Researchers using 'whale breath' to study endangered orcas

UBC scientists hope to track changes in whales' health over time by examining samples of what they expel through their blowholes

Marina Lacasse/CP/HO

Marina Lacasse/CP/HO

VANCOUVER — Researchers are hoping the exhaled breath of killer whales living off the coast of British Columbia can provide some insight into the endangered animals’ health.

Stephen Raverty, an adjunct professor at the University of British Columbia, says researchers studying the post mortem examinations of southern resident killer whales found that a number of the animals had signs of pneumonia, and they wanted to find out what organisms might be responsible.

The scientists went out on a small boat and used an 18-foot-long pole with petri dishes attached to collect samples of the whales’ breath as they exhaled through their blowholes.

Raverty says they found a variety of bacteria and fungi in the samples, including some that are thought to have caused respiratory diseases in whales and other cetaceans.

He says some of the bacteria is also found in diseases in animals and humans on land, and how the pathogens got into the whales’ environment is not yet clear.

Raverty and his colleagues recently published a study on their whale breath research in Nature Scientific Reports, and they are now hoping the samples can be used to develop a baseline and track how the whales’ health changes over time.