Iain Kerr has been studying whales for the last 30 years. Traditionally, this type of work involves chasing a whale down, shooting it with a dart, and collecting a flesh sample.
But recently, he’s come up with a new source of data: whale snot.
Over the last few years, Kerr has been experimenting with flying drones through the slimy particulate matter that shoots up into the air when a whale surfaces to breathe. Petri dishes affixed to the drone pick up the sludge, which is then taken back to a lab for analysis.
He calls his tool "the Snotbot.”
Aside from the fun factor of flying through clouds of whale snot, Kerr views his research as part of a global conservation effort. "Whales are a great bio indicator of ocean health… so if you want to know what's going on with our oceans, there's no better species to look at than whales," Kerr says. "Healthy oceans means healthy humans."
VICE News followed his team of researchers as they chased a whale population around off the coast of Mexico, collecting as much snot as humanly possible — and accidentally discovering some new whale behavior in the process.
This segment originally aired March 15, 2018, on VICE News Tonight on HBO.