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Ann Cortissoz

Parley SnotBot Alaska: the view from behind the camera

By | Alaska, Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In a previous post, Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr recounted the the nail-biting events leading up to National Geographic’s Earth Live segment during which SnotBot collected whale blow from a humpback in Alaska on live TV. Now Alex Tate, producer of the Alaska segment of National Geographic’s Earth Live, gives us a look at the

 

On 9th July 2017, the small island of Kake in South East Alaska hosted a team from National Geographic hoping to make television history. Two years in the making, Earth live was to be an unprecedented wildlife documentary with cameras across six continents – from lions in Africa to bull sharks in Fiji – all filming in a single live two-hour show. National Geographic had chosen Frederick Sound as a location to film humpback whales as part of this live spectacle, and they had clearly done their homework. It’s one of the best places in the world to see these majestic giants, especially during the months of July and August; still the odds of the team completing its mission were stacked against them.

That’s because they weren’t here simply to film humpback whales, they were following a scientific team from Massachusetts-based ocean Alliance, which was using a drone called SnotBot to collect whale exhale, or snot, when these giants come to the surface to breathe. The sample can offer amazing insights into the biology and physiology of the whales, from DNA to hormones, data that in the past scientists could only get invasively by getting close to a whale and taking a biopsy. And National Geographic wanted to broadcast this revolutionary scientific method on TV.

Attempting to film SnotBot capture a live snot sample was to be a real technological challenge, one which included boats drones, and an airplane. In total there were four cameras, the primary drone (SnotBot) taking the sample, a second drone filming SnotBot, a cameraman on the boat filming the SnotBot drone pilot, and a camera on an airplane with a gyro-stabilized gimble to keep the shots steady. The plane also was acting as a relay to get the live images from the boat back to a satellite on land which had been set up at Point Macartney. From there the images were to be beamed up into space and then on to the main studio in New York, where all the other live feeds from around the world were sent.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

Because the feeds from the cameras on the boat (the Glacier Seal) had to get back to the satellite on point Macartney, it meant the range of the filming team was restricted to effectively line-of-sight, so they weren’t able to explore the full length of Frederick Sound on their hunt for whales. In any other year this might not have been a problem, as usually the area is jam-packed full of whales. However, this year the whales were scattered and isolated, with individuals using it as a highway but few staying around to feed. This made the Earth Live mission even harder.

If the lack of whales weren’t enough to worry about, the weather also caused concern. On the morning of the live event on the 9th, the clouds rolled in and the rain began to shower down. Not only was that bad news for the drones (they don’t take kindly to a drenching), but more crucially it meant the plane could not take to the sky. Without the plane, the live feeds from the boat could not be beamed back to the satellite on Point Macartney and then on to the studio in New York. At midday, the team had to do a live rehearsal with New York with no drones, no plane and, to add insult to injury, no whales. It did not look promising.

But they say fortune favors the brave, and at 4 pm (8 pm in New York, the time the live broadcast started), the clouds had cleared, the sun was out, the plane was up in the sky, and drones were on standby, ready to be called into action. At 4:30 pm, the drone was deployed, a whale had surfaced some 300 feet in front of the boat. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance and chief drone pilot, carefully maneuvered SnotBot into position above the whale’s blowhole, and on the third attempt he struck the bullseye. As the whale surfaced and took one last breath, its exhalation covered the petri dishes on SnotBot, complete with all the scientific information the team was hoping for. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as, with a flick of its fluke, the whale dove and vanished from sight. And for national Geographic, they achieved a world first — humpback whale snot captured on live TV!

This was my first visit to SE Alaska and Kake, and I have to say that the community support we received undoubtedly helped to make this expedition successful. People always greeted us warmly and were quick to offer help. I hope my work will bring me back to Kake again one day.

Alex Tate
Producer of Earth Live

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

A Gala Time Was Had by All

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About 70 guest enjoyed a string quintet’s performance of Robert J. Bradshaw’s composition Down to the Sea in Ships during Ocean Alliance’s gala fundraiser on Saturday, September 2.

Robert J. Bradshaw conducts his composition, “Down to the Sea in Ships.”

The musicians, conducted by Bradshaw, played in one of the almost-renovated brick buildings that are part of Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the historic Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory site on the edge of Gloucester Harbor. The building was also the scene of an ocean-themed art show (EDGE) curated by Trident Gallery (you can see some of the art in the photos of the musicians).

Scott Hufford

The guests weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the performance; apparently the acoustics in the old brick building were so amazing that the musicians are hoping to record there at some point!

Bruno Raberg

The gala was a fundraiser for our continuing efforts to renovate the Paint Factory buildings. Ocean Alliance’s aim is not only to make our headquarters a center for ocean research and innovation, but also to make the Paint Factory site a center of community engagement, so it seems fitting that the guests and musicians were gathered to view art, hear a musical composition, and enjoy the quintessential Gloucester experience of the Schooner Festival Parade of Lights and fireworks.

Labor Day weekend art show and gala fundraiser!

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The Second Annual Ocean Alliance Labor Day weekend art exhibition and fundraiser gala in partnership with Trident Gallery and the Trident Live Art Series celebrates contemporary viewpoints of the sea and maritime history at the Ocean Alliance Headquarters, the historic Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory.

Trident Gallery Director Matthew Swift is curating the art installation Edge for Ocean Alliance, which will be on view, free and open to the public, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Hours to be announced.

Trident Live Art Series Director Sarah Slifer Swift has invited Composer Robert J. Bradshaw and the Beauport Chamber Players, lighting designer Michael Friedman, and dancer Nina Brindamour to create a site-specific staging of Bradshaw’s musical work “Down to the Sea in Ships” for the Paint Factory.

“Down to the Sea in Ships” is a piece for strings and narrator about ill-fated whaling captain George Pollard Jr., whose story inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In addition to this unique inter-media staging of “Down to the Sea in Ships,” the Gala event includes delicious food and drink, the art exhibition, and the Parade of Lights and fireworks of the Gloucester Schooner Festival.

Tickets are $100/person, a contribution toward the continuing restoration of the paint factory complex, one of the last standing icons of Gloucester’s maritime history. More information at Gloucester.Center. Tickets at shop.whale.org.

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+

The Robotics Laboratory and Club was made possible by the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation.

CEO Iain Kerr joins Parley for the Oceans and Corona to protect islands from plastic

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So often when I give a talk, it is in a darkened theater or laboratory, so to be standing on a beach in Tulum, Mexico, with the Caribbean Sea behind me, giving an ocean conservation talk to people from the global beer brand Corona, representatives of Parley for the Oceans and about 25 members of the Mexican press was a powerful opportunity to stress the importance of healthy oceans.

The overriding theme of the talks was the unacceptable levels of plastic polluting our oceans. It may seem like an overwhelming problem, but the conversations were positive, and about solutions and a can-do attitude. I encourage all of you to look at the Parley for the Oceans AIR strategy for dealing with Ocean Plastic.

During my presentation, I talked about my work around the world over the last 30 years, documenting ocean pollution and the health of whales (& ocean ecosystems), and of course I talked about new innovations and technologies (like SnotBot) that I believe can act as a catalyst for change in ocean conservation.

The occasion of the meeting was the announcement from Corona and Parley of their partnership in the movement to end marine plastic pollution, one of the biggest threats to human health and the survival of the planet’s largest and most important ecosystem – the world’s oceans. The long-term partnership launches with a plan to protect 100 Islands by 2020, starting in six key regions in different parts of the world – Mexico, Maldives, Australia, Chile, Italy and Dominican Republic.

 

Ocean Alliance CEO DR. Iain Kerr (left) with Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch

Corona has committed to Parley’s creative, multidisciplinary approach and signature formula for reducing ocean plastics, the Parley AIR Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign), and will adopt a plastic-free philosophy across al aspects of its brands.

Read more about the Parley x Corona partnership here.

As much as I like SnotBot, I always remember the words of our president and founder, Dr. Roger Payne; “Saving the world is not a job that requires some highly developed technology, or some arcane new science, or some hitherto undeveloped social system.  It just requires us to change our minds, as to the value of our oceans and the power of the individual”

Two out of every three breaths we take come from our oceans – if that’s not important enough to change your mind to act, I’m not sure what is.
I hope that I was able to inspire and engage those listening with the idea that at the end of the day the job of saving the world is in our individual laps. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility!

Please commit to supporting ocean conservation and don’t buy products that can pollute our oceans.

Ocean Alliance hosts Selfie art show at Paint Factory

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From May 5 through May 7, Ocean Alliance continued its advocacy for the arts by hosting the art show Selfie at the Paint Factory. The show celebrated the creativity of teens from around Massachusetts through portraits by artist Amy Kerr based on their selfies. There were 12 pieces in the show in pastel, colored pencil and charcoal.

 

 

You can follow Amy Kerr’s current project, I Am More, a public outreach project about mental health, at her blog:  https://amykerrdrawsportraits.wordpress.com

SnotBot ready to help disentangle whales!

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A lot of people don’t realize that our Drones for Whale Research program is a lot more than SnotBot; we have a number of iterations of our drones to meet different whale research goals. SnotBot has already been helping researchers understand more about long term whale health by collecting exhaled Breath Condensate (snot) that contains, DNA, hormones, ketones, and micro biomes. Now SnotBot is helping whales in a much more immediate way. The SnotBot team is ready and standing by to use our drones to help the Centre for Coastal Studies and NOAA disentangle whales that are caught in lines or nets!

To meet this goal in 2017 we put in a new 30-foot dock at our headquarters in Gloucester Harbor, we’ve acquired a 30-foot Bertram Mopie, we have 2 modified Inspire 1V2 SnotBot drones and we’ve got what might be the first NGO permit to fly drones over entangled whales. We are ready to go!

When a whale is entangled it is clearly stressed, to disentangle the whales the highly experienced CCS team can spend up to 2 hours trying to understand how the animal is entangled.  This is where we will help SnotBot will be able to get aerial images of the configuration of the ropes or nets entangling the whale and send the images back live to the disentanglement team, who can be a distance from the whale. This gives the people doing the physical cutting of ropes and lines a much better idea of what tools they will need and what strategy they should use. This should make disentangling a whale safer for everyone involved.

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

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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

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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?

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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!

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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

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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

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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

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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

OA science manager reflects on adventures with SnotBot

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Ocean Alliance Science Manager and SnotBot scientist Andy Rogan wrote this article for the January edition of Biosphere, a digital magazine specializing in the most exciting research from the zoological sciences and the latest wildlife news

YOU HAD ME AT SNOTBOT,” an homage to Jerry Maguire I’ve heard on more than one occasion during my role within this programme, and on one occasion, I might add, from an editor at Biosphere.

My experience with the programme kicked off in fairly spectacular fashion on a surprisingly cold morning in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon. Months of build up had led us to this boat, filled with our team and a mix of veteran Mexican and American cetacean scientists, all as curious as I to see how SnotBot would work. SnotBot is an Ocean Alliance programme in which we are using relatively inexpensive consumer drones to collect respiratory samples — called blow, snot or exhaled breath condensate (EBC) — from whales.

A SnotBot drone with a petri dish attached to collect whale blow. (Photo by Christian Miller)

(Photo by Christian Miller)

The Ocean Alliance, a Massachusetts-based whale research and education non-profit, launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2015 and since then SnotBot has gone from strength to strength, albeit with a few bumps in the road, or should I say airpockets in the airspace? Out in front of our small panga – a local wooden fishing boat, came the call of “ballenas!” (Spanish for whales) and an outstretched arm pointing toward a puff of white air on the horizon. Here we go! Anticipation could be felt in the air as everyone prepared. The drone went up, hovered and… began to shake… began to rattle. Seconds later we were speeding towards the drone which was plummeting – and never has my use of this word been so appropriate – toward the water where it would begin disappearing into the heavily protected waters of San Ignacio Lagoon. Later that month neither my boss nor the drone pilot were particularly happy when I drew up the official flight statistics of the expedition and listed 13 seconds as the shortest flight duration.

Six months later, almost to the day, SnotBot posed a different kind of challenge. I found myself in a large exhibition hall in the U.S. State Department HQ, obsessively fidgeting with my tie. A crowd of about 50 people were bustling toward me armed with a dazzling array of cameras, microphones and voice recorders. Printed on a large pillar behind me were the words “SnotBot: Drones for Whale Research,” and a short description of the programme. A few seconds later I was discussing the programme with Secretary of State John Kerry, whose total and utter attention is held by a giant TV screen looping whale footage from our most recent Alaska expedition, and not by my incessant promotion of the programme. So what is it about SnotBot that makes it unique? Is there a reason, other than its name, that it has received so much attention? If not, does that make it a gimmick, a distasteful degradation of the scientific process?

Roger Payne and Andy Rogan introduce John and Teresa Kerry to SnotBot

The rise of drones in many areas of society over the past five years has been well documented. When our programme was initiated back in 2012, many saw it as a manifestation of our CEO’s passion for flying remote-controlled vehicles, not the foresight of a hobbyist in recognising the extraordinary potential of an emerging technology.

But, as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how powerful these tools are, and, especially to us, just how revolutionary they will be in marine mammal science. The fire they will ignite under conventional research methodologies could be huge. Not least because whales are, in many respects, difficult animals to study. They spend much of their time beneath the surface of the water, conducting much of their activity out of view from human research eyes. They often live far from land and in remote areas, they can travel vast distances, quickly moving through their environment in unpredictable directions. Unlike many terrestrial animals, they do not leave easily detectable tracks or signs of their presence. When we do catch glimpses of them in order to aid our studies, we are often restricted in our perspective, stuck on a vessel a few metres above the surface of the water. In response to these challenges marine mammal scientists have developed a variety of innovative techniques ranging from the simple to the complex, such as photo-ID, skin/blubber biopsy analysis, bioacoustics and so on. But owing to the logistical complexities of studying these animals these methods are often inefficient and expensive.

The data we are able to collect with a $2,000 consumer drone is simply extraordinary. The most important part of this is that, at this cost, this is a tool that many researchers around the world will be able to afford. No longer will collecting large, varied datasets be the exclusive realm of the wealthiest academic institutions and research groups. Our oceans are vast, the ecosystems they support invariably complex. If we are to understand them, we need big data sets. This is what these tools can provide, their use of course extending far beyond marine mammal science.

Collecting robust biological samples from large whales in a non-invasive and non-disruptive manner has been a major hurdle that has previously limited our knowledge of these magnificent and ecologically important species. SnotBot is changing this, delivering a diverse range of biological data from large whales without the animals even knowing we are there. Whilst most tools have a single purpose/function, in addition to respiratory samples SnotBot collects a broad spectrum of data forms, including photogrammetry, photo-ID, behavior, bio-acoustics, low-light/nighttime studies and so on that can be used in other valuable analyses. It is truly remarkable to have a single, affordable, safe, scalable tool that can simultaneously collect such a variety of data — a capability which has led our CEO to suggest that drones could be to marine mammal research what the invention of the microscope was to cellular biology.

At a time when whales face a rapidly growing list of man-made threats, we need consistent biological and supporting meta-data to determine how these threats are impacting these animals and what we can do to minimise or remove them. Considering that whales also play a role as a bio-indicator species – the proverbial ocean “canaries in the coal mine,” the data we collect would also have important consequences for our wider oceans and subsequently for humanity.

Our primary objective has been to encourage and facilitate the widespread adoption of these tools. Our experience with this programme has led us to the conclusion that drones will be game-changers, ushering in a new research paradigm for marine mammal science. So far we have flown 258 EBC specific flights over four species: Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Patagonia, Argentina; gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico; blue (Balaenoptera musculus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Bahia La Paz, Mexico; and humpback whales in Frederick Sound, Alaska.

SnotBot took this image of a Southern right whale mother and calf during an expedition in Patagonia.

It has certainly been an interesting ride, and I am happy to say that most stories, unlike that fateful first flight in San Ignacio Lagoon, are positive; though certainly we’ve learnt to expect the unexpected, and our predictions have proven somewhat wide of the mark! We chose Patagonia as the location of our first expedition as the whales are using the bay as a calving/mating ground so are fasting, placing a priority on conserving energy. To us, this relative inactivity suggested an animal that was easy to sample. We were wrong. We expected that inactivity would result in less frequent and less forceful exhalations, but we underestimated the degree to which this would be true. Furthermore, after hours of preparation and planning, when we finally had the drone in the air, we had steered it over a rising whale ready to capture the valuable data it would blow, when the whale rolled nonchalantly to one side, blowing a few inches to the right of the drone, before sinking back down. Unbeknownst to us, this rolling from side to side would be quite frequent in these calving and mating whales – it wasn’t going to be an easy group.

When we began to fly the SnotBot, we had been collecting the blow by attaching a long pole to the bottom of the drone on which we would attach four petri dishes. We began noticing a considerable amount of blow on the top of the drones, and decided to place petri dishes on top to take advantage of this. The first time we tried this we collected our largest sample yet. Our unsubstantiated theory is that the propellers actually suck the material in the blow back on to the top of the drone. One might think the drone had always been destined to be a blow collector…

With the dawn of such a new technology, there is a total lack of data, so permitting authorities have no evidence on which to base their rules about flying the drones. In one location, our drone was counted as an airplane and thus we had to treat it as such when flying over whales. This meant that our vessel could approach a whale up to 300 feet and we would not have to record it as a ‘take’. But if we were 1000 feet from the whale, as soon as the drone took off that would be a take. Thus we could be in our 30-foot research vessel 300 feet from a whale and not record it as a take, but if the drone, weighing 3 kilograms, was 999 feet from a whale that would be a take. This is of course expected, and we are working with permitting authorities providing them our data to help them create their rules.

SnotBot has been quite a ride so far. We’ve introduced it to John Kerry, been the feature of well over 300 press articles worldwide, a Youtube video with over 130,000 views, two facebook videos with over 2,000,000 views combined, we’ve been labelled one of the Top 8 breakthrough innovations saving our oceans by the manager of the XPRIZE Oceans Initiative, we’ve won the Innovative Drone Exploration and Application competition at Drone World Expo and even been the feature of a pre-K through Grade 6 children’s book. This attention is allowing us to reach and educate enormous numbers of people, educating them on the science of whales, the number of very real threats they face and how they can help.

The name might be unappealing to some, and just funny to others, but this is no gimmick. SnotBot, and the tool that it is built upon, is powerful, cost-effective and revolutionary. With the help of these new technologies we will take huge strides forward in understanding whales, how they are being impacted by natural and anthropogenic stressors, their physiology and behaviour and how best to protect them in a changing ocean.