Monthly Archives

October 2017

From Patagonia to Alaska

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In 1987, I met Dr. Roger Payne on a windswept beach in Patagonia, Argentina. I was with John Atkinson and Jean Paul Gouin. It was a fateful meeting for John and me, our lives were forever changed. I have made my life’s work Ocean Alliance’s mission, and as well as being my closest friend, John has been the aerial photographer for our annual Southern Right Whale Program (with ICB) since 1990. Risking his life every year to hang out of a small airplane and photograph these animals for an aerial census.

 

Iain Kerr and John Atkinson

John worked with us on our most recent trip to Alaska, here is his blog:

Having just returned from the September 2017 Parley SnotBot expedition to Alaska, many people have asked me, what was it like up there in Alaska? Not a simple question because Alaska is a vast, empty and incredibly beautiful place where Mother Nature still lives mostly un-tethered by the hand of man.

Andy Rogan and John Graham, two of the usual SnotBot team members were not available for this expedition, so Iain asked me to help. My job was to manage the drone systems, remotes, batteries etc, launch and then catch the drone when returning from a flight, along with keeping all the gear clean, dry and organized.

After flying from Toronto to Edmonton and then on to Seattle on two separate airplanes, I boarded a third airplane that flew north alongside the rugged British Columbia coastline and on into southeast Alaska. Finally, after picking up a few passengers in the village of Ketchikan, in the midst of a torrential downpour we landed in Juneau.

Iain arrived the next morning with the Intel and the Parley for the Oceans team. After a get-acquainted dinner at a local restaurant, Iain and I were up early to catch the eight-thirty Alaska Seaplanes flight on a Cessna Caravan floatplane that flew us and our nine cases of equipment over the snow-capped mountains and down the foggy Chatham Strait. I figured the cell phone service in Alaska would be terrible but in the midst of that flight, much to my surprise, my cell phone rang. My brother was calling and I was able to share the spectacular scenery with him as we flew on down the windswept coast.

Forty minutes after departing Juneau, we landed on calm waters by the isolated village of Angoon, population 400 and dwindling, located on Admiralty Island, a ninety mile stretch of tall trees and rocky coastlines that the pilot told us contained the highest density of brown bears in the world. Much to our disappointment, during that whole week, we never saw one bear. Maybe just as well.

Waiting for us dockside was the Glacier Seal, a sixty foot custom built tour boat that would be our home for the next week. Onboard was Captain Marc, first mate Nate, and chef Collette who made sure we ate like kings and queens for the entire week. As we stepped on board, thermoses of steaming hot coffee, fresh baked bread, assorted fruits and cheeses awaited us. There was ample table space for our equipment and eating area, below deck were the sleeping quarters, and upstairs there was a huge open platform from which we would search for the whales, and fly the drones over them.

Two hours after Iain and I arrived, a second airplane landed with the Intel and Parley group. Last to arrive in his thirty foot research boat was Dr. Fred Sharpe, founder and lead scientist for the Alaska Whale Foundation. I first met Fred back in 1994 when we were up in Alaska making the Imax film Whales. Between then and now, I had only seen him once, for five minutes at a marine mammal conference. He is a really gentle soul with lots of great stories and it was really nice to reconnect with him.

After everyone’s gear was loaded onboard, we cast off all lines and for the next week we motored up and down vast fiords, all the while looking for whales, and when we found them, everyone cheered as Iain flew the drone over the whale and through the exhaling breath.

There is no better way to speak of the caliber of the people you’ll find in Alaska other then telling you this. On our last day, the majority of our team departed on the completely full morning flight back to Juneau. Because of incoming stormy weather, the captain of our charter boat was anxious to begin his twelve hour journey back home. This left Iain, Fred and me standing on the dock in the rain with all of our gear and four hours to wait for the next seaplane. We stored the gear in Fred’s boat and walked over to the fishing boat fueling office at the end of the dock. Inside was a grey-haired gentleman who greeted us kindly and offered us a cup of hot coffee.

We accepted the coffee and asked. “We have four hours to kill and thought we might take a tour around the village. Is there a taxi we can call?”

The man replied, “There are no taxis here in Angoon. But you can use my pickup truck.”

Our jaws dropped.

“You don’t even know us.”

The man smiled kindly and said, “The winters are long up here in north country. You learn real quick about who you can trust and who you can’t.”
We took it as a real compliment when he handed us the keys to his truck and said, “Welcome to Alaska boys.”

Thank you John, for your part in making this trip the success that it was – on that front I need to borrow a Tesla for a quick drive down to Florida – offers?

All the best.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska – the science

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Dear Friends,

I love these expeditions, but I will admit that when I get back home I am exhausted. There is nothing more exciting that being in the field with a good hypothesis, good equipment and a great team. In the field, you just focus on the work that you are doing. Typically in the remote locations that we go to we have poor to no cell contact so we are cut off from the world around us, living in our work bubble (which is unusual in today’s ever-connected world). We work dawn to dusk, go through the data, back up hard drives at night, and then start it all again the next morning.

When we started the SnotBot program we were fairly confident that the tool would work at some basic level, but we did not realize the myriad experiments, applications and opportunities that these drones would bring to the marine science table. Nor did we realize how lucky we would be with the partners that would come onboard to help us with collection and preservation protocols, analyzing the samples and processing the data. Analysis team leaders to date are Dr. Scott Baker, Dr. Shannon Atkinson, and Dr. Fred Sharpe.

The population studies that Dr. Baker and his team are doing with the DNA are amazing. To learn more about Scott’s work I encourage you to visit his website. Please note that the paper “ ‘Eve’ and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure” came, in part, from data collected during Ocean Alliance’s Voyage of the Odyssey.

We are over the moon to be working with Shannon Atkinson’s Lab. As critical as hormones are to mammals, many people don’t understand how they work, so we are lucky that Kendall Mashburn from Shannon’s lab has written up a piece on hormones that she calls, “So Whales Have Hormones, Too?” In their most simple capacity, hormones are tiny molecules that govern nearly everything every animal does. From sleeping to eating to the transitional changes of puberty or pregnancy, these tiny molecules are potent activators and pretty much run the show in all animals’ bodies. The endocrine system is the group of organs responsible for the production of hormones.

Hormones come in two major varieties, the steroids and the proteins. Steroids are the major settings for the body’s operation, and the proteins fine tune those settings. Some familiar steroids are testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and cortisol. Steroids are synthesized by the body using a cholesterol backbone in the same way as in almost all living organisms.  The term for this is evolutionary conservation. The beauty of evolutionary conservation is that steroid hormones have the same basic structures and functions in a fish as they do in a human. The structural similarities are a boon to people who study wildlife endocrinology, as it means that the tools used by your local hospital or lab to analyze human steroid hormones are not only commercially available, but generally compatible with steroids produced by any other living organism.

What we don’t know about whales, particularly the great whales, is astonishing. How do we know how best to protect them if we don’t know how they function and under what conditions they function best?  How can we tell when something is wrong? Since hormones in whales, as in other mammals, dictate a physical reaction, they are an excellent place to start to understand things like pregnancy and responses to stress, food shortages or other anthropogenic influences. Hormones are potent and evoke a distinct response. After their work is done, they are metabolized and excreted. In some cases, hormones are broken down by the body and the important bits are recycled. In other cases, they are expelled the way you would get rid of any other bodily waste product.  That’s right — urine, feces and breath (snot)! These forms of excrement can be some of the most precious biological samples available to wildlife scientists. SnotBot has the potential to swoop in and collect the respiratory blow from the animal. This gives the wildlife endocrinologist the ability to determine real-time concentrations of hormones of free-ranging animals.

It will take some time to define the baseline physiology of these incredible animals, but each snippet of information is one step closer to helping us better understand them.  More importantly, understanding the physiology allows us to communicate how the whale functions to people responsible for their conservation.  In turn, natural resource managers can make conservation decisions based on the actual health of the animals. And while it is true that being among whales is the experience of a lifetime, a wildlife endocrinologist gets positively hormonal the second they carry those precious samples into the lab!

Thank you, Kendall, Shannon, Scott, Fred and your staffs and interns for bringing such value to the work that we do.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

A day at work with the whales in Patagonia

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At the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina we have a new boat to study the southern right whales in Patagonia with, and we want to share the good news with you!

We do much research observing the whales from shore, and even from the air, but some studies require that we approach the whales from a boat. To have a safe, reliable boat is essential for the safety of the researchers and to ensure that we can do the job in the best way possible.

With the support we received from each whale adoption and donor in Argentina, and with a generous donation from Ocean Alliance and from Vicky Rowntree, we bought a new boat to do our scientific research in Península Valdés. Its name is El Gris (“the grey one”, for obvious reasons!) and it’s a beautiful rigid bottom inflatable BIM boat in great condition. After some improvements and customization to fit the needs of whale research, and after lots of paperwork to have it properly registered with the Argentine Coast Guard, we launched it on a perfect day – September 21, the first day of Spring in the southern hemisphere!

DCIM100GOPRO

El Gris, coupled with the expertise of our captain and whale guide Marcos Ricciardi, proved to be an excellent platform to collect right whale biopsies that we will use for nutritional and genetic studies. In one day we collected 20 biopsies — an all-time record for a day of work since we began to biopsy these whales in 2003!

To introduce the new boat, we prepared this short video that shows “A day at work with the southern right whales of Península Valdés.

We especially thank all those who adopted a whale through our Right Whale Adoption Program at ICB. Our work to conserve the whales and protect the oceans would not be possible without your help and contributions. THANK YOU!

A record number of southern right whales counted in Península Valdés

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(Translation of an article published in Spanish in the newsletter of our partners in the southern right whale program, Instituto de Conservation de Ballenas.)

On September 9 and 10, in collaboration with Ocean Alliance, ICB undertook the annual aerial photographic survey of southern right whales in Peninsula Valdés. We cataloged 788 whales, the most recorded since we began surveying this population in 1971. The Southern Right Whale Program has been continuously studying and advocating for the conservation of this population of right whales and their habitat in Patagonia for 47 years.

The ICB/Ocean Alliance catalog has images and information about more than 3,200 known individual right whales in Peninsula Valdés. Professor Vicky Rowntree, the program director, explains that “With a good photograph of the head of every whale, we can know who is who in the population study the life history of every individual love the decades.” (Each right whale has a unique  pattern of callosities on its head, and these patterns allow researchers to identify each individual whale.)

“We’re very happy with this year’s results,” says Dr. Mariano Sironi, scientific director of ICB. “We counted 788 whales, including 302 offspring, in Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. The entire coast between Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides is an almost continuous line of animals. Never in my life have I seen so many whales together in one single day.”

SnotBot Indian Summer

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Dear Friends,

While I am not sure of the title of this email is politically correct, it is definitely good for us in Alaska. The day we arrived in Juneau, it was bucketing down rain and blowing 30 knots — this is fall in Alaska after all. The last two days (after foggy starts) have been blue skies and sunny, 5 to 10 knots of wind and calm seas.  We have also had good whale interactions, not the big numbers of animals we see in the summer, but that is OK. The Parley SnotBot gods seem to be with us.

It’s great to be working with Ted, Bryn, and Javier from INTEL Labs for a second  time, following our July expedition. This expedition (beyond collecting snot) we are working to further develop their photogrammetry and volumetrics programs as well as train them to fly and collect data over whales. I have often stated that I believe this work, these tools, are replicable, so we are trying to walk the talk; we have now collaborated with biologists in two other countries (Argentina and Mexico) and left them with drones and instruction / data sheets as part of this philosophy. And now INTEL.

Most people don’t realize that the expedition part of our work is just the beginning. In many ways the real work starts when we get home and start analyzing the data. But that can also be the most frustrating time; there is nothing more disappointing than getting home and finding out you did not collect some key data point, or that you saw some unique behavior / data but did not realize it at the time and as a consequence could not act on it. The best analogy I can think of is the difference between the old tech of using a film camera and the current tech of digital cameras. I remember coming home from our whale camp in Argentina with 20 rolls of film, not really knowing what I had captured but hoping for the best. With digital photos you can look at them real time and know if you got the shot. This is the capacity that the team (and the technology) at INTEL is developing with us, and it is a game changer — we are able to make better use of our time and resources, which is good for the whales, good for us, and even good for the funders that are supporting this work.

It is incredible how far we have come since Parley for the Oceans, our founding partner, introduced us to INTEL and brought us together at the United Nations on World Oceans Day 2017 on June 8. Not only have we developed new tech, but we have put that tech to use. I am excited to report that we have already identified whales that we saw on our first Parley SnotBot expedition this summer as a consequence of looking at our data in real time, in the field, and we’ve been able to estimate how the animals are doing healthwise. If you compare the attached photos taken at very different angles you can get an idea of how good this tech is that the INTEL team are developing. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this has not been a productive summer food wise for Alaska’s humpback whales. We saw far fewer whales in Frederick Sound this summer than we did in summer 2016, so this is a great time to be bringing this new technology to bear.

I am sending this email from a sat phone, so apologies for fewer photos and a shorter blog.

Another first for the Parley SnotBot team and another great collaborative effort.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska, Take Two

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Dear Friends,

I am writing this email en route to Alaska. Yes, we are heading back up to Alaska for the second time this year, and it is exciting for many reasons. The first of which being that we are continuing our Parley SnotBot collaboration with INTEL and Ted Willke’s team at the Mind’s Eyes lab.

On the scientific front, to be able to go back and study the same population later in the same year is not something that we get an opportunity to do that often; couple this with the advanced tech the Mind’s Eye lab are bringing to the table, and we have an exciting expedition ahead of us. We are returning to the area we worked this summer in the hope of seeing some familiar whales and documenting how their behavior, interactions, and body condition have changed since we last saw them.

Since the last expedition Ted, Bryn, and Javier have been working like crazy to expand their fluke ID database and further develop their algorithms so that they can better identify individual animals and better estimate size/girth with their volumetrics work (more on that later). The weather is likely to be a challenge, but we have stacked the odds as far as we can in our favor. We are of course working with the Alaska Whale Foundation and Dr. Fred Sharpe, who should keep us pointed in the right direction.

We will be staying on a boat instead of with our good friends at the Kake Kwaan Lodge (sorry Tinker) so Internet is going to be tricky, but my goal is to send you expedition blogs whenever possible. We do have expedition cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller with us, so expect some pretty dramatic photographs – I have attached a few from the summer expedition.

I remain an avid proponent of drones for whale research but also of drones for ocean research. I think that these machines are going to permeate every aspect of ocean research, changing the way we do our work and hopefully resulting in a democratization of science, with more people collecting more data in more locations, more affordably, and more safely. It’s just amazing to me how far this tech has come in just three years and how far it has permeated (and will permeate) so many aspects of our work. Not just the drones and sensor packages but also the support equipment. I was in our robotics lab last weekend 3D printing small mounts to hold petri dishes on the INTEL Falcon 8 drone for this expedition (photos attached) and I realized how I was already taking this amazing affordable tech ($2,500 printer) for granted. Yes, one of the students (Austin, pictured below) had to do the design work for me (10 min?) and then we were printing out custom mounts for two different drones just 30 minutes after coming up with a design concept – crazy.

And don’t even get me started on the Artificial Intelligence and machine learning work that Ted and his team are doing. I bring this up because while I believe that the work we are doing now is innovative and, dare I say, disruptive (in a positive way), I am excited by what we will likely be doing with drones in two years from now. I will admit to finding the challenge of trying to predict where this tech is going and how we will make best use of it very thought-provoking.

As an example, when we are collecting snot we have to have our Parley SnotBot at the right height above the whale, we have to be the right distance behind the whale’s blowhole (varies due to the speed of the whale) and we have to be at the right angle behind the blowhole (depending on crosswind) so that we are in the best position to collect the largest amount of snot that we can. It’s not as easy as you might think. I have thousands of hours of flying time, which most people don’t have – making the current Parley SnotBot tool not as replicable as we hope for. That said, I believe that in a year’s time (two at most) pilots like me will just be overseeing the snot collection flight with the SnotBot auto sensing drone (version 22 🙂 analyzing all of the above parameters in real time and far more accurately and consistently than a human can – consequently bringing in more and better data and bringing this tech into the hands of pilots who have training but perhaps not as much as our pilots have and need now.

From a wet and windy in Alaska.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain