DFWR Taking Flight

A letter from Program Manager Chris Zadra

What Is The Drones For Whale Research Program?

For the last four years, I have been developing Ocean Alliance’s Drones for Whale Research (DFWR) program. Whale research has always been difficult, expensive, slow and invasive to the whales. I joined the team determined to develop new ways to make the research easier, faster, cheaper and non-invasive, and then provide what we’ve learned to other researchers across the world. I’m proud to say that we’ve accomplished our goals and continue to set new goals.

Recently, we were the first team to successfully deploy biologging tags on whales using drones. Check out the video below:

Many in the marine mammal research world have talked about doing this for years, but we had the team and expertise to make it happen. Together with the success of SnotBot® and our DFWR program, we continue to test and develop new tools to collect vital data on the life and health of whales around the world. These tools are more affordable and accessible to researchers, and less invasive and safer for the whales. But we need your help, and the whales need your help – now more than ever.

Why should you be interested in whales?

Because they are nature’s solution to climate change, one of the gravest threats humanity has ever faced. Recently the International Monetary Fund (IMF) reported that protecting whales could be one of the most effective ways of combating climate change. The IMF conducted a study that concluded every whale is worth roughly $2 million in the fight against climate change and that the current population of all great whales is worth well over $2 trillion. This is an amazing figure when you consider that pre-whaling estimates of some large whale species are as much as 6 to 20 times greater than present-day population estimates.

Whales help to mitigate climate change by capturing and storing carbon, as do all living things, but bigger bodies and longer lifespans means much . Whale poo is incredibly rich in nutrients and acts as a fertilizer essential to supporting massive populations of phytoplankton that form the foundation of the ocean ecosystem. These phytoplankton contribute over 50% of the oxygen in our atmosphere while also capturing roughly 37 billion tons of carbon dioxide a year, or about 40% of all carbon dioxide produced per year. This is equivalent to the effect of four Amazon rainforests.

How do you save a whale?

There is no simple or easy answer. Whales are threatened by commercial whaling, ship strikes, entanglement in fishing gear and ocean pollution. For the whales that survive, these threats hamper their ability to perform essential life functions such as finding enough food or finding a mate. Different species and different populations are impacted at different times during their seasonal movements. Understanding this complicated situation is the only way humanity is going to secure the long-term future of these animals. To understand the situation better, we need more and better data. That’s where Ocean Alliance and our DFWR program come in.

Saving whales isn’t about protecting any one individual. It’s about understanding them better and understanding how they live their lives. It’s about understanding humans better too, and how our daily choices impact whales, directly and indirectly. Whales are vital to the health of our oceans, which in turn are vital to the health of humanity. Healthy whales, healthy oceans, healthy humans.

Why Ocean Alliance?

You get a lot of bang for your buck with us. With a small but highly experienced team, we’re able to achieve results that have an impressive impact on marine mammal science. We can work faster and cheaper than larger organizations, with much less overhead and waste. As an example – the holy grail of marine mammal science would be to develop a way to measure current stress hormone levels and the general health of whales, and at the same time minimize the stress caused to the whale while collecting the data. We revolutionized the field when we realized we could obtain the data completely noninvasively by collecting blow samples from different species with SnotBot®. We’ve been developing SnotBot® and working with our partner university labs for 6 years to improve our sampling and analysis methods. Few had done this before but, because of our work, it is now very common.

We are currently in the validation stages and continue to work with our partners to try to solve questions regarding stress and other hormones. We are within reach of this holy grail tool for marine mammal science and all of the data we need can be collected by our small team at Ocean Alliance, without the need of multimillion dollar research vessels or overcomplicated government grants and reports. Simply put, we get it done.

I invite you to help create a new legacy with Ocean Alliance. Please consider donating to our Drones for Whale Research program. Help us make marine mammal research more affordable, more accessible and less invasive. Save the whales, save the ocean, save ourselves. 

Chris Zadra
Drone Programs Manager
czadra@whale.org
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