When the odds are not in your favour, fight against them.
This is an important lesson to remember when conducting any wildlife research, and especially so with whales. The wind may be too strong; the rain may be endless; and the whales may be scarce. However, if you can keep a positive attitude and persevere, there is always a chance of getting results.
And so it has proved during the last two weeks, as we were joined by Mark Romanov, wildlife cameraman and film maker, to collect blow samples using a drone. We faced seemingly endless challenges, but the struggle was well worth it.
Why collect blow samples?
As with all mammals, whales breathe air. When a whale surfaces, the shear force of its breath sends mucus and seawater shooting into the air- producing the blow that usually allows us to spot them. This blow contains many biological substances, such as DNA, bacteria and hormones. This includes the stress-related hormone cortisol, found in all mammals. Generally, cortisol levels increase during stressful situations. Therefore, we made a prediction: if whales are suffering from significant and prolonged stress due to whale watching activities, we could possibly detect an increase in cortisol in blow samples. Collection and measurement are by no means easy, but we decided it was possible.
The blow sampling process
In the early days, blow samples were collected using a long pole, with a net or container attached to the end, held from a research vessel. This process requires very close proximity between the vessel and the whale, which has the potential to stress the animal. For the purposes of our study, this would both confound our result and compromise our aims (to reduce the impact of human activity on cetaceans).
However, blow sampling has now been revolutionised by the advent of drone technology, which has facilitated remote and unobstrusive data collection in a variety of wildlife research settings. By simply attaching petri dishes to the drone, it is possible to collect samples by flying the drone through the blow of a whale. More difficult than it sounds, but certainly possible. Once the blow has been collected, we then seal, label and store the sample in a freezer until analysis after the field season.
The first step of this endeavour was actually creating a drone that could collect blow samples. Our choice of drone was a DJI Phantom 4: easy-to-use, stable in flight, and familiar to Mark, our drone operator. To transform this drone into a blow collector, we next needed to add a frame that would allow us to attach petri dishes. Drones are now used in a wide variety of wildlife research settings, and are often equipped with expensive and complex frames, using the latest technology.
We had some coat-hangers and a pack of cable-ties.
Luckily, Mark not only has years of experiences flying drones but also has built drones himself in the past. With Mark’s knowledge and the rest of the team’s assistance, we were able to build a frame out of these coat-hangers. With our drone all kitted out, we named it Thomas: the little drone that could. By attaching petri dishes to this frame, we were all ready. Or so we thought
Waiting out the storm
To fly a drone, and especially collect samples, the weather conditions have to be quite nice, with little wind, good visibility and no rain. In the field, and especially in Iceland, weather can be quite unpredictable. As a result, in contrast to the benign conditions of weeks previous, we were faced with strong winds and heavy rain for much of our two-week window. This meant that we needed to watch the weather closely to check for any suitable periods whatsoever. To top it off, no-one was spotting many whales. As hard as we tried, we all started to fear the worst.
In order to improve our chances of success, we focused our efforts on Hjalteyri, a small village situated in the sheltered waters Eyafjörður. Perhaps one of the best spots on Europe for watching whales from land, it is ideally suited to blow sampling.
Fortunately, our patience was finally rewarded, with calm seas forecast during the night. This may present a problem in most areas, but not in the land of the midnight sun. We are so far north here that darkness is not a restriction because the sun never actually sets during midsummer. We prepared the gear, coffee and nourishment for the long night ahead – now we just had to hope that there would be whales close enough to shore for us to reach them with the drone.
That evening, we were in luck: almost immediately after arriving at Hjalteyri, a whale surfaced within droning distance. Launching the drone as quickly as possible, we worked together to find the whale using the drone. After a few tries, we finally made it- our first blow sample! It’s hard to describe the joy- and relief- we felt at this moment. This was finally validation of our efforts and planning- the first blow sample collected in Iceland, and the most northerly blow sample in the world to our knowledge. It was an extremely exciting moment.
Fortunately, this was just the beginning. Over the course of this night and another 24-hour period, we managed to collect 15 blow samples in total (at least 10 of which were usable). One sample was even collected 2.2 kilometres away! Suffice to say, it was an extremely encouraging period- if we can collect 15 samples during two short, suitable period of weather, then this method has major potential for data collection. Our next stage is data analysis- processing samples to detect stress-related hormones. Should this prove successful, our method may allow us to detect physiological stress in individual whales. By using a drone to collect our samples, as opposed to a boat in close proximity, we minimise the stress that we, as researchers, cause to whales. With blow sampling, the future is bright.