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October 2015

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #6: “Pack Your Bags, We Are Heading To Patagonia”

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This update was written by John Graham, Ocean Alliance Robotics Coordinator.

It was less than one week ago today that I was standing on the seaside cliffs of Patagonia observing whales go by just below me. It feels very surreal to me to think back on the last two weeks as being more than just an amazing dream, but the photos I have from the trip provide me with proof that it was all very real. So let’s back up a little bit, back to August 25th. On that day I was at work when I got a text. No, THE text. The one that simply said “Pack your bags. We are going to Patagonia”. WHAT!!! Wait a minute. Where is Patagonia? (geography isn’t my strongest suit). Oh, Argentina. Oh, and we leave in less than 1 month. This is going to be awesome!

Fast forward about 3 weeks, 4 airports, 3 planes, 1 hotel, 4 cabs, 1 car rental, 3+ hours of driving, and more security checks than I could keep track of, and we have arrived in the small town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina. This is to be our home base for the next 2 weeks. It doesn’t take us long to convert our accommodations into what some would describe as a scene from a Spielberg movie in which drones have taken over our world. Well that’s what you get when you travel with 16 large cases of research equipment.

About Piramides: it is a wonderful little town whose main source of revenue is from whale watching. The people are very open and accepting of outsiders. Their patience even extended to my minuscule ability to speak Spanish. Most of my language training comes from my exposure in the healthcare field, but I don’t think asking if they are having any pain or need medication will get me very far. We managed to find a small restaurant called “Guanacos” that served up delicious meals and, more importantly, had wifi. Albeit the wifi was touch and go, and poor Iain would stay up late praying to the internet gods that the emails he painstakingly sent out, actually did go out. We witnessed a lot of the dreaded spinning wheel of computer progress that trip.

Every morning we would make the 45 minute drive down dirt and gravel roads to the whale camp. It was amazing to look around and see nothing but dry brush, sheep, and guanacos. (Side note: Guanacos are like llamas) Iain did his best to keep the anemic rental car on the route, all the while eating the morning’s meal of empanadas. I lost the challenge of “who can spot a guanacos first” game, so I had to unlock the 2 large wooden gates every morning that allowed us access to the whale camp.

The Camp: no modern conveniences; no electric except for the occasional generator to charge drone batteries; no running water except for collected rainwater used only for washing dishes. Very desolate and very beautiful. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this is what I would describe as my vision of Nirvana. The energy that is created from the union of sea, sky, and land is breathtaking. We are greeted by not only the science team from the whale camp but also by the sight of whales. Whales as near and as far as you can see. Breaching, tail lobbing, and most importantly to us, the nectar for which Snotbot thirsts for, whale blow!!!

The Whale Camp continues a long-running study of the southern right whale that Dr. Roger Payne started back in the ‘70s. Ocean Alliance conducts this study with the support and partnership of Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB http://www.icb.org.ar/). A hike up onto the cliffs high above the camp leads to the site at which a small outpost once stood on the edge overlooking the sea, which was the place where Roger & team would sit and observe whale behaviors. All that now remains is scattered debris, but the site still echoes of past optimism for a world that includes cetaceans playing a major role in the health of our planet. One can’t help but to feel that energy carrying over today. It was also very meaningful to be here with Iain at the location at which he and Roger first met.

The ICB crew at WHALE camp, led by Mariano Sironi, was one of the greatest group of dedicated oceanographic research staff I’ve ever met. Their eagerness to help with whatever task was placed before us was refreshing and much welcomed. Also, the camp may not possess any of today’s modern conveniences, but they sure do know how to cook with what they’ve got. I wasn’t going to return home any pounds lighter after Mariano’s bread pudding con Dulce de Leche.

We worked all day, every day, in the pursuit of succeeding in our missions. These included the collection of exhaled breath condensate from whales (aka SNOT), photogrammetry, and whale identification. It was slow going at first, but the team quickly adapted and devised a system that worked well and before you know it, we were putting our first samples into a minus 80 deg dewar (a giant vacuum flask) for preservation. It was both an honor and a thrill to be a part of such ground-breaking research technology.

The team consisted of Iain Kerr (team leader and primary drone pilot), Carolyn Miller (WHOI researcher and resident expert on the drone affectionately called “Archie”) and me (drone technician and backup pilot). We would take to the sea most days in a small inflatable Zodiac piloted by Marco, a guy that would do whatever was needed of him, which mostly consisted of the frequent pull starts of the boat’s aging and uncooperative outboard. Guys like Marco are a rare breed and my life is richer having had the opportunity to work along side of him.

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Oh, I almost forgot to mention the famous outhouse. You would sit (as one does in an outhouse) leave the door open, and you would have the most spectacular view you’ve ever had while taking care of business. Talk about your perfect moments in time. Sadly, all future versions of this ritual will never be able to hold a candle to that point in time.

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We set up a small workshop in the metal corrugated Quonset hut on the beach that usually would serve as the boat house. Here is where I was able to put all my skills learned while watching “MacGyver” to the test. When working in the field at such a remote location as this you learn quickly the value of preparing for the worst and making the most of what you have on hand. At one point we had run into an issue with one of the cameras on a drone. Some loose parts, a hacksaw, bits of wire and solder, and, of course, duct tape, and we were back up and running. We all proved our worth on this expedition, Iain flew near flawlessly, and Carolyn processed the specimens and data with the utmost of care. And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work and emotional support of the Ocean Alliance staff that helped make this trek even possible.

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I would have to say that being in a small boat and having huge whales swim just feet to inches right underneath me, was an experience like no other. I was never scared, more at peace than anything else. This comes in at a close second only to being soaked straight in the face by a curious juvenile checking out what the heck we were doing. His thought process must have been something like: “What? You want whale blow? I’ll give you whale blow!” Well, thanks and gesundheit!!! (see blog The whales are Laughing)

JohnReadytowork

The hardest part of being away in such a remote part of the world is the lack of communication that I had with my wife. No cell phone, no texting, no landline, just the occasional emails that we would write to one another and hope the other receives it within a day or so. New technology has spoiled us with a sense of instant gratification, and we’ve lost sense of the importance of patience.

As I sit back and reflect upon my own personal journey, I can feel the warmth in my soul glowing at the memories and friendships made. All in all, I would consider it to be a very successful expedition. I consider myself truly blessed.

In the future, if I am ever asked to think of a “happy place” it will be a toss-up between the high cliffs of Patagonia or the outhouse with the million dollar view.

DroneBarnsunset

Intern Spotlight – April Almeida

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Name: April Almeida
Studied: Biology with a Marine option
Studied at: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

What brought you to choose to study this subject?
I have grown up on the ocean and I have always been interested in Biology and how different organisms can live together. In seventh grade I had the pleasure of swimming with dolphins and learning more about their lives. From that day on I knew that I wanted to work with marine life and trying to make their environment better.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?
My major tasks at Ocean Alliance have been organization of the office and helping with events.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?
I enjoy the people here and I enjoy the work that we do even though I have yet to actually start working on actual research.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?
I feel that my biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance has been learning about the buildings and being able to give people who walk in a nice tour. I feel like I don’t know enough about our buildings.

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?
I have learned that I am very quick to learn something if I am just thrown into it instead of being eased into it. For example, the baleen talk on the Seven Seas boat. I always knew that I had knowledge of baleen, but I didn’t know how much until I was put in the position of having to teach people about it.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?
Working for a non-profit is more engaging than studying. I enjoy more hands on work than sitting at a desk and reading a textbook.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?
My favorite marine mammal is the dolphin. This is because I find their intelligence intriguing and I always want to learn more about them. I also love how social they are.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?
My favorite ocean film is Dolphin Tales because it shows how some people are very willing to help animals in need and not give up on them no matter what.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?
I hope to go back to school to get my master’s in the near future and with that I hope to be able to teach people about what consequences our actions have on the ocean and work to give the creatures of the ocean a voice.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?
I hope that some day soon people will actually realize what harm they are doing to our planet and work to reverse the problem.

Producer of Documentary Film “Jane & Payne” Visits Gloucester

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Argentine filmmaker Dylan Williams recently visited the Paint Factory to share a private screening of his film “Jane & Payne” with our staff.  Back in October 2013, Dylan and fellow filmmaker Boy Olmi arranged an historic meeting between our founder Roger Payne and the noted primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.  The two scientists have admired each other’s work for decades, but had never met in person before.  Both were approaching their 80th birthdays.

The meeting took place at the Whale Camp in Patagonia, Argentina that Roger had established in the 1970s.  The cameras were rolling to capture their meeting and their subsequent conversations, both alone at the camp and in front of an audience in Buenos Aires.  

Up until this week, Ocean Alliance staff had only seen the trailer, which you can watch here.  A free public screening of the complete film will be held at Woods Hole Historical Museum on October 13th.

“Jayne & Payne” is a poignant film that chronicles not only the noted scientists’ historic meeting, their mutual admiration, and their decades of accomplishments, but also their shared passion for using science and advocacy to preserve and improve life on our planet.  It provokes viewers to think about how they can contribute to helping the planet themselves.

Jane-and-Payne-2Coincidentally, our CEO Iain Kerr had just returned from the same Whale Camp in Patagonia, after conducting the first (and very successful) SnotBot field expedition.  Iain shared some of his dramatic footage from the expedition with Dylan.

In the top photo, Dylan presents Iain with a signed book of photographs that he and another photographer shot in the Argentine National Parks.  Dylan was accompanied by his nephew Christofer Schillachi, who is a Fishery Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in New Bedford.   Our staff had a fascinating conversation with Christofer about his work with clams.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #5: “The whales are laughing!”

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I have spent a lot of time in the field, working in over 20 countries more often than not trying to get close enough to animals (without disturbing them) to collect data, whether it be behavioral, health or physical samples for toxicology etc. Every now and then you have one of these special encounters that resets your perspective, reminds you that we are passengers on space ship earth and not the crew and that the passengers may get what they want, but not always in the way they expected.

We rented a 36 ft boat yesterday, with the idea of being able to spend a full day out on the water, with all of our drones, cameras, controllers, chargers, computers and our dry shipper (a container that has been primed with liquid nitrogen) to preserve our samples.

So 8 of us, consisting of the ICB team — including Marcy Uhart (an Argentine who works for UC Davis) — and the OA team, headed out to sea from the town of Puerto Madryn. Quite quickly we encountered a mother and calf, and we got our first snot sample of the day with Scottie and two photogrammetry samples (mother & calf) with Archie. We then worked for over 45 min to get a Snot Sample from an adolescent whale. It was down when the drone was up and left when we were right and so on and so on. But we were patient and persistent and we eventually got a viable sample. We then moved off about half a mile from the whale to go through some equipment checks and switch batteries etc when one of the crew said a whale was approaching the boat from the stern and it was the adolescent we had just sampled.

To be blunt, the whale swam right up to the boat and we were Snot Bombed (whale version of photo bombing), but in this case it included biological matter from whale lungs – we were repeatedly soaked with snot from a whale that was just feet from the boat, first from the side then from the stern. You may think that I am exaggerating here but there is a a photo below from Archie of the whale Snotting us. In the accompanying photos you can see John and I on the port side of the boat running the drone. Everyone else getting an eyeful. Mariano can be seen holding out a pole that alternated between a Petri dish and his Go Pro, as a result we have our biggest Snot sample yet and video looking down the blow hole during the blow. (I’ll post that video when we get back to the USA.)

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After a 10min photo flight with Archie, I brought him back on board and I took out my own camera. Photos of the day were closeups – so close that you can see the individual cyamids on the whales head.

R whale chin
We need to take pause here and remember that we have spent almost two weeks down here focused on collecting snot, when we see a whale blow and we are not able to get to the whale we are frustrated – we have become a little Snot focused dare I say Snot obsessed and then a whale comes over to our boat and soaks us – be advised that whale breath in small quantities is great. In large quantities it is not that nice, I don’t think that they brush their baleen at night. In the space of 20 min we were all thoroughly Snotted and poor old Carolyn was having a real problem with all of her sterile equipment that was not so sterile any more. Also we could not motor away since the outboard engine was up so the whale would not hit it – so we had to sit it out or maybe Snot it out (sorry).

So why did the whale do this? We don’t know, but the best guess from Mariano is that the adolescent whales are bored and when they see something new just floating in the water they check it out, perhaps thinking that it is a new toy they can play with. After about 20 min when they realize how boring human boats can be they just go on they way and look for something more interesting. If we did not have the remarkable accompanying photos – this story would be hard to believe. It was certainly an amazing experience for the whole team, more than once we were eye to eye with an animal as big as our boat, it refocused all of us as to the importance of learning all that we can about these animals so that we can preserve them for ocean health and diversity and future generations.

As we reflect I guess it goes back to the old saying “be careful for what you wish for” or maybe just maybe… the whales are having a laugh at our expense.

From the VERY snotty skies of Patagonia – that’s how the Snot flies.