expelled from the whale’s lungs. The hexacopter (the same one that shot these gorgeous aerial images of whales) flies through this stream of breath and collects oily droplets that accumulate on the surface of the UAV. Forced down by the downdraft of the UAV, the whale’s snotty breath liquid lands on the whalecopter’s plexiglass dome (seen below). 

Image Credit: Michael Moore, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution

The samples are small (only a few tenths of a milliliter at most) but the data is valuable. From it, scientists can determine information about the whales’ family history, stress levels, and body fat levels. The microorganisms found within the whale’s respiratory tract can help researchers track diseases and health. Flying just 10 feet above sea level, the initial survey collected 20 breath samples from 16 whales from the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. 

That New England stretch of ocean is home to more pollution and traffic from shipping and fishing vessels, and the breath samples will paint a more complete picture of how these factors affect whale health compared to that of whales in more pristine regions of the ocean. 

According to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution marine mammal researcher Michael Moore, initial results from the survey will be available in 2016. 

[h/t: Jennifer Welsh]