Vanessa at Questacon. Photo credit: Peter Smith / LightSmith Productions.

Did you know some of the world’s smallest organisms can be collected to help save the world’s biggest organisms?

Dr. Vanessa Pirotta is a marine biologist at the forefront of a unique convergence of technology, science, wildlife and innovation. Vanessa’s collaboration with drone experts developed specialised drones to capture “whale snot” (blowhole spray) to see what bacteria and viruses whales carry to understand ocean health. When she’s not travelling the world for her research, Vanessa is frequently engaging in school outreach and participates in the Skype-A-Scientist program internationally.

BEJournal caught up with the pioneering biologist to chat about the role of creative collaborations and emerging technology such as drones for whale conservation.

How has story culture shifted with the advent of creative technologies like drones to serve science and media?

The role of drones for my research has transformed the way we collect health information from whales without having to hurt them. In the past, health information was collected from whales that were hunted (unethical) or from those that had stranded where their health was likely compromised. The role of drones now means we are able to access these animals remotely and can collect health information more efficiently. Creative technologies like the use of the unique flip-lid component of our drone allows us to minimise whale snot sample contamination from sea water and air as we can remotely open and close the petri dish lid to maximise sample collection. The onboard drone camera allows us to capture our entire sampling effort which is amazing to watch. This also gives our work a new perspective which allows us to watch whales underwater and see them interacting with dolphins—this looks very different from what we can see just by looking out from a boat.

In addition, the video also allows us to promote our work through images that are exciting and visually appealing and thats great for social media. People are more likely to interact with the science if they can see it captured visually which is sometimes more powerful than being told what is happening.

What is the value of storytelling mediums in fostering new interest in conservation and exploration? 

In my opinion, storytelling is a great way to communicate a message and is often used in science communication. Scientists can strategically tell stories to engage a non-scientific audience to connect with something emotionally and then add in the science once an audience is interested. Often something in need of conserving has a back story. It’s amazing when you have collaborations with people capable of bringing to life stories via digital media who also work with scientists. Sometimes story telling without science is enough to get people caring and to connect with an issue. This is a great way of igniting passion, motivation and exploration to ask more questions. 

What are some of your favourite experiences where creative collaborations have played a vital role in innovating our approach to nature preservation?

A great example of creative collaborations is animal telemetry, where scientists have teamed up with tech gurus (many of which are also scientists) and created small satellite tags that are attached to marine wildlife like elephants seals and whales. This allows us to see where these animals are travelling to and from and provides us with an idea of habitat use. The information is extremely valuable and helps contribute to our understanding of the marine environment at the same time. It also allows us to visualise animal movements in the ocean which we would not have been able to get in such great detail previously. 

Vanessa’s most well-known whale research was conducted in Sydney, Australia. Above you can see the whale snot drone tracking a northward migrating humpback whale.

Dr Vanessa Pirotta is a Marine Biologist and Science Communicator at the Macquarie University. She has led pioneering research in collaboration with industry experts to develop custom-built, waterproof drones to collect whale snot (visible plume of spray) from large whales for an assessment of whale health. Whale research has taken Dr Vanessa around the world including Tonga, Antarctica and Madagascar. @vanessapirotta

Vanessa loves making Science acessible and is available for public speaking events. To learn more and watch her Tedx Talk visit: vanessapirotta.com

Illustration of Vanessa’s talk at the Australian Museum by Cath Leach from Catfish Creative