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S'Not Joking, This Marine Biologist Is Collecting Whale Snot For Science

We've all seen or watched the majestic moment a whale comes to the water's surface and strikes a blow.

Here's something that may alter that image for you: that visible spray is not actually water. It's snot --  or exhalation from a whale's blowhole -- and an Aussie marine biologist is collecting samples of it in the name of science.

Dr Vanessa Pirotta has been passionate about the world's largest animal since she was young, but her career in whale conservation has taken off with advances in drone technology.

She calls it a "game-changer".

"Drones are helping us to access information that is otherwise inaccessible and also in a way that is non-invasive to these animals," she told 10 daily. 

Pirotta, a researcher from Macquarie University in Sydney, uses drones to collect samples that paint a picture of the mammals' health based on the bacteria in their lungs.

The technology is launched from the back of a boat offshore as Pirotta works out the behaviour of an approaching pod of whales.

"Once the drone pilot is in position, it hovers above the whale's position just as they are below the surface," Pirotta explained.

A petri dish attached to the drone is opened and flies through the densest part of the whale snot as the animal exhales, collecting a sample.

Dr Vanessa Pirotta. Image: Supplied

This approach is miles apart from how scientists used to collect samples from the mammals.

"In the past, we were limited to collecting samples from whales that were stranded, in which case the health was compromised, or from those who were deliberately killed, which is unethical," Pirotta said. 

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The collections help to provide baseline information about the animals' lung health as well as any viruses that may be carrying.

"We found these whales are carrying viruses all the way with them from Antartica, so there is this transmission of bacteria and viruses around the oceans.," she said.

Pirotta and her team's research was published late last month in the Frontiers in Marine Science journal.

She believes her area of work is "accessible to anyone" and particularly "empowering" for young girls.

"People are coming up to me saying they're grateful they can show their daughter that a woman can drive boats and work with drones."

Pirotta has noticed a slow change in more women entering the STEM industry (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics). 

"I don't think we're there just yet, but it's happening," she said.

Contact the author ebrancatisano@networkten.com.au

Featured image: Supplied