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July 2017

“Killed by a Whale” by Roger Payne

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Disentangling a right whale (Photo by NOAA Fisheries)

On July 10th, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,”

I have discussed this tragedy with several who have claimed that disentangling a whale is “Asking for trouble,” “Nuts,” and “Insane.” “You gotta be crazy to do such a dangerous thing” is a typical remark. And although that sounds reasonable enough, it turns out that these opinions are based on fear and inexperience. After all, you are in a small boat, a zodiac, trying to free an animal that’s bigger than most private yachts and has been under life-threatening stress for hours, days, weeks, or months; and you pull up near it while the propeller on your boat is making a loud, screaming noise. It would not be unreasonable for the whale to conclude that you have come to attack. It only adds fuel to that assumption when you begin tugging on the ropes entangling the whale, because often, some of them pass through open wounds on its body—something that is surely hellishly painful to the whale.

As if further proof were needed about the gravity of the danger you face, the whale is in its element—seawater—in which it is an agile, fully skilled challenger, whereas, you in your zodiac are little more than a helpless, onlooker—having turned off your motor when you arrived to avoid frightening the whale any worse than you already have.

That is the kind of story that fear paints. However, experience tells a very different story. The fact is that despite the clearly scary circumstances in which one finds oneself when disentangling a whale, the evidence of thousands of such disentanglements shows that the whale does not try to strike you. Instead (and for reasons that are counterintuitive), it seems to catch on fast that you are trying to help—some individuals even seem to cooperate by holding still or rolling slowly as you unwind some long net section. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in freeing entangled whales, is reported as saying that Joe Howlett’s death is the first fatality since whale rescues began, back in the early 1980s.

The US is not alone in developing techniques for disentangling whales from fishing gear, the Canadians also pioneered such techniques and both countries’ methods are widely used today. Many were developed by my late friend, Newfoundlander Jon Lien. Over his lifetime, Jon and his team rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury. His presence was not just a godsend to the whales but to the fishermen who owned the nets which, before Jon’s efforts, had often been destroyed or carried away by the whale—with devastating consequences to the fishermen’s lives.

At Ocean Alliance we have studied the behavior of right whales for 47 years and it is clear from that experience that right whales are tail fighters. But they don’t slap with their tails—they strike with them edge-on by making lateral, slashing blows. The thing I would like to know most is what that “big flip,” was that the whale made. Did it slap Joe with the flat of its tail or strike him with a lateral slash? Because if it was a tail slap I would strongly suspect it was not intended to cause harm—that the whale was just accelerating away and the result was a tragic accident that killed Joe—a ghastly mistake, not a tail-slash struck in anger.

There are, of course, dangers involved in disentangling whales, which is why it should only be attempted by professionals with lots of experience—never by the public (doing so is, in fact, illegal and subject to heavy fines). However, the fact that this activity is safer than it looks is so counterintuitive that even though thousands of whale disentanglements have been achieved without incident and for decades, when news broke that Joe Howlett had been killed, the first action the Canadian and US fisheries authorities took was to put a stop to all future disentangling efforts—an announcement that annoyed a lot of people, including me. I vented my anger by drafting this blog. Fortunately, I set what I had written aside (my intention was to make a more stinging rebuke the following day). Mackie Green, Howlett’s co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, expressed best what we were all thinking when he said; “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear.”

So… should we stop the activity of disentangling whales? Well, should we stop welcoming dogs into our families? After all, dogs have killed hundreds of people over the years. Horses have killed thousands, but should we therefore try to stop our children from falling in love with horses? I once met a logging elephant in Nepal who had killed six people in her life—the last two, her handlers said, because she had witnessed them stealing rice from her daily food allowance.

And I have sympathy for the head ranger in the Sundarbans National Park and Biosphere Reserve (basically, the delta of the Ganges River) who must defend man-eating tigers from the people who have lost spouses and children to the tigers and want the tigers exterminated.

Any discussion of such examples as these eventually leads to the question of how important our species is and how big a deal the role is that we actually play on this planet. As I have said on other occasions, my view is that we are not the star of the show, but just another pretty face—one species among millions of other beguiling species—and unless we stop trying to upstage Nature, the show can’t go on. As a matter of cold, hard fact, our role is unimportant—a walk-on, a bit part. We aren’t important to the main act—life on earth. It can get along fine without us. It did just that for 2.5 billion years and if we self-destruct will continue to get along just fine—probably better,

However, bacteria, and moulds and plankton and nematode worms are important. Life can’t make it without them. But it can exist without us, and if we ignore our errors and destroy the conditions that support us by allowing global warming, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption to go unchecked, our kind won’t survive.

Many bacteria will survive, however, and in due time they will make the earth relivable for whatever life forms succeed us (unless we have knocked the life support balance too far out of whack with something like a runaway greenhouse effect).

We need to find a role to play that will enable us to fit in sustainably and therefore to survive (and have life survive), because that approach is our only hope if we are to have any more than a fleeting future.

Fortunately, before I embarrassed myself by sending out my first draft of this blog, the fisheries authorities clarified their position by pointing out that they had declared a temporary halt to disentanglements solely to enable an investigation that might shed light on what happened, in case they could find something that could be avoided in future to lower the chance that this tragedy would be repeated. When I read that, I was grateful for having to modify my words, because I saw that our species is moving towards enlightenment and that the need for people to recognize the inalienable rights of the rest of life is starting to be recognized. Sure, the process is moving glacially slowly, but it is moving, and that is cause for celebration, just as surely as the death of Joe Howlett is cause for mourning. For their role in giving us that ray of hope I thank the fisheries authorities of Canada and the United States.

My heart goes out to Howlett’s family for whom this tragedy is a calamity beyond expressing. Because it didn’t happen to me I have the luxury of seeing it in a different light. To me, Joe Howlett is an inspiration, a man years ahead of his time who stepped in to help another species that was suffering. It was an act unsurpassed for decency and morality. He was willing to take risks, which, though they are usually benign, are, when things go wrong, deadly. He certainly knew that. But he acted anyway.

Although I have spent the past 50 years studying whales and working to save them I never met Joe, although we shared the same atypical mission. But I admire him entirely because he was doing something of which our species—any species—could be unreservedly proud. He was showing the way, taking action in response to another species’ distress. Within our species, racism is a heinous offense to all things positive and decent; within the broader world, speciesism is equally reprehensible. Overcoming racism and speciesism are the central problems of our time—the defining achievements that we must accomplish.

We hear daily that we should pitch in to make a difference—should step up. But few do it; our lives are overwhelmingly Business As Usual. Joe Howlett, did do something—he risked his life to save a member of another species that was suffering. In the past, whales and dolphins have done that for humans; he returned the favor. In my opinion that makes him a hero. His children can be proud of him through all eternity. He didn’t get to see them grow old, but the mark he made is something they can cherish forever.

Roger Payne

“No Place for a Mere Man” by Roger Payne

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The Elephant and Whale Screens     Roger Payne and Daphne Sheldrick in front—Nov 24, 2010

Back in 2010 I was invited by the filmmaker Jin Tatsumura, the dearest of men, to go to Japan and give a talk along with Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi—a haven for orphaned, east African wildlife, particularly elephants.  Our talks would take place at the Miho Museum—the dream of Mihoko Koyama, after whom it is named. She and her daughter Hiroko Koyama commissioned it, and it was designed by the architect I.M. Pei who called it his Shangri La. It is an architectural tour de force built in the wild, nearly vertical, mountainous, forested terrain that is near Kyoto.

One purpose of our talks would be to discuss one of the main exhibits—the Elephant and Whale Screens (1795) attributed to the 18th century master, Ito Jakuchu. Of course, there are no elephants in Japan but in 1729 when Jakuchu was 13, one was brought from Vietnam to Kyoto and shown to the emperor. If Jakuchu saw it, many years went by before he painted an elephant, and in his two most famous pictures of elephants they are white. Real white elephants are very rare but the other errors in those two pictures suggest that he simply forgot that elephants are grey. When he painted an animal that was easily available to him, such as a rooster, his painting was both the essence of roosterness and showed the rooster’s true form.

Whales are abundant off the coast of Japan but a common error in Jakuchu’s times was to give whales fish fins. However, the fact that the fish-finned creature in the screens is spouting forces us to conclude that it’s a whale. As the old whalers said so well; “A whale is a spouting fish.”

Jakuchu painted only the whale’s back, but if we use the elephant as a yardstick we can see that it’s a big whale, so he probably meant it to be a blue whale—the apparent singleness and height of the spout supports that supposition.  It seems likely that Jakuchu intended the screens to show the largest creatures of land and sea—the message being to anyone who saw the picture hanging in any space; “Strength is present; all is safe here.”

But what did he want us to believe about what these giants were doing? Both are immobile; the elephant is lying down on what seems to be the top of a bluff overlooking the sea. It is facing the whale which cannot be moving forward (if it were it would hit the underwater base of the bluff or the beach itself). Yet the whale is spouting and the elephant is raising its trunk high. Both gestures are usually accompanied by loud sounds. Is Jakuchu implying that these two giants are conversing?

Years ago, I would have said; “Nonsense; whales and elephants in their own elements can’t realistically be expected to hear each other more than a few meters away. Sounds lose too much energy as they pass from the air into the water, or from the water into the air. But then Katy Payne discovered that elephants are very talkative but speak mostly at frequencies too low for humans to hear. They are, nevertheless, very talkative and in social groups they make many sounds much of the time. They are immersed in a rumbling social world. She also showed that they speak loudly enough to hear each other for several kilometers. Her work attracted other scientists who showed that their infrasonic calls travel not just through the air but through the ground and that listening elephants also sense such vibrations through their feet.

I had calculated that before the ocean was filled with the noise humans generate, the sounds made by blue whales could have been heard across entire oceans—a theory since confirmed by others.

A corollary to this is that it is reasonable to assume blue whales must also be able to communicate through the crust of the Earth, the rock of the sea floor. That could be a big advantage for long distance communication since rock conducts sounds faster than water does and when you make sounds underwater over a continuous rock floor some of the energy of your sounds will get into the rock, whether or not you intend them to.

Elephants and whales both live very social lives. Both have large brains and as such seem to be the most likely potential communicants to have either the ability or the interest to trade news about ocean life and sea life. So I suspect that Jakuchu’s screens in the Miho museum depict more than just the planet’s biggest land and sea creatures. I suspect he may have been suggesting that life on land and life in the sea inform each other of what’s up in the other’s world.

But that seems Pretty far-fetched. After all, what information could a whale give an elephant about the sea that would concern the elephant, or vice versa? Well, how about the whale saying the equivalent of; “Where’s the food I used to find here? The water tastes awful; stop messing up the water!”

It wouldn’t be a dumb request; whales are used to rearranging seascapes—feeding grey whales root up the sea floor by making bathtub-sized holes in the mud—rather the way pigs root up soil. Was Jakuchu alluding to how land animals and sea animals might communicate so as to cooperate in keeping the earth habitable? OK, most unlikely, given that such ideas were rare in Jakuchu’s time. However, back then, although people had very incomplete ideas of what caused what, they were already learning how to use organic mixtures of microbes to restore the fertility of soils. How intriguing, given that another great interest of the Koyama family is permaculture—something they were advancing long before they acquired the Jakuchu screens.

I still suppose that one of Jakuchu’s main motives was simply to depict the biggest land and the biggest sea creatures. However, any great artist knows that everyone loves a painting that tells a good story. Maybe he intended that the elephant and the whale were having a chat, each telling the other stories… hanging out. If so, the late Lyall Watson, a friend from my days of attending International Whaling Commission meetings, claimed to have witnessed the very thing Jakuchu’s screens depict. He described it in his book, Elephantoms.

Near the end of the book, Watson goes in search of a female elephant whom he has learned is the last remaining elephant in a region of the South African, Cape coast called Knysna —a place in which Watson spent his summers as a child. By sheer luck he finds this last living elephant of the clan he had known in his youth, but he finds her in a totally uncharacteristic place. She is standing at the edge of the sea, looking towards a blue whale that has come close to shore—a totally uncharacteristic place to see a blue whale. Lyle assumes that the whale is also a female because it is so big (female baleen whales are bigger than males).

Let us suspend our disbelief for a moment—not worry whether some of Lyle Watson’s assumptions are wrong, or even whether his account is slightly manicured—he tells a compelling story with words, just as Jakuchu did with paints.

After feeling a kind of throbbing in the air, he guesses it to be the whale’s infrasound and expresses his surprise at finding the last elephant of Knysna, the matriarch, here. He writes:

“She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The underrumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded, submerged, by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing!

“My heart went out to her. The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place…

“The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating! In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.

“I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man…”

Roger Payne

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: A team effort

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Dear Friends,

With all the different players involved in this Parley SnotBot expedition, it was truly a team effort that made it the success that it was.

Here are a couple of short blogs from two of the Parley SnotBot Alaska team:

John Graham has been on every SnotBot expedition to date; he is our MacGyver, keeping the machines running, charging batteries and cleaning the drone’s after every flight (DNA contamination). He also catches and launches the drones. Catching a drone does come with some risk, particularly when a machine does not want to respond to the controls. After over 500 drone launch and recoveries, I thought that we had our safety protocols pretty well established. John caught a drone that was not responding to the radio controller; when he did, the situation fell apart as the drone throttled up on its own and became a risk to the whole crew. John threw it to the ground, but not before some serious cuts on his hands. John was wearing a helmet, safety glasses and gloves, but these new drones are powerful machines. Quick thinking on John’s part definitely prevented a more serious accident, and we now have protocols in place in case this type of situation comes up again.


Second opinions count.
 My first instinct [after the drone mishap] was to stay back on shore while the crew headed out for our daily research collection. I had arrived at this decision by taking into account a couple of factors. First, there is the fact that my altered physical abilities, due to an incident earlier in the expedition that resulted in 17 sutures, had changed my role on the team, preventing me from being a 100% contributor. Secondly, the boat we are using is jam-packed with nine crew members, drones, tech gear, batteries, laptops, camera gear, and a makeshift research lab station. All this makes getting around a real challenge.
 
The subtraction of one warm body, mine in this case, would give a little needed extra room for others to move about freely.

My second opinion on this matter was given by Iain, our team leader, who highly encouraged me to stay on board, contribute in whatever capacity I could, and we would all just make the best of the limited space we have available.

Well, I went with the second opinion, and boy, was that the right move.


 
In previous days, the whale population in our research area was a bit on the sparse side. Not so on this day! Large pods/ groups of humpbacks were bubble net feeding. There was breaching, pec slapping, lob tailing, and of course, lots of exhaled breath condensate! Oh, did I mention orca, too. But not just orca, breaching orca!! What an amazing sight.

Of course, all the activity did make it a challenge to collect samples, but Iain was up to the task, running his countless flight time experience through its paces.

All in all, a very good day. Sometimes a second opinion gets you to listen to your gut and not the logical part of your brain. I am very thankful that I did not let this amazing life experience pass me by.

Many thanks to Iain, my gut, and the incredible marine life that occupy this world with us, for giving me a story worth blogging about.
 
Thank you, John.

 

Kelly Cates is new to our team; she is a PhD student in Dr. Atkinson’s lab who will be involved in the data analysis. She is also keen to adopt SnotBot for her own research interests. She has collected snot from blue whales in the past using a long pole reaching out from a small boat:


Southeast Alaska is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet her secrets are often cloaked in fog, low laying clouds and cloying rain. This is the day we started out with, misting rain that hugged your every curve, a sunless multi-gray hued sky and not a critter on the horizon. This is not the day we ended up with. Between a pod of orcas, voracious bubble net feeders and a sunset that rendered words useless, we had a pretty alright day. That is, we were full on until we had to head home for fear of running out of fuel. As a newcomer to the Ocean Alliance team, I was quietly impressed with the speed and ease with which samples were collected. Vocally quiet. Inside my head I was berating myself for ever having tried to use a 21-foot pole to collect blow spray — how barbaric.

 

Drones provide access to animals previously only dreamed of. The speed with which a drone can approach animals, collect a sample, return to boat and then be out sampling again was mind boggling. We collected five samples in the time it would have taken a boat carefully maneuvering to a whale to collect one sample. The trouble with boat approaches is that the whale absolutely knows you are there and are notorious for Houdinii-ng their way out of sampling range. Research with free ranging cetaceans is a lot like Southeast Alaska. You spend a lot of time looking at nothing, but when the sun comes out there is no place else you would want to be. Cetacean research conducted with drones is going to lead to a lot more sunnier days. 
 
Thank you, Kelly.

No blog would be complete without Christian Miller’s photographs, so I have added a few that I hope are appropriate to the above stories.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Hard work, but we learned a lot!

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Dear Friends,

It’s not the best of times for science funding. So, there is enormous pressure when you are planning an expedition to set project goals too high and possibly try to collect too much data.

Would we do that?  Of course.  The goals of this expedition (in no order of priority) were to:

  •  Collect snot from a whale with our Parley SnotBot on live TV.
  •  Work with INTEL to develop an “in the wild” animal identification system and a volumetric’s system that can help us determine the health of a whale in real time.
  •  Further refine the protocols and tools for collecting snot with a drone.
  •  Test two new drones for collecting snot, the DJI Inspire 2 and the DJI Mavic Pro.
  •  Test a new snot collection system we call the Kendall/Graham Funnelator.
  •  Test EarBot with a new acoustic transmission system and amplifier.
  •  Test a Zenmuse FLIR camera over whales and try to record blow/body temperature.
  •  Collect at least 30 robust snot samples to be shared with our collaborators.
  •  Work with Dr. Baker and Dr. Atkinson’s labs to develop the appropriate collation and preservation protocols so that a variety of analysis can be conducted on the snot.
  •  Expand the number of species that we have collected snot from to further validate this technique.
  • In our case, we had nine and a half days to do this, three of which were with National Geographic, leaving us with six and a half days unencumbered on the water. Of course, we are in Alaska, so you have to count on at least two bad weather days. No pressure! (The next grant I write I am going include a budget for post expedition psychiatric counseling.) Looking back, we probably set the bar too high on this one, but that is another lesson learned.

Considering the above, how did we do? In the best of British understatements, I’d say, “Not bad at all.”

·         We collected snot from a humpback whale with the Parley SnotBot on a Live TV show broadcast nationally and internationally – A FIRST.

·         Thanks to our collaboration with INTEL, we identified an individual whale from a drone before the drone even made it back to the boat. We also set the stage for real time photogrammetry and volumetrics – A FIRST.

·         We collected snot from an orca; we had thought that orca blows would be too small and the drones too big, but we did it (with a small drone) – A FIRST.

·         We flew the DJI Zenmuse FLIR camera and attempted (we have to review this data) to record the blow and consequent body temperature of a whale – A FIRST.

·         We worked with four different organizations including marine mammal, oceanographic and technology institutions.

·         We successfully flew and collected snot using two new (for us) drones the DJI Inspire 2 and a Mavic Pro over whales – A FIRST.

·         We flew the EarBot (a drone that lands in the water near the whales and records their vocalizations) for Earth Live but they did not use the segment.

·         We tested / flew a new Snot Collection system – we call the Kendall/Graham funnelator

·         To date we have used plastic petri dishes to collect Snot. Dr. Atkinson’s lab suggested that there might be an issue with hormones sticking to the plastic, so we flew with glass petri dishes as well as plastic – A FIRST.

·         We trained staff and collaborators in over water and over whales, flight launch recovery and operations.

The weather seemed to be fighting us more on this trip than any we have done so far, but we realized that this was actually a benefit to the program, giving us a broader operations perspective. For example; what are the maximum wind conditions to collect snot in, and what is the best way to collect snot in windy conditions? Can we collect snot in the rain (we think so but it was hard to tell because the dishes were always wet). We will have to wait for lab analysis to answer these questions?

Last but not least, Kendall Mashburn from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks informed us that she positively identified hormones in the blue whale blows from our last expedition. She validated progestogen and cortisol and now she is looking to validate the existence of testosterone and aldosterone.  These hormones are primary reproductive and stress hormones, so this is great news.

At the end of the day it’s been a really hard-fought data expedition but it has also been one of the most productive, because of this we have learned a lot about our limitations and have realized how much more we still have to understand about this remarkable game-changing technology for whale research.

We are leaving with a long list of upgrades and problems to solve that will make this technology more effective and easier to use.  So much credit goes to the incredible Parley SnotBot Alaska team — Andy Rogan, John Graham and  Christian Miller; Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo from the Alaska Whale Foundation; Ted Willke, Bryn Keller and Javier Turek from INTEL; Scott Baker, Shannon Atkinson, Kendall Mashburn and Kelly Cates form the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and all of the Ocean Alliance home team. Thanks are also due to Alex Tate and all of the Plimsoll Nat Geo production team and the crew of the Glacial Seal. I am very grateful to Amy and Dylan for putting up with a mad man for at least the last two months (maybe longer). Last but not least I want to thank our amazing hosts, Tinker and Gary at the Keex Kwaan Lodge – You guys are the BEST.  Thanks also to Patti for the great food. More blogs and incredible Christina Miller photographs to come!

Best Fishes from foggy Alaska.

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Parley x INTEL

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Dear Friends,

As you are all aware, these trips by the nature of what we hope to achieve are always an adventure. This trip has been about the most challenging that I have ever done, a live TV show, partnering with INTEL, and testing four new drone setups and two new drones in Alaska!?!

The whale gods have been on our side, and we had another first yesterday: we collected Snot from orca whales using a DJI Mavic Pro – just amazing.  Even I had doubts that we could do this, but there was Snot in the dish so another first for the Parley SnotBot.

Our little boat was certainly full with the Parley SnotBot team, Alaska Whale Foundation, and the INTEL team on board, but what a great group of people.

Following is a blog from our newest friend Ted Willke, Senior Principal Engineer and Director of the Mind’s Eye Lab INTEL.  Our thanks go out to Bryn Keller and Javier Turek.

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

 

Coming into a new collaboration is never easy, especially when it involves subjects as diverse as marine biology, drones, and artificial intelligence.  But it’s a necessary dance if you want the kind of innovation we’re after — the kind that happens when diverse scientific fields collide.
 
This is the dance our Intel Labs team found itself in with Parley and Ocean Alliance this past month.  Javier Turek, Bryn Keller, and I were introduced to Iain Kerr and his team by Parley for the Oceans at the World Oceans Day conference at the UN.  The question posed to us was: How can artificial intelligence (AI) advance Ocean Alliance’s mission and whale biology … in the next 30 days??!!  We soon realized that we had a lot to learn about whales and Parley SnotBots, and fast!  But it was also immediately clear that our research team had a lot to offer.
 
Simply put, AI technology aspires to imbue machines with cognitive skills, like visual recognition.  AI equipped Parley SnotBots would clearly be a game changer for OA, even given OA’s existing game-changing techniques.  Today’s Parley SnotBots have cameras that are used for piloting and video capture.  But there’s a strong desire to do more with this data.  As Fred Sharpe put it, “In the age of modern sensors, we’re in a data maelstrom.   The real action is in the downstream processing.” And we knew that the right AI could take it on.
 
The stage was set, and we had two seriously ambitious goals: 1) finding a way to identify whales using images transmitted by Parley SnotBots, and 2) calculating a whale’s relative body composite index, a measure of its energy reserves and condition, from streaming video.  Our team, with its background in computing and machine learning techniques, felt up to the task.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

 

But you’ve got to understand: these are tough tasks for AI even with ideal data and carefully groomed algorithms running on machines back in our lab.  So trying to solve such problems in a completely uncontrolled environment (weather, water, whales, drones) on a small ship out on the rough sea is nuts. Trying to get something together in four weeks for the National Geographic Earth Live broadcast — TOTALLY BANANAS!
 
There were other difficulties that we didn’t completely understand until we got to Kake, Alaska.  Ships like the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Paula T are like drone aircraft carriers.  The pace is fast and the space is cramped.  Any new technology has to be unintrusive, field-friendly and fuss-free.  Otherwise, it’s going overboard!
 
To complicate things further, we were still hacking code as we arrived in Kake.  We had never run the whale ID algorithm on images taken by a drone or fully validated the volumetrics analysis.  We really didn’t know if this stuff worked.  And we had never integrated our systems with Iain’s.

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

 

We figured out how to set up what amounted to a small computer lab on a ship we’d never seen.  The Earth Live dress rehearsal on July 8 came and went.  We continued to sweat it out.  With the Nat Geo team breathing down our necks, we hacked and hacked.
 
Then it was show time.  I won’t recap the gut-wrenching Earth Live affair since Iain described it in his recent post.  But I will say that it was one of the most harrowing adventures I’ve ever experienced.  We wrapped up our development as the show began.  By the end, Iain’s team had pulled off a Parley SnotBot collection miracle and our algorithms had made a positive ID on the same whale before the drone landed — a scientific first! (See photo at beginning of post)

Fred Sharpe, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, Ted Willke.

Bryn Keller, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, and Ted Willke

 

You’d think things would’ve let up after the Nat Geo team said goodbye, but they haven’t.  With the show out of the way, we immediately returned to the primary research mission and our associated computer science research.  With just a few days to collect the data needed to power the research for the next few months (and before the next expedition!), it has not been easy.  As Bryn put it, “Writing code while tracking whales around at 35 knots (on occasion) over rough waters (a lot) is really interesting.”
 
Even though it’s been a grind and major adrenaline dump, our enthusiasm remains unhampered.  How could it be otherwise, with whales breaching, lunge feeding, and checking out our boat?  Quoting Javier as he watched a humpback lunge feed in Keku Strait just a hundred feet from our boat on the morning of our last day, “This is FREAKING AWESOME!!!”
 
We’ll be back and we’ll be packing more AI when we do.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

 

Best Fishes from Alaska.

Iain

Art installation with a conservation message grows at Ocean Alliance

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Ocean Alliance continues its support of the arts and the intersection of art and science by hosting the work of the first recipient of the Goetemann Artist Residency, Nathan Wilson Thomas. Nathan is constructing an installation onsite at Ocean Alliance. The photo above shows the installation soon after Nathan started construction.

Here is his statement about the project:

As a guest of The Goetemann Artist Residency and its first Fellowship Award recipient, I will be construction my installation, The Great Auk, from materials found on the grounds of Ocean Alliance and along the beaches of Cape Ann. Using this “trash” in my project will serve a number of purposes: I hope that it brings greater awareness of the vast amounts of trash and pollutants in our ocean that go un seen by most people; that it encourages people to consider reusing their waste products in both creative and utilitarian ways; that it motivates people to collect and properly dispose of trash whenever they see it; and, ideally, that it spurs political protections that will only come from pressure exerted by a vocal and informed population.

The Great Auk is a case study in the extinction of a species that humans saw coming for a very long time. The story of the Auk exemplifies the shortcomings of environmental protections that failed to go far enough to effectively alter the tide of human destruction.

This is still true of many of our environmental protection laws. It is for this reason that I have chosen the Great Auk as the subject of my installation on the grounds of Ocean Alliance. The mission of Ocean Alliance is to preserve the ocean environment, monitor threats to marine species, and to educate the public on these findings. Today’s threat to our aquatic species, our oceans, and the entire planet is pollution.

Parley SnotBot, Alaska expedition powered by Intel: Stunned in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

I hope that you got a chance to see us on Nat Geo’s Earth Live; for us it was a crazy emotional rollercoaster but not an experience we would have wanted to miss. Here is a YouTube link to a segment: We were featured in four segments during the show, but to us at least this was the most exciting.

It’s now about 30 hours later, we had a regular SnotBot data collection day today, but I have to say that I am still ABSOLUTELY STUNNED by all that happened yesterday. I still cannot process how it all came together so successfully! So here is the back story.

Per Sleepless in SE Alaska, when Alex Tate, the director, and I said “Let’s do this,” it was with an abundance of whales in mind and on my part a total ignorance as to what a live show entailed.

Just the amount of people and equipment involved was massive (see photo below of some of equipment cases, not personal bags, on the docks).

The Plimsoll Nat Geo team consisted of:

An airplane with a Cineflex camera.
A satellite truck at the end of a dirt road alongside a fully extended crane with an antenna on top.
A full satellite transmission team & equipment on the boat.
A director, cameraman, rigger, and assistant on the boat.
And of course Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo, from the Alaska Whale Foundation.

The idea was that there would be four cameras running consecutively during our live portion of the show:
1. Live feed from SnotBot
2. Live feed of SnotBot. Christians drone (filming Iain’s drone) and what a bloody amazing job he did!  I just took off after the whale with no consideration of how hard it might be to follow and film me by drone, and he kept me in frame!
3. A cameraman filming us
4. Aerial shot of boat and drones from the Cineflex camera.

The process was also pretty complicated. We were plugged into live feed cables and microphones, the live feeds were then transmitted from the boat up to the airplane and then down to the satellite truck and then back up via satellite to NYC. And it all had to work seamlessly or else we would not be featured in the show (think lots of electrical connectors in the rain).

While I was blown away by the professionalism of the whole team, we had some issues :-}. Basically, the area in which we could look for whales was limited by the audio and satellite transmission capacity, the height of the ceiling of the plane, etc.  My estimate is that we were given a 5-square-mile area (or less) in which to find a whale.  When I got this information I really, REALLY began to panic; up until then we could not find a whale in 20 square miles let alone 5 miles, and by the way we had to do it at 4:30 pm!! INSANE. We did have one whale that we followed for over an hour, and each time it came up it only did one blow. Basically impossible to collect from.

Of course the weather was miserable, and it was predicted to get worse for the afternoon’s live event. We even discussed not doing a dress rehearsal earlier in the day in case the drones got waterlogged and crashed – resulting again in not being featured in the show (we did have one spare).

By 1 pm I was in full-on desperation mode, we had seen and approached a couple of whales, but they swam out of the coverage zone. The whales were just not there. So, the director said to me, “We will go live to you at 4:30 and you can launch SnotBot and then we will go back to NYC and then you have an hour and a half to collect Snot.  Maybe we will cut back to you live as you do this collection or maybe they will say ‘This just happened.’”

So we are all prepped on the top deck, I had a microphone on me (I was reminded not to swear) and they said “3,2,1 we are live……”
I said “There’s a whale. Lets launch the drone” (no whale…sorry). As I hope you saw, I gave the drone to Andy and he prepped it. I flew the drone out of Andy’s hands and I will remember this moment for the rest of my life………A BLOOMING WHALE SURFACED 500 FEET AWAY RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME – WHHHAAAAATTTTTTTT!  IMPOSSIBLE!!!!!

As they say, the rest is history, on the third try (the last blow) I got the sample. But how?

What the heck just happened?  A whale surfaced at the right time (almost to the second) at the right place (so I could see it while flying) and the crew in NYC who were going to cut away stayed with the shot to the bitter end through three blows. Millions of people were snotted!!!!

Again, HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE??? If there was a lottery in Kake, I’d be out buying tickets right now. This has to have been a million to one shot.

We have a remarkable SnotBot field team (in the photo above, the SnotBot field team from left: Andy Rogan, John Graham, Iain Kerr, and Christian Miller, with cameraman Scott Tibbles and the director of our segment, Alex Tate.). The staff at our headquarters and our Founder/President Roger Payne all worked hard to make this happen – so yes we worked hard and were well prepared, but I still don’t understand – HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?  And who/where is that whale, so can we thank him or her????

As my wife, Amy, watched the snot collection she thought that it was a prerecorded segment. How could you go directly from a commercial break to collecting snot from a whale LIVE???? I truly don’t know, but we did it!! (Do NOT ask me to do it again live).

And I forgot to mention, right before the shoot the rain stopped and the sun came out; 30 minutes after the shoot we were trying to film a segment for the edited evergreen copy of the show that will come out at a later date and the rain came down again in buckets and we had to scramble to get all of the equipment under cover – look for that in the evergreen copy.

We will be back out on the water the rest of this week, further developing the SnotBot protocols and collecting samples for our partners at Scott Baker’s lab at Oregon State and Shannon Atkinson’s lab at the University of Alaska. We are grateful beyond measure for this opportunity and for our collaboration with Parley, but I guess the reason we are all here is that we are grateful beyond measure for the whales.

The team may not take out the boat tomorrow to collect snot – we are going to experiment with walking on water!!

Next blog will be talking more about the amazing work that our INTEL team are doing.

STUNNED in SE Alaska.

Iain

Parley SnotBot x Intel Alaska expedition: Sleepless in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

While we always metaphorically expect the unexpected on an expedition like this, you really hope that it won’t happen to you.  Especially when you are working with a live television production.

The last few days have been incredibly tough, in 2 and a half days on the water we have probably seen less than twenty whales and a lot of those we only saw their far away blows.  Last year we had literally hundreds of whales around us, we even joked that we could have done the SnotBot work from the shore because there we so many whales. Of course, you expect to have good and bad years with more or less whales but hundreds one year and less than 30 the next? The whales are in Alaska of course……just not here.

Luckily we have a remarkable team, or else the situation could be even worse.
14 people from the Nat Geo / Plimsoll production team.
4 core SnotBot team.
2 from the Alaska Whale Foundation
3 from INTEL.

By end of day yesterday we had not collected a single snot sample.  Today the live rehearsal started at 4:00 and at about 5:30 pm NYC was going to cut to us to join a drone live over a whale (WHAAAT?).  We had a successful snot collection earlier in the day but the whale swam out of our satellite coverage area.  For the next five hours we did not see a blow.  Then we saw a solitary whale that we followed for over an hour that would surface and blow once, yes once – I was losing my mind (as I think was the director Alex).

The Inspire 2 drones have about a 30 min flight time so about 10 min before we were to go live Christian and I launched our drones with little hope of getting more than nice water and Alaska shots from the air.  Two minutes before we were to go live I managed to get over our single blow whale (too high to collect snot) but I could see it though the water and it was not diving deep so… I was able to stay with it as it swam just under the water, we went live and it surfaced and we got the blow.  Unblooming believable!!!!!! the only scary thing now is we have to do better than this tomorrow for the real live show (8:00 Eastern Time Nat Geo channel).

The spectacularly good news is that the INTEL team hit it out of the ball park with regards to the volumetric’s and real time photo ID data project that they have been working on.  I have attached two images, both of which represent (to the best of my knowledge) firsts in the field of whale biology.  The first image shows the automatic volumentics measurement that was conducted in flight over a whale, in real time (note the drone just above and to the left).  The second shows a whale whose identity was confirmed before the drone made it back to the boat. Just amazing, I am so tired right now I cannot give this Ted, Bryn & Javier the appropriate credit for what they have pulled off in such a short time but we will do a longer blog on this after the live TV show.

 

Alaska has tried to make up for the lack of whales with other animal abundances, Christian Miller has of course caught many of these with his amazing camera skills, alas the internet here is so slow I can only attach very low res files.

Thank you again to our friends at Parley for the Oceans for working with us to make this the incredible project that it is. Thank you also to the  23 people in the one of a kind Alaska SnotBot team.

I ask all of you to pray to the whale gods for us, we pulled off what I think is a million to one shot today and we don’t want to work to these odds tomorrow.

Hoping to get some sleep tomorrow night after successful Snot collection on live TV!!!!!

Snotless in Alaska (for one more day).

Iain

We keep our robotics intern busy!

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There’s a lot happening at Ocean Alliance right now.  The SnotBot team is about to leave for a research expedition to Alaska, so they are testing drones and various other pieces of equipment to make sure everything is working properly. Our robotics intern, Lydia Zuehsow, is right in the middle of the action.  Check out the list of everything she did last week!

Objectives completed this week:
Drone flotation
◦ Confirmed waterbuoy PFDs were in stock at Perth Scuba
◦ Researched ways of cutting and patching lifejackets, or otherwise reducing overall bulk
◦ Continued researching compact PFDs: See life jacket alternatives here and here

Rotor wash Slo-mo testing
◦ Obtained fog machine and figured out how to use it with Sam and Austin

◦ Finished setting up aerodynamics test rig and captured some video of rotor wash with Adam, Sam, and Austin.

Microplastics
◦ Researched detection of microplastics and determined computer vision is infeasible.
◦ Researched alternative ways to detect microplastics and arrived at ultrasonic sensors.

Tech support
◦ Registered the new Inspire 1 V2 with the FAA as “Kirk”
◦ Ordered CPL lens for the X4S (This should have arrived by now.)
◦ Compared screen size of potential new iPad with current FPV setup
◦ Determined that the CineSSD error was caused by hardware incompatibility
◦ Restored the center screen target marker in the DJI app
◦ Fixed the Inspire yaw drift

Falcon 8+
◦ Typed up manual for the INTEL Falcon 8+ drone
◦ Attended basic pilot training conference call for Falcon 8+