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April 2016

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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The first leg of the SnotBot Sea of Cortez expedition was to San Ignacio lagoon, where the accessibility of grey whales gave us an opportunity to test a number of different snot sample collection techniques.  After working with fairly social Southern right whales and very social grey whales, the work was about to get a lot harder.  While we had developed a very successful sample collection platform with the DJI Inspire 1 during the first Leg, the question was could we collect snot from other species of less social whales such as humpback, blue & fin whales?

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

So after 5 productive days in San Ignacio Lagoon, we packed up our 16 bags and made the 12-hour drive to La Paz for Leg 2.  I thought that this drive was going to be very boring with hours of endless desert. While we did have plenty of desert, the countryside was spectacular, driving along coastal roads in and out of low mountainous ranges.  The scenery kept changing from desert to dry river beds where greenery was abundant and human agriculture evident. I have seen so much of Mexico from the sea so it was a real pleasure to have this terrestrial counterpoint.

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

We arrived in La Paz late on Friday night with a message from Dr. Jorge Urban that it would be too windy to go out on Saturday.  As disappointed as we were to hear this, it did give us a day to organize our equipment, buy the items that we could not get in San Ignacio, and meet the film team, Adrienne & Tom, who had come to document our work for an out-of-house project (more about that later).  It was also a luxury to have a real shower, plug our battery chargers into every socket in the room and connect to the Internet!!

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

Sunday morning we were up at 6:30 and on the boat by 8:00.  Dr Urban (who I have known for over 20 years) from the University of La Paz was at the helm of his 22 ft panga, so we knew that if there were whales out there that we were with the best man in town to find them.  Alas,  Jorge had some bad news to share. The El Nino was wreaking havoc with the Sea of Cortez ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, and his team were not seeing the typical patterns of whales or abundance – he had just postponed a satellite tagging project because of this.  With those thoughts in mind, we headed out in the Bahia La Paz.  Bounded by the Baja peninsular to the west and the islands of Espirito Santo and Partida to the east, Bahia La Paz extends almost 30 miles north from the city of La Paz and is on average 20 miles wide. These are (typically) very productive whale grounds, and as we spent our first day searching the bay we were regaled with stories of frequent past encounters with humpback, fin and blue whales and occasional encounters with orcas and sperm whales.

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

We covered over 100 sun-blistering miles the first day, stopping every hour to look and listen. Despite the optimal conditions we did not see a single blow. We returned to our hotel that night tired, sunburnt and a little disheartened.  This is the business though, so the next morning we were in the panga by 7:30 and back out on the water.  Today our guide was Iram, another seasoned biologist from Dr Urban’s team.  Alas the day did not go much better; we did put our DJI drones to work, though, sending the Phantom 4 up to 380 feet every hour using it as an eye in the sky.

As effective as the Phantom 4 was in increasing our spotting range, we still did not see any blows, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the wind had picked up to 15-20 knots so we headed back in.  We were quite close to the city of La Paz when we saw a blow and quickly identified it as a humpback whale.  Typically in conditions this windy we would not try for a blow collection (above 15 knots the wind lays the blow down and the chances of more salt water in the blow increases).  But considering that this was the first whale that we had seen in 3 days, we went for it.  We had moderate success, but every now and then we took a wave over the bow of the boat. This was not good because we had a boat full of electronics, 3 drones and supporting equipment along with close 80K of camera equipment (Christian & Tom both had Red cameras).  So we had to abandon the work and head back into port.  As you can imagine, by this time I was really sweating it (and not because of the heat). We had a very successful first leg, but we needed to validate what we had learned with other species of whales. That night I called our logistics and expedition coordinator, John Atkinson (in Canada), to set up a spotter plane for the next day. We did not have a budget for a plane but we had to find whales. We set it up so that we would spend an hour and a half driving the panga out into the bay and then we would call the plane.  Clearly the whale gods were on our side. Right when we were about to call the plane I heard Adrienne shout BLOW.  Everyone leaped into action, and less than 20 minutes later we had our first humpback whale sample and it was spectacular – our petri dishes and the Inspire 1 were dripping with snot.

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

We stayed with this animal for the next few hours, keeping the panga away, but making a number of close approaches with the Inspire 1.  Andy was timing the animal’s dives, which were running at about 9 min. Our procedure was as follows: at 8 min we would prep the Inspire 1; at 8 min 30 sec John Graham would launch the drone and I would hover above the boat ready to go.  Once we saw a blow, my challenge was to get to the whale in time for the second blow.  Once I saw the whale on the surface, I would race the drone towards it and then get into my FPV position (sometimes this would be very disorientating because I would have a drone’s eye view of the world but the boat would be bouncing out of sync with my view).  The whale seemed to like Andy because once he shouted “Should be coming up any second now” and within 5 seconds the whale surfaced. Our drone and launch protocols, our practice as a team, our development of the collection methods all seemed to come together with great results, so we were living the SnotBot dream.  Once when the whale was down Christian sent up his Inspire 1 to film our boat underway, next thing you know the Humpback breached in the frame with our boat in the picture—absolutely blooming amazing.  We went home that night over the moon. Certainly we needed to test SnotBot with other whales, but it looked as if we had a winning formula, all of this work had been caught on camera by two remarkable cameramen, and we still had one day left on the water……. and OMG what a day that was! Ill report on our last day in my next blog.

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

Helping Sea Shepherd Capture Nighttime Drone Footage

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Earlier this year, Ocean Alliance CEO and resident drone expert Iain Kerr helped Sea Shepherd Conservation Society put together a drone package to support Operation Milagro II in the Sea of Cortez.  Operation Milagro II was launched in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise, principally through entanglement in gill nets.  The vaquita are one of the world’s smallest cetaceans, and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California.  They are the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with the population suspected to be only a few dozen individuals.  Although all gill nets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threat is posed by the gill nets used to catch the Totoaba fish due to the size of the mesh.

Having set up successful daytime patrols and working closely with the Mexican government, Sea Shepherd believed that the poachers might be setting gill nets at night.  Sea Shepherd staff called Iain Kerr and explained the problem.  After a series of conversations, Iain suggested the DJI developer drone Matrice 1 and the FLIR Vue Pro night vision thermal camera. “The Matrice is a very adaptable platform.  Crucial for this project was reliability of the DJI product, the 40 minute flight time, 3 mile range, and plug and play capacity of the FLIR Vue Pro Night Vision camera,” said Kerr.

Just this week, Iain received an email from Sea Shepherd thanking him for the support and success of this collaboration.

“We are over the moon with these results,” said Kerr. “So often we hear bad news about drones.  This project proves the enormous potential of drones as wildlife conservation tools.”

Earth Day Message from CEO Iain Kerr

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More than anything else I see Earth Day as a time to reflect – on what we have done over the last year, of what we hope to do over the next year and how our challenges have evolved. Certainly I am more excited than ever before with the tools environmentalists, activists and scientists have, not just to collect data, but to share the word and engage people. Counter to that, whales now face more threats than ever before, from pollution, to ship strikes, entanglement in nets and lines and acoustic bleaching. Our instant access to often depressing environmental stories can lead to despair and apathy, why should I bother, what can I do? If you ever feel that way I want to remind you of the words or Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Now more than ever before is a time of hope and opportunity. Look at the success of documentaries like “ The Cove,” “ Blackfish,” and “Racing Extinction.” Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to work with groups like Parley for the Oceans, G Star Raw & Adidas; groups who are not just trying to clean up the oceans but are trying to take recycling and turn the fashion industry upside down.

As individuals we now have a voice that can be heard around the world, I encourage you to shout out, let us know how you feel, encourage others to get involved. But please remember at the end of the day it is all about our individual actions. I talk to school kids about how honey they see in the market comes from millions of bees carrying a package so small we can’t see it. We have to be the ocean’s honeybees – if millions of people just did something once a month, once a week, once a day for the environment we would change the world – for the better. Ask yourself, what is the blue legacy you want to leave, and have a great Earth (Ocean) Day.

Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

Eye to eye

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez was a remarkable expedition with the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was lucky to have a remarkable team with me: technician John Graham, scientist Andy Rogan and photographer/videographer Christian Miller. We had great weather, food, and, most importantly, whales. Here is part one—San Ignacio Lagoon and gray whales.

SnotBot Patagonia proved that we could collect snot from whales using a drone. The primary goal for SnotBot Sea of Cortez was to see if we could increase the snot sample size so that we would have enough to use for all the different analysis that we are interested in.  The secondary goal was to collect snot from multiple whale species to make sure that our previous collection success was not a fluke (pun intended).

In Patagonia our average sample size was around 20 microliters (one small drop of water).  For the Sea of Cortez we set ourselves an optimistic goal of 80 microliters. Imagine building a go-kart that does 50 mph on the first run and taking it home and saying next time we want to go 200 mph.  The Sea of Cortez is a very diverse region species-wise so we were also hoping to encounter gray, humpback and blue whales.  Last but not least, we wanted to do this work with off-the-shelf drones, so that this work can be replicable and scalable, so we were lucky to have the world leader in drone development DJI providing us with the drones. We took with us the new DJI Phantom 4 and the DJI Inspire 1.

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

Working with Dr. Jorge Urban’s team from the University of La Paz, our first study site was San Ignacio Lagoon. The gray whales are so friendly here that you do not need a SnotBot to collect blows as they come right up to the boat to be touched and you can’t help but get “snotted.”  Because of this, though, they were the perfect whales for us to conduct multiple flights into blows to test our different snot collection devices. We had a total of five different snot collection devices and procedures that we wanted to test.

One would think that drones would not be good snot collection tools–the whales are blowing the snot up, but the drones, to fly, are blowing air down. Technically we had opposing forces.  For our first set of experiments we used different collection tools at the end of a pole, extending the collection device out of the drone’s prop wash.  We ran multiple flights with five different collection methods:

  1. Nitex weave cloth (very similar to wedding veil)
  2. Stockings on a wire frame (this method has been used on a long pole)
  3. A different weave and texture Nitex cloth
  4. A number of Petri dishes on a T bar (an upgrade of our Patagonia method)
  5. A medical sponge material developed in Malden, MA for hospitals.
Collection methods

Collection methods

The idea is that the different holes, size, and consistency of the materials will collect and hold the snot with different levels of success. The problem with this method is that you have to get the snot out of the capture material after the flight, so we brought a centrifuge to Mexico so that we could spin the snot out from the collection material. The Nitex cloth balls were split up into 4 different pieces so that each section could just be dropped into one of the centrifuge tubes after a flight.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning we flew over 49 flights into gray whale blows.  We were getting into the blows okay and we were getting amazing footage but we were not increasing our sample size by any significant amount.  So on Wednesday afternoon, we attached two 4 inch Petri dishes and one 6 inch petri dish on top of the DJI Inspire 1 with industrial grade velcro.  The idea here was not to get out of the downdraft created by the drone but to use the down draft of the drone to collect snot for us. We believed that the Inspire 1 would be very well-suited to this because while most drones have big round bodies, the Inspire 1 has a long thin body and the propellers are raised above the body. So we put Petri dishes onto the Inspire 1 (see photos of the petri dishes hanging over the body) flew into a gray whale blow and we hit the jackpot.  The petri dishes were literally flooded in snot–Andy Rogan estimated a minimum of 80 micro liters from just one blow.  If we could fly into more than one blow from an animal (and we did) we would collect more than enough snot for the analysis we wanted to do and probably as much snot (or more) than people who have used long poles to collect snot from whales.

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

I should mention that on my very first flight in the Sea of Cortez I crashed and critically damaged a drone. Not a good start. To be knocking the ball out of the ballpark three days later was more like the script for a movie than an actual scientific experiment.  On Thursday morning we went back out to the gray whales with the Inspire 1 and with ten more flights (a total of 59 with grey whales) we consistently repeated our success from the day before.

It should be said that even this experienced team was overtaken by these amazing animals on occasion. I fly the drones FPV (first person view) so I am not looking at the world around me–I have my head pushed against a Hoodman screen cover so that all I can see is a drone’s-eye-view of the world on my IPad. During one flight no one was responding to my question so I took my head away from the screen to see three guys hanging over the side of the boat hugging a whale. Just before we headed back in on the last day I took off my flight and screen harness and managed to touch a whale myself, which Christian Miller caught on camera.

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

Thursday afternoon we packed up all of our equipment in preparation for the 12-hour drive back down to La Paz where we hoped to find humpback whales and maybe, just maybe, blue or fin whales.  We had been warned that El Nino had had a severe effect on the region and that they had not been seeing the number of whales that they had seen in years past. At this point we did not care – we had over 80 micro liters of snot from a single blow so goal # 1 achieved.  Mission Accomplished!