2017, what a year!

Dear Friends,

2017 really was a banner year for Ocean Alliance. Just two short years ago (summer 2015) we presented SnotBot to the world, and to be blunt, it was not received with open arms.

In just two years we took this concept forward to the point that drones are now considered a critical tool not just for whale research and conservation but for the wider wildlife conservation field.

Even though I’ve sent you periodic updates, I think it’s worth giving you a timeline of all we’ve achieved this year. Our accomplishments are even more impressive when you see them all together!

January 2017
Science magazine Biosphere published an article about SnotBot as the primary story in their January 2017 magazine.

SnotBot photographer/cameraman Christian Miller produced a video on our 2016 SnotBot expedition to Alaska. The video won the Jury’s Choice Award at the Ocean Geographic competition, and is currently in the finals of Nature’s Best Photography Award. Watch it here.

Dr. Iain Kerr gave a keynote speech at the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop in San Diego. Whilst there, he began a dialogue with scientists from NOAA regarding a project analysing our sperm whale samples from the Voyage of the Odyssey to conduct some ground-breaking hormone analyses.

Science Manager Andy Rogan began teaching an ecology lab as an adjunct professor at local university Endicott College.

February
Iain visited Hawaii to discuss some exciting collaborations with various groups, including the University of Hawaii & Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, pictured below.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

 

March
2017 was a particularly good year in utilizing the data collected during the ground-breaking 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey program. In March we collaborated with Wilma Mavea and Isabel Beasley from James Cook University in Australia. Wilma is completing her thesis on marine mammals in the waters of Papua New Guinea, and we are one of the only groups to have conducted comprehensive marine mammal surveys in many areas around the island.

We continued working closely with scientist Eric Ramos. Eric is another marine mammal biologist using drones in his research, and both Eric’s research and our SnotBot program have benefited from our discussions.

We conducted the fourth SnotBot expedition to Loreto in the Sea of Cortez. Here, we were working with the largest of them all, blue whales. The expedition started fantastically: we spotted a blue whale within 17 minutes of leaving the dock on the first day! (You can see our boat near a blue whale in the photo below.) We were also joined by a National Geographic film crew, filming SnotBot for the wildlife series One Strange Rock, due to air in February 2018. And we greatly improved our protocols for processing and storing our samples for hormone analysis, with specialist researcher Kendall Mashburn joining us from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

April
We consulted with authors and illustrators from National Geographic who are working on a new book that includes SnotBot!

During an international webinar, infra-red imaging group FLIR Systems spoke about Ocean Alliance’s research studying whale with FLIR cameras to illustrate some of the potential applications of their technology.

May
We hired Matt Duggan, a NOAA employee who used to intern with Ocean Alliance, to help us catalogue and organise our data stores from the Voyage of the Odyssey program. This is a part of a push to conduct new analyses on some of the priceless information that we have collected from all over the world over the past few decades.

As a part of this push, we sent out over 150 Voyage of the Odyssey reports to partners and governments that we worked with during the program from all over the world.

June
On World Ocean’s Day, Iain spoke to the General Assembly at the United Nations about SnotBot and how emerging technologies can help us protect the planet. Iain was part of a group that included Sylvia Earle, Sir Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron (the latter two via livelink).

Iain at UN 2017

On the same day, in an entirely separate event, Science Manager Andy Rogan also spoke at the UN as part of an oceans panel discussing SnotBot and other environmental programs.

Ocean Alliance hosted the ‘Our Planet: Preservation and Sustainable Use of Our Oceans International Visitor Leadership Program’. This is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. Through short-term visits to the United States, current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields experience the United States first hand and cultivate lasting relationships with American counterparts. It was a privilege to host so many esteemed colleagues from around the world.

A SnotBot film produced by our friends at Sound Off Films was selected for the Patagonia Film Festival.

An Ocean Alliance volunteer, Amy Prime, helped organise a large donation of office equipment. This included 26 large filing cabinets to help us organise the enormous amounts of priceless data we have, and a giant 70’’ screen which now sits proudly in our office.

Students from Goldsmiths University in London requested to use some of our original whale recordings in their film about a whale that got beached in the River Thames in 2006.

July
We ran what was logistically the most complex SnotBot program yet, and the fifth expedition in total. Beginning the week, we were joined by another National Geographic film crew. SnotBot was filmed as a major story for Earth Live, the first ever live wildlife documentary with locations all around the world, and labelled one of the most ambitious nature shows ever created.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

During the SnotBot expedition we were joined by software giant Intel, in what represented the beginning of what we hope will be a tremendously exciting partnership. Intel are helping us with two data collection programs: 1) an advanced photogrammetry study and 2) a program using A.I. analytics to identify individual whales.

We were also joined by a team from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, including the head of the lab, Dr. Shannon Atkinson. As the SnotBot program progresses it is imperative that we partner with the best groups in the world in their relevant areas of expertise. Dr.  Atkinson’s lab specialises in studying hormones.

We sent samples from the expedition to our genetics analysis partners at Oregon State University. Late that month, the head of the lab, Dr.  Scott Baker, informed us that our orca samples had been analysed successfully, and that they had determined the orca we sampled was a transient type orca based on its haplotypes. This is a tremendous validation of the SnotBot program.

Science magazine Science and Society featured a major article on the SnotBot program.

August
Dr. Atkinson’s team at the University of Alaska informed us that they had so far detected progesterone (a pregnancy hormone), testosterone (the primary male sex hormone), and cortisol and aldosterone (both steroid hormones) in our SnotBot samples. This is a second tremendous validation of the SnotBot program.

Iain spoke at the prestigious Singularity Conference, a meeting of world leaders and global thinkers working to change the world.

After our successful collaboration in Alaska, a team from Intel came to our headquarters in Gloucester. Alongside the Intel team we went out to Stellwagen Bank with our research vessel Cachalot, conducting more SnotBot tests and collecting data.

Dr. Scott Baker’s genetics lab recovered sufficient DNA in all three species represented in the group of samples we gave to them: humpback whales, blue whales and orca. This further validated the SnotBot program.

We discussed future collaborations with the regional NOAA research team regarding the possibility of conducting some drone work on Stellwagen Bank. This is an enormous testament to our program and how well regarded we are by the scientific community.

We started a dialogue with Brazilian non-profit institution Fundaçao Renova. This group are dedicated to restoring marine and freshwater environments and are interested in collaborating with Ocean Alliance regarding our drone expertise.

A major government funded research program representing almost all the coastal South American countries reached out to us regarding our expertise in marine mammal toxicology (before the SnotBot program, Ocean Alliance specialised in toxicology).

We worked with fellow drone specialists Dr. Lars Bejder and Fredrik Christiansen at Murdoch University in Australia, providing them with images from our SnotBot expedition to Patagonia to be used for photogrammetry analysis.

September
The Southern Right Whale Program entered its 47th year! This is the longest continually running whale research program in the world. From it, many important discoveries have been made that have shaped not only the research of right whales, but of all large whales.

We continued our support of the local arts community by hosting an art show and gala event called “Edge” at our headquarters in collaboration with local Gloucester art gallery Trident Gallery. The successful gala included an interpretive dance routine set to an original music score by a local composer, based on the tragedy of the Essex: the infamous whaling vessel that was stove in by a sperm whale in 1820 and inspired Hermann Melville to write Moby Dick.

We also made a push towards digitizing and analysing some of our old humpback whale recordings. We have humpback whale recordings dating back to the 1950’s, an utterly priceless data set, and are currently looking to raise the funds necessary to digitize and ultimately analyse these acoustic recordings. Because of their age (and their reel-to-reel format), this is a difficult and expensive process, but it is exciting to be moving ahead with this priceless data, particularly data which is such testament to Dr. Roger Payne’s extraordinary legacy.

 

October
We conducted a SnotBot expedition to Alaska with the INTEL corporation. We are slowly building this partnership which has enormous potential.  You can see a cool video here: https://tinyurl.com/intelParleySnotBot

And a great story in the NY Times here: https://paidpost.nytimes.com/intel/can-whale-snot-and-artificial-intelligence-save-our-oceans.html

 

The Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference is held every two years and is the most important scientific conference in the whale/marine mammal calendar. In 2017 this conference took place in Halifax, Canada; and was attended by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr and Science Manager Andy Rogan.

The previous conference, held in 2015 in San Francisco, marked Ocean Alliance’s  shift towards SnotBot and our Drones for Whale Research program. At this conference, the SnotBot program was fully fledged and our activities and presentations reflected this. It was a very exciting week as it demonstrated to us just how well known the SnotBot program is to the global marine mammal community and how widely it is recognized as a program at the forefront of the burgeoning new field of drones in marine mammal science.

A number of abstracts were presented at the conference using our work.

  • Science Manager Andy Rogan and CEO Dr. Iain Kerr gave a well-received talk on the SnotBot program, which was attended by some of the top biologists in the marine mammal world.
  • The head of our Southern right whale program, Dr. Vicky Rowntree, gave a talk ‘Isotopically inferred maternal foraging ranges and calf mortality in right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina’.
  • Kerr and Andy Rogan also presented a poster entitled, ‘SnotBot: Documented reactions of cetaceans to drones’,
  • Ted Willke and Bryn Keller of Intel presented a poster, ‘Machine Learning and Unmanned Aerial Systems for Analysis of Whale Health and Identity in the Field’ based on our collaboration with Intel,
  • Eris Ramos from City University of New York used our data in his poster, ‘Behavioral Reactions of Marine Mammals to Drones.’

Pretty good representation for such a small group!

The conference was an immense success, as we had the opportunity to discuss exciting future collaborations and shared protocols/methodologies with marine mammal scientists/conservationists from across the globe.

Our work was featured in 7 papers at the biannual Marine Mammal Conference held in Halifax, Canada; Ocean Alliance staff submitted three abstracts on the SnotBot program: one talk and two posters. This is the most important gathering of marine mammal scientists and it is vital that we communicate our work at these events. They are also incredibly important for discussing potential collaborations with groups all round the world. This was an incredibly exciting event and the first major conference since the SnotBot program really got off the ground.

Dr. Scott Baker, one of our partners in the SnotBot program, gave a SnotBot presentation at the Pew Fellows meeting in Chile that was very well received. It was entitled: It’snot what you might think – DNA profiling from SnotBot samples of whale blows.

Considering that our honorary board chair is Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Ahab in the Hallmark film version of Moby Dick, we like the opening slide to Dr. Baker’s talk:

“But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things.”         Ishmael in Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Chapter 85)

 

November/December
November and December were two tough months, primarily working on organizational development and planning for 2018.

We went through our annual audit (with flying colors) wrote reports, summarized achievements, sorted through data, contacted partners (new and old), conducted grant research and submitted three grants.

We were advised in December that we were successful with a Gloucester Community Preservation Act Grant in the amount of $18,000 that will be used as part of a $60,000 project to repair and restore the Paint Factory Sea wall.

We could not have done it without all of your support, so we thank you again.

If you are reading this before December 31 you still have time to make a tax deductible donation for 2017.

Never before has the work of small organizations like Ocean Alliance been so important. All of us here thank you again for giving us the opportunity to be a voice for the wild world.

Watch this space for more ground-breaking research, education and conservation activities: www.whale.org