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Give the humpbacks a drone!

Same, Esmeraldas, Ecuador
Project Cetacea needs a waterproof research drone to sample the whale microbiome and study the social behavior of whales in relation to human disturbance. With your help, we can launch critical new research on humpback behavior and health aimed at protecting this majestic and intelligent creature.
Natalie DeWitt
United States
Defined Goal
raised of $2,000 goal

Project Story

Project Cetacea Ecuador has researched humpback whales and the people around them since 1996. Our goal is to bring attention to the critical need for improving the health of the oceans and preventing the decline of whales and other marine creatures. We're fundraising for a drone--a key tool that will transform our research.
Our research focuses on the southeastern hemisphere population of humpbacks, who mate and are born in Ecuadorean waters from June through September, then migrate 3500 miles to the Antarctic to feed on plankton. The whales return to Ecuador every summer, giving us a chance to learn about these magnificent creatures and understand how they are affected by human activity from close range. 

We are currently raising money to fund the purchase of a waterproof drone. 
This is the first year we were able to use a drone for our research, which Galo Chiriboga used to take these photographs. The Phantom drone taped footage that revealed fascinating aspects of whale behavior. Drones are incredibly helpful for understanding the movements and social behavior of whales in relation to human disturbance. Beyond that, drones can help us collect samples of respiratory fluid from the whale blowholes when they exhale. This fluid contains microbes that live in the whales' respiratory tracts. Using next-generation genomic technologies, we can detect the full complement of microbes in the blow of individual whales, providing a unique window into their health, and establishing a baseline microbiome for healthy, southeastern hemisphere humpback whales. This information could help in situations where whales become ill and may provide clues to how pollution and climate change affect whale health. 
Unfortunately, after a few days of filming, the Phantom drone we were using crashed into the ocean and sank to a depth of 20 meters, 10miles offshore. We were able to recover it the next day with the help of native fishermen and scuba divers. To our surprise, we even recovered the priceless files on the memory disk inside the camera. However, we lost the drone and with it, the possibility to learn more about the whales from a birds-eye perspective. We are sure that with the help of a SwellPro waterproof, floatable drone, which is better suited for the ocean environment, we will be able to continue our research on whale health and behavior.  Furthermore, the stunning aerial video footage the drone provides will be an invaluable tool for promoting ocean conservation.  
Our research
Other research activities include collecting DNA samples from adult whales and recording their songs. DNA sampling provides insight into the relatedness of humpback whale populations around the world and the genetic diversity of these populations. Genetic diversity is an important indicator of resilience to environmental changes. We also take underwater acoustic recordings of the incredibly complex and information-rich whale songs. The male humpback has the longest and most complex song of the entire animal kingdom. Analyzing these recordings will provide clues to why and how they communicate with each other, and how they may be disturbed by human activities such as shipping and sonar. 
Our team
Project Cetacea Ecuador is made up of committed and talented staff scientists and volunteers who pay much of the research costs out of pocket. We are guided by cetacean biologist Dr. Judith Denkinger of the University of San Francisco, Quito, who launched the project 22 years ago.  Judith is an expert in marine fauna and has, for instance, pinpointed the cause of a sea lion distemper epidemic in the Galapagos, studied Amazonian pink dolphins while living for four years in a dugout canoe, and has led many conservation and beach clean up efforts. 
Other current members of the team are:
  • Pieter Vant Hof,  Ph.D., Professor of Microbial Genetics at University San Francisco de Quito (
  • Natalie DeWitt, Ph.D., a cell and molecular biologist with 30 years of experience in biomolecular research and scientific publishing (
  • Javier Ona, MSc., a cetacean acoustical biologist (
  • Ana Eguiguren, MSc, a cetologist and assistant professor at University San Francisco de Quito (
  • Liza Díaz Lalova, an environmentalist Co-founder and Executive Director for Nature Frames, Lindblad Expeditions-National Geographic Video Chronicler, and former employee of the Charles Darwin Foundation for the Galapagos Islands and other NGOs working in Conservation in Ecuador (
  • Galo Chiriboga, producer for and founder of Nature Frames  
  • Gonzalo Guana, a senior photographer for the Fundación Teatro Nacional Sucre in Quito (
  • Carolyn Angiollo, a recent college graduate with a B.S. in biology and environmental chemistry, who is interested in marine toxicology and habitat conservation ( 
We also have many collaborations with local fishermen and conservation groups here in coastal Ecuador, as well as scientists and educational filmmakers in Quito and around the world. 
 Project Cetacea Ecuador is gearing up to clean fishing nets off the remains of coral reefs near Esmeraldas that have destroyed the reef and its fisheries. In addition to our research, we clean plastic off beaches, document pollution and animals injured or killed by human activities, and lobby for better fishing and conservation practices in coastal Ecuador.
We hope that our research and stories will bring amazing creatures like humpback whales closer to people and help people realize the critical importance of ocean conservation.

How you can help…

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