Monthly Archives

March 2017

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Lights, cameras, action

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Dear Friends,

Roger Payne set the stage at Ocean Alliance many years ago, insisting that there should always be a strong education component of every scientific endeavor we are involved in. More than ever before it is vitally important for scientists to effectively communicate to the general public what they are doing, how they are doing it, and most importantly, why they are doing it.  We are very lucky to have a Nutopia documentary team with us in the Sea of Cortez filming the first SnotBot expedition of 2017. Nutopia is a British production company that is making a series of environmental shows for a major US TV network (more on that as we are closer to the release date).

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

Truth be said it is almost impossible to do science and shoot a documentary at the same time; both efforts take a lot of focus and involve a lot of equipment, so we have had to compromise on our scientific goals somewhat. Luckily for us the Nutopia folks have been a real pleasure to work with. They have told us that this production will be more stylized, and that has meant that more effort has gone into every shot so that they can tell a powerful visual story. We have seen that with the mass of camera gear they brought down and the many different angles from which they have shot every activity.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

We have been working out of two small boats (approx. 26 feet) one for the science team and one for the documentary team, although people seem to be constantly changing between boats during the day. Nutopia has a team of six people (plus the local boat captain), and the SnotBot team is five plus Michael Fishbach from the Great Whale Conservancy and our amazing boat captain Alberto, so 14 people in all.

Clearly each team is determined to have their project succeed: we want the data and they want the shot. On top of this there never seems to be enough time – when you balance our potentially optimistic goals against weather delays, uncooperative, or even absent animals and the constant logistical challenges, it means that we are lucky if the day only runs from dawn to dusk (and when we get back to our accommodation we have to process samples and back up our images and flight data).

Certainly, we will get less physical blow samples on this trip because we have had to dedicate time to our documentary team, but we believe that this is a worthwhile investment.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot's petri dish.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot’s petri dish.

Nutopia has engaged our superstar SnotBot cameraman Christian Miller; you have seen some of his photos from Alaska (and my last two posts). Apologies that some of todays photos are not as exciting as Christian’s but I thought you might like to see the other side of this expedition.

The two unexpected requirements of documentary-making are that we had to wear the same clothes all week (in the hot sun every day working on a small boat!) so that they could have continuity with the final edit, AND we were set up every morning with wireless microphones, so we had to be a lot more circumspect about our comments and conversations during the day :-).

From SnotBot 2017 in the Sea of Cortez, I wish you fair winds and a flowing sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Yesterday was one of those typical wildlife days, a day when everything seems to be against you and you think that all is lost and then, in the last hour, it all comes together.

We like to get out on the water as early as we can, 7:00 a.m. on the boat means a 5:30 wake-up call to get ready and get down to the marina. We typically stay out until 6:30 p.m. because we have been seeing feeding activity late in the evening. We are working from the premise that during the day the blue whales’ food (krill) is down deep, and the whales are doing random deep dives to feed (meaning it is a lot harder to track them, but they spend a lot more time at the surface between dives). To help us try to be at the right place at the right time with a SnotBot in the air, we record the length of the whales’ dives so we can look for patterns; if a whale keeps regular dive cycles of approximately 7 minutes, we know that to be ready to collect snot we need to get a SnotBot up into the air at 6 minutes and 30 seconds after it dove.

Our day started with 20 knots of wind, so we kept delaying our departure, until at last at around 2:00 p.m. the winds seemed to be diminishing, so we headed out onto the water. We motored North from Loreto for over an hour and did not see a single blow. Finally just before 4:00 p.m., we saw a blow, then two, then a total of eight blows around us. You can imagine we were over the moon; we had found a group of blue whales!

Excitement faded to frustration as the random pattern of dives meant that we were not able to get to the right place at the right time. Our DJI Inspire 1 can fly at over 40 knots, so in most cases we could get a SnotBot to the whale but they were only doing two or three blows at the surface so all I was getting was video footage of blue whales diving. More typical behavior is for the whales to stay at the surface for six or seven blows. Multiple blows at the surface typically gives us enough time to collect snot, we think that in this case they we just doing shallow dives for krill and so did not have the need for extended surface time or blows. Did no one tell these whales that SnotBot was here and we were making a documentary?

By about 5:45 p.m. the sun was going down, we were all tired and sunburnt, and the camera team was losing light, so it looked as if we were going to be skunked. To be fair we were near a whale once but there was a whale watching boat there at the same time and the National Park had requested that we did not fly when tourists were near the whales. As much as we wanted to go back into port, we decided to persevere and stay out till 6:30 p.m.

At around 6:00 p.m. the situation changed dramatically, the water around us seemed to come alive with bubbling krill and the whales started going into full speed surface feeding mode. In the blink of an eye we had whales lunging and surface feeding everywhere (including right next to our boat). Where did all these whales come from?

This was our last day with the Nutopia film team; the one shot they did not have was video of a whale near our boat to give some perspective of the whale’s size. They also wanted Christian to get photos of SnotBot in a blow (below).

Collecting biological data from whales is harder than many people think; SnotBot is helping us with this challenge but the reality is that persistence is still a key factor. We were tired and ready to go home, but we decided to stay the course, and as a consequence, hit it out of the ball park.

From the Sea of Cortez, wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Cheers,

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: How big are blue whales?

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

To describe the size of different objects, we often make comparisons to various everyday items such as school buses or an Olympic sized swimming pool. When the objects we refer to reach a certain size, it can be difficult for us to truly comprehend just how large they are, and we switch off, no longer able to visualize them effectively.

Animals, for the most part, our well within our boundaries of comprehension. An elephant is an enormous animal, yet it is not so different from our own size that we cannot process and understand it.

When we get to the large whales, we begin to cross this boundary. The largest whales of all are difficult to visualize and the comparisons we use become extreme. Blue whales are animals made for superlatives. They are the largest animals ever to have existed on our planet; 99% of species which have ever lived on our planet have gone extinct. How fortunate we are to live at the same time as these great leviathans.

This latest SnotBot expedition has focused upon these enormous animals. I am fortunate enough to have seen most of the great whales, yet this expedition is my first time seeing blue whales, and they truly dwarf any other whales in both length and sheer size/weight. I’m going to throw out a few size comparisons; try to visualize, try to comprehend, the scale of these animals.

 

A blue whale’s tongue can weigh as much as an adult elephant. ITS TONGUE. Try to picture a tongue the size of an elephant.

Adult blue whales need to eat around 8,000 pounds of food per day. That is the weight equivalent of 60 average-sized humans. Every day… They are of course not eating humans, but tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill; 8,000 pounds of krill = 40 million individual krill.

They can grow to 100 feet in length. I still struggle to comprehend this, but it really struck home with me on our first day out on the water with the whales. A blue whale lunged out of the water. It lunged directly away from us, yet its head was only 25 feet away from us. This means that some of its body must have been UNDERNEATH our boat. We estimated the whale was 80 feet long. If it surfaced 25 feet from our boat, and our boat was about 10 feet long, this means that the whale’s tail/fluke would have been about 45 feet on the other side of our boat.

Here is another fact: The global population of blue whales, decimated by 20th century whaling, is currently estimated to be roughly around 7% of its pre-whaling population, around 15,000 animals. Try and comprehend that; 15,000 animals representing an entire species. The largest species which has ever existed on planet earth. Many modern sports stadiums can hold 4 or 5 times this number of people. My university had more students than the entire global population of blue whales.

SnotBot is a tool which can help us understand these animals, and other endangered whales, in order that we can better protect them — and they desperately need our protection. There are many species or sub-populations of whale on the verge of extinction: The Baiji or Chinese river dolphin has already gone extinct. The Vaquita porpoise of the Sea of Cortez looks set to follow (sorry to be blunt, but it’s true). Maui’s dolphin is not far behind. The North Pacific right whale population is estimated to be around 30 individuals, Western Pacific gray whales under 150, Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales under 100, Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale under 40. The largest pre-whaling blue whale population, in the Southern Ocean, is around 1% of its pre-whaling levels. This is a depressing fact: over 30 years after the cessation of commercial whaling, this population has shown few signs of recovery.

SnotBot is a tool which can collect a wide array of data. Thus far we have used SnotBot to collect blow samples, photo-ID, photogrammetry, bio-acoustics, lowlight/night-time studies, behavioural data and bio-kinetics data. Undoubtedly there are many applications of this technology we have not thought of. A tool which can simultaneously collect so many forms of data is rare. But one which can do so economically (our favoured drone, the DJI Mavic PRO, costs under $1,000) is revolutionary. The cheaper the tool, the more groups around the world can use it in their own research/conservation programs to collect all this different data. And with these streams of data being collected all around the world, scientists and conservationists can begin to take great steps forward in our ability to understand and ultimately protect, these animals.

— Andy Rogan

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017, in collaboration with Parley: We’re underway!

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

Our field site is Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico. Our principle study species is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (yes, bigger than dinosaurs) – blue whales. A fully grown blue whale can weight over 150 tons and can grow up to 100 ft in length.

Yesterday, (Sunday, March 13) we got out on the water, after a pretty stressful two days getting down to Loreto with a total of 27 bags (including carry-ons). We joined our host for the week —  Michael Fishbach of the Great Whale Conservancy — yesterday morning.  After a couple of hours of unpacking, we were out on the water by 1:30. Even though we like to be on the water by 8:00 am at the latest, our feeling was that we might as well get a few hours on the water to test our protocols, fly the drones and get the team back in synch.

The team this expedition remains principally the same: Iain Kerr, expedition leader; Andrew Rogan, scientist;  Christian Miller, cinematography; and John Graham, engineer (MacGyver). New to the team this year is Kendall Mashburn from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.  Kendall is working with Andy and me to review our data collection protocols and onboard sample processing based on Kendall’s expertise with hormones.

Kendall will take our samples back to Dr. Shannon Atkinson’s lab in Alaska. She will be looking at levels of glucocorticoids (stress hormones), testosterone, progesterone and estrogen (reproductive hormones), and triiodothyronine and thyroxin (metabolic hormones). As if that were not enough, we have a Nutopia film crew with us, filming SnotBot as part of an upcoming documentary special called One Strange Rock.

I am happy and a bit stunned to report that within the first 15 minutes of leaving the dock we had collected our first sample from a blue whale (!) and the day just got better.

As you can see from the photos (thank you Christian and Michael), we had stunning interactions with blue whales right up until it got too dark for us to keep working.

I have to head out onto the water now – who knows what adventures today will bring!
From Mexico wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

After months of planning, countless phone calls made, funds raised, and supplies procured, the Ocean Alliance crew find themselves in a very familiar place. As I am writing this, we are squeezed into a relatively small metal tube, flying 34,000 feet above the earth at a rate of 418 mph, looking to follow up on last year’s highly successful kick-off of the SnotBot program. Our journey takes us back to the Sea of Cortez, but this time to the town of Loreto for what is sure to be an amazing encounter with the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. The SnotBot team of Iain Kerr, Andy Rogan, Christian Miller, and me (John Graham) is excited to have along with us on this expedition Kendall Mashburn, a wildlife endocrinologist from the University of Alaska. Kendall brings with her years of experience studying and processing wildlife data.

As the tech guy on these expeditions, I am very excited to not only be in close proximity to these huge beautiful creatures, but also to put our new drones and their collection devices through their paces in our relentless search to improve upon the system in which we obtain the data-rich exhaled breath condensate of nature’s ocean dwelling leviathans. I’m not going to give it away, but we do have some intriguing tricks up our sleeves that will hopefully aid us in our research.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Day 1: Jet lagged after our travels from our home base in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we have finally arrived at our destination, the small town of Loreto. We were briefed by our host, guide, and local expert on blue whales, president of the Great Whale Conservancy Michael Fishbach, who used words that make oceanographic researchers salivate, like abundant, feeding, unorthodox behavior, and poop. He than backed up his lofty words with jaw-dropping video footage. Needless to say, we were all very eager to get out on the water and do what we do best: collect whale snot.

After sorting out our gear, we headed down to the docks where we were met by the Nutopia crew filming us for the documentary One Strange Rock, who will be with us this week to document our unique data-collecting process. So, not to leave you in suspense, but stay tuned for the next blog describing how our first day went. I promise, it will be worth the wait!

— John

Aloha, Hawaii

By | aug14 | No Comments

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Hawaii, where I got to connect with some old friends, make new friends, and even say hi to a few humpbacks (even though it was blowing 30 knots the day we went out).

It’s a long trip, and jet lag had me staggering my first day in Honolulu, but wouldn’t you say yes to getting out of New England in February to give two talks in Hawaii?  My first talk was at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island.  I have to say that while Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the old Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory buildings on Gloucester Harbor are pretty amazing, these folks have us beat.  What a spectacular facility, and the staff offered tremendous hospitality. Coconut Island is cut off from the mainland so you have to take a small boat over to the institute.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

I was surprised when my new friend and guide Dr. Aude Pacini invited me to get into another boat to go over to their marine mammal stranding facility at the edge of the Marine Core Base on Mokapu peninsula.  I could not have been happier, there were V22 Osprey assault planes landing on my right and an extensive marine mammal stranding facility on my left. Dr. Kristi West was my type of whale biologist; she was clearly very passionate about her work, even though dealing with dead or stranded animal is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea (or as nice a smell).

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

Kirsti gave me a tour of their facility, showing me where they did their necropsies, letting me look over the shoulder of a scientist who was reviewing the stomach contents of a recent stranding, and even letting me to walk into their large freezer that held a biological treasure trove of frozen marine mammal parts.  After a tour of this facility it was back to Coconut Island, where I gave a talk on the Voyages of the Odyssey and the toxicological consequences of our consumer lifestyles.

The next day I was invited to the main campus in Honolulu, where I gave an talk on how we developed SnotBot and showed some videos of snot collection.

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

I must say that I found the generosity and collaborative spirit of everyone I met to be right down our street (as I often say, we are Ocean Alliance, not Ocean Alone). I talked with people about collaborating on some archival toxicological work, drone projects, and entanglement and stranding projects. I promise you the fact that I was in Hawaii in February as against New England had nothing to do with my enthusiasm.

I see enormous potential for groups like Ocean Alliance and the University of Hawaii to work together; the distance between us only increase the value of our perspective.  At the end of the day, as much as I was enchanted with the islands and the climate, it was the people who made the trip worthwhile, so my undying thanks go to Pam, Dr. Ruth Gates, and Dr. Aude Pacini. Aloha and Mahalo nui.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

The Art of Racing in the Clubhouse

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The Robotics club certainly slowed down over the winter, but I have to say the incessant development of drone tech has not. As well as using the robotics lab as a general maker space and clubhouse, last year in the robotics club we were primarily focusing our efforts on small airplanes (thank you Alex Monell for the design, development an implementation). A massive Thank You also to the Applied Materials Foundation, whose generous support allows us to run the Robotics Club and special events such as these.

For 2017, I was keen to get the club members into small FPV quadcopters. FPV, for the uninitiated, means First Person View — you wear a headset with TV screens that gives you a live feed from the drone that you are flying.  You feel like you are actually in the plane.  Some FPV pilots have to sit down when they fly or they fall over, because they are so immersed in the flight experience.

Robotics club participants wear FPV headsets (and sit down) while flying quadcopters.

Robotics club participants wear FPV headsets (and sit down) while flying quadcopters.

One of the great things about the small FPV drones is that they are easy to race in small spaces; we don’t race as much for the competition as just for fun.  We had two small drones flying around the clubhouse recently, hitting the walls, etc. and everyone was engaged and laughing, flying and having fun.  To me this type of edutainment is what the robotics club is all about.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

The problem we were facing was the cost. On this page (a great site if you want to get into this field), the small racing drones were starting at a cost of $200; 10 drones for our club would be $2,000(!), more than we want to spend on any one item at a time.

A Tiny Whoop drone.

The good news is that micro drone’s have gotten better and better and cheaper and cheaper; just type Tiny Whoop into Google and see what you get.  Here is a great page on Tiny Whoops. The thing I like is that these tiny drones are very customizable — bigger engines, different cameras and tuners, they are great for our club.  We can build them to spec at the club, for around $60 each.  You will be hearing more about this soon!

I am writing in a mild state of panic as tomorrow I am heading out to the Sea of Cortez for a SnotBot expedition, where I’ll be flying some much larger drones.

— Iain Kerr