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Iain Kerr

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #5 – SnotBot has a brother

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This is the fifth in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

The weather took a turn for the worse today with wind and rain – but we had a master plan – we tested for the first time (with whales) our new research drone EarBot.

What is EarBot? you ask – As I am sure that you know whales live in a world of sound. Communication, feeding, predator detection, reproduction: all of the most important aspects of their lives rely on acoustics. Acoustics are a gateway into the world of whales. EarBot is an initiative to study whales acoustically using drones – with the same philosophy as SnotBot, getting research tools close to the animals (while keeping researchers away) and collecting high quality data without the whale even knowing. Now, we have an opportunity to link our president and founder’s (Dr. Roger Payne) expertise in bioacoustics to our present expertise in robotics by attaching hydrophones to a waterproof drone that can land in the water near a whale & transmit back to researchers both the sounds that the animals are making and the sounds that they are hearing and video; creating a mobile, flexible and practical platform for studying whales acoustically: EarBot.

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Existing methods of acoustic data collection broadly fall under two categories: fixed and vessel based hydrophones. Both undoubtedly have valuable applications, but are limited by the flexibility they can provide. Fixed hydrophones are taken out to sea and moored in place, either on the seafloor, in the water column or at the surface. They can be left at sea for months at a time and are excellent for collecting large, long-term data sets. They are however complex and expensive tools which require significant resources to deploy, maintain and recover; and are highly inflexible. For times when more flexibility is required, scientists use hydrophones deployed from boats. This automatically introduces a problem. The very presence of a boat (particularly if the engine is on) is what scientists call a confounding variable that could change the behaviour of the whale & diminish the quality of the acoustic data collected.

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To avoid disturbing the whale, the engine can be cut. This, in turn, reduces the flexibility of the data collection. If the whales move off to another location, the scientists have a choice to make between getting closer to the whales but in the process potentially disturbing them, or leaving them undisturbed but being too far away to gather good data. This is a decision they must face: whales are dynamic animals, often moving through their environment at speed in unpredictable ways. It is perfectly logical to have an equally dynamic and flexible way of studying them, yet until now this has been somewhat of a fantasy. Enter EarBot. EarBot will allow us to follow a group of whales as they navigate through their environment, collecting acoustic data from undisturbed whales behaving in a far more natural manner. Current drones have a range of over 3 miles, so the researcher (and consequently their research vessel/platform) could be an enormous distance away as you collect data.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-42Moreover, EarBot could get much closer to the whales than the traditional methods of acoustic data collection. The closer your hydrophone to the whale, the more acoustic information you receive. This is something we can easily associate with: the closer you are to a sound, the better you can hear it. As scientists we are focused on applying this technology to our own specific research goals/interests. Of course, as with SnotBot, the more we consider this tool, the more potential applications become apparent. Indeed, much of the value of the EarBot program could come from developing it as a tool for other researchers/interested parties.

As with SnotBot we hand launch the EarBot but that is where the similarities end, we fly EarBot to a location land in the water and turn the engines off. A separate battery runs the hydrophone and the FM transmitter sending the signal back to the boat, we record sounds on EarBot and on a recorder on the boat. As a control we have the same calibrated hydrophone on the boat recording all that we hear. As if this was not enough, EarBot has a camera on a stabilized waterproof gyro that allows us to send back live images form either above the water when flying or below the water when concurrently recording undersea sounds. We can even pan and tilt this camera.

Today we conducted 7 EarBot flights, on 3 occasions we took off from the water and flew EarBot to another location closer to the whales and landed back in the water and turned the engines off. We were getting some electronic interference so we will not be winning a Grammy for the recordings but we are over the moon with these first tests and results – huge thanks go to the Big G Foundation who supported the development of the first EarBot prototype and to Parley who are supporting this expedition.

Best Fishes from Alaska.

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #6 – FLIR

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This is the sixth and final dispatch sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

We have just spent our last day on the water and I will admit to being a bit sad. While I am very excited to get home to my family there is something very cathartic about being totally focused on a mission. The single focus of collecting data, backing up data, eating sleeping and doing it all over again. Every morning we had breakfast at 7:00 and were on the water by 8:00. Typically, we got back to the dock around 7:00 PM although some days we stayed out until 9:00. Tonight there are meant to be aurora but I don’t know if I can stay awake that late.

It has been a totally exhilarating trip, while the weather has not been the best (5 windy rainy days out of 10) the whales have been just spectacular. We have seen hundreds of whales, including calves, with every type of feeding behavior and play. At least once a day we would look across the water and see whale blows all around us. On occasion we would shut our eyes and just listen to the cacophony of whale blows. This has been an extraordinary successful expedition, we have collected over 42 snot samples, tested our new drone EarBot and we had one more experiment up our sleeve.

In winds less than 15 knots and no rain we flew SnotBot, in the rain we flew EarBot, so what do you do in the fog? Well we had a plan for that too FLIRBot. The FLIR corporation leant us a FLIR Vue Pro camera. FLIR means Forward Looking Infra-Red. FLIR are the world leaders in night vision cameras and we wanted to know what sort of whale perspective we could get from a FLIR camera mounted on SnotBot. John Graham built a custom Gyro so that we could mount the FLIR camera behind our regular camera on our Inspire 1 (see attached photo). This gave us real time comparative images between regular and night vision. Alas the FAA would not allow us to fly our drone’s at night, nor would they let us fly unless we had at least a mile visual range so we flew at the edge of the fog banks during the early morning and intermittently through the day.

I see the FLIR VUE PRO drone camera as another example of how drones can dramatically change the game – we were in awe of this technology and the potential, as you will see from the attached photos it. Could we see whale blows on FLIR, Yes, could we see the whale body above the water, Yes. Could we see the whale’s footprint, Yes. Interestingly enough FLIR cannot see through the water, so we could not see below the water as you can with a regular camera, but a regular camera cannot see anything at night or see comparative body/water temperatures. When a whale blew the blowholes looked like two bright eyes appearing in the night and winking off.

We would calibrate the cameras by taking a shot of our boat (see image) and then fly out to the whales. What you have to remember here is that if this was night the left side image would be black but you would still see the right side of the image (probably with more clarity in the cooler air).

Boat FLIR comparison

Whale FLIR ComparisonA couple of the whales we followed had an extra hotspot on their bodies – the tip of the dorsal fin. We were also pleasantly surprised to see circular blue spots in the water behind a whale – these blue spots represented the cool water brought up to the surface by the tail flukes as they swam. Dr. Fred Sharp the Senior Scientist on this team liked to talk about how whales are mixing up the different layers as they swim through them (he actually said – thermal perturbation agents). You can see this in the attached water perturbations shot.

Water Pertubations
I have to say that we have been humbled by the Alaska Hospitality we have received. From Tinker and Gary at the Kake Kwaan Lodge, to Alaska Industrial Hardware (inverter), Elizabeth at Petersburg Medical Center (Petri dishes) and Michelle at the Department of Natural Sciences, University of SE Alaska (small Petri dishes) and Alaska Seaplanes for delivering our packages for ridiculously low prices ($11). The community spirit up here is something to be admired and emulated. We thank you all for you interest and support of our work. Funding permitting, we hope to be back next year to continue this work.

Last but not least I would like to thank the staff at Ocean Alliance for minding the fort, our logistics coordinator John Atkinson and my family for allowing me to run off on these expeditions a number of times a year.

Hoping for a smooth passage back to Juneau & wishing you all the best.

Iain and the Alaska SnotBot A team.

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #4 – I’m running out of synonyms

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This is the fourth in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

To review:
Day 1 we had a 100-mile passage down from Juneau to our study site Frederick Sound and our port of operations Kake, the passage was tough but we were very excited to be in SE Alaska.
Day 2 the weather remained bad, blowing 15 Knots plus but we collected 2 Snot samples.
Day 3 bad weather again but we collected 5 samples.
Day 4 the weather cleared by midday, the wind and seas calmed down and we collected 8 samples.
Yesterday (day 5) we had a bit of fog in the morning with minimal wind and calm seas and we collected 15 Snot samples.
Total samples so far 30!

Our goal was a minimum of 25 samples so we are over the moon. On top of this we have seen some of the most spectacular whale behavior I have ever seen. I am now spoilt, I just can’t imagine studying whale’s from only a boat and not having and eye in the sky.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-5As much as I hated the bad weather it did give the team time to work out how to work together on such a small boat and it gave us a chance to shake down our routines and protocols. Also we have learnt a tremendous amount about flying over Humpback whales and whales in general. We have been making a punch list ever day of variables that we should be considering during our interpretation of the data such as, whale direction and wind direction. If the wind is blowing at 90 degrees to the whale’s passage, then you have to run parallel (downwind) of the whale to collect snot. If there is a group of whales, you always want to pick the upwind whale so that a second whale does not contaminate the sample. We are now up to about 40 variables and we are planning on writing a report for National Marine Fisheries so that others can benefit from our experiences.

We saw a lot of bubble net feeding today by individuals and groups, just spectacular. We also saw a lot of breeching and pec flapping. I even saw two whales lunge in opposite directions next to each other.

DSC04236We have three days left in Frederick Sound and then the passage back to Juneau. Tomorrow we hope to test a new drone a partner to SnotBot – a drone that we hope will give us a completely different insight into the world of whales than does SnotBot. Another piece of data for the biological jig saw puzzle.

Onwards Upwards, Fingers crossed.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #3

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This is the third in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

We were out on the water by 7:30 am yesterday, but it was still cloudy and raining so we were a bit down. We don’t like to collect Snot in the rain because then we have to process every petri dish. The droplets of rain in the dish could be Snot so we have to process every dish which is a lot of work for us and even more for the analysis lab.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

By 10:00 am the skies cleared the seas started to calm down and the team worked like a well-oiled machine (albeit in a very small boat). We collected 6 samples in the next 3 hours and then changed location close to Turnabout Island about 10 miles away. The first thing we saw here was a bird in distress just off the shoreline, we sent up a drone and realized that it was not in distress but it was a bald eagle swimming shore with a fish so big that it could not fly. It swam amazingly well and reached the shore successfully (with dinner).

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

The water around us seemed to be boiling with life and soon 4 whales turned up and were swimming less than one body length from the shoreline side lunging. The footage we recorded is absolutely spectacular and we collected 2 more samples.

Shore LungeThe day was saved by the fact we could charge our flight batteries all day form the boat batteries. The previous day our inverted failed and we had a new one flown in (the same day) from Juneau (for $11) from Alaska Industrial Hardware & Alaska Seaplanes. Only in Alaska!!

We had a chance to have 2 drone’s in the air, one recording the other collecting Snot. Our Inspire 1 drone’s worked flawlessly.

We finally pulled into the dock last night at 8:00 pm exhausted but elated with a total of 15 samples, stunning video footage of whale behavior and memories that will last a life time.

Foggy this morning – but we are sure that it will soon burn off so we are heading out.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #2

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This is the second in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition.  The first dispatch can be found here.

Dear Friends,

Well we are still fighting the weather, 15 to 20 knots of wind and pretty constant rain. I think that SnotBot excels in wind speeds of up to 15 knots, above that the wind lays the whale blows flat and launch and recovery become more of a challenge.

That said we can’t just sit in the hotel, so we went out into Frederick Sound today. The low clouds and fog on the mountains was amazing to see along with a lot of whales that we could not get to. At times we were bucking 3 ft seas in our small boat which made working impossible so we hugged the shoreline until we found some whales in a semi sheltered bay. Wind speeds were still peaking at over 15 knots but the waters were calmer. The whale gods then rewarded our persistence with 2 Snot Samples in what can only be described as extreme conditions. Typically, SnotBot hovers approx 12 feet above a whale’s blowhole to catch the blow. Because of the strong winds we had to fly SnotBot downwind of the whale that we were trying to collect Snot from. In the first two attached photos I was flying backwards downwind waiting for the whale to surface upwind of me and exhale. Many practice flights in my back yard paid off today. All of my photos are screen grabs from the SnotBot Inspire 1- 4K camera, I have also attached a photo from our cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller. The side lunge 3 photo and Christian’s photo are from the second day before the weather deteriorated.

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Downwind Snot Collection 2

We are working out of the town of Kake, a location that you can only get to by boat or plane. The town has a special meaning to my family because (as many of you know) this is where I adopted a dog that was a great companion for 16 years. Clearly Keiku (the dog) had Kake’s soul, the people we have met here have been amazing, as we walked to the grocery store the other day (there are no restaurants or bars) every person who drove or walked by said hello or waved. Kake First Nation is letting us tie up our boat right next to an old cannery that was shut down years ago and fell into disrepair. Kake First Nation are now restoring the old buildings which is great to see, they need a lot of work, like some other buildings I know.

KeikuLast but not least we could not be better looked after than we are by our hosts at the Kake Kwaan Lodge. We certainly hit the jackpot with the right location to work out of, now we just need a bit more of that elusive Alaska summer.

Tomorrow the weather is meant to be getting better, Ill keep you posted.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #1

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This is the first in a series of dispatches sent from the field during the recent SnotBot Alaska expedition. 

Day one (Thursday) was 6 people and way too much equipment making the 100-mile passage from Juneau to our study site off Kake in a 22 ft boat. A five-hour boat ride turned into 10 due to bad weather, so the less said about that the better.

Day two (Friday) was quite the opposite and spectacular for unconventional reasons. Weather forecasts said the same as the previous day, 15 knots, rough seas and rain, none of which are good for Snot collection or 22 ft boats. Regardless our time here is limited so we headed out on to the water just after 8:00 am.

It took us roughly an hour to get out into Frederick Sound and we were with whales immediately. No rain, no wind but heavy wet fog and lots of whales (that we could not see, but could hear blowing).

During a small break in the fog we made a humpback whale SnotBot discovery, I flew over a couple of whales that were lunge feeding on their side.

It turns out that this is the perfect whale behavior for snot collection, the whales lunge to the surface on their side, close their mouths to push out the water (still on their side) then roll up into a horizontal position and exhale, this whole process probably takes around 15 to 30 seconds.

The predictable nature of this method gave me the time to get SnotBot into the perfect position over the whale when it blows to collect Snot.

Alas after this revelation the fog closed in, so we stopped the boats engine and drifted in the fog, miles from anywhere. We ate our lunch, peanut butter and apples (that another story) in the fog as the whales ate theirs, blowing all around us. The unscientific description of this would be magical.


Over 19 years ago Amy and I were in Kake and this is where we adopted our dog Keiku – I will admit that a local street sign brought a smile to my face.


A spectacular Alaska wildlife day – I can’t wait for tomorrow’s discoveries.

Iain

Robotics Club Update, May 2016

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Last week we had a trifecta of new technology on show at our Wednesday evening Robotics Club meeting.

We began by heading out into the field for a flying day, primarily test flying a number of the Alex Monell high wing flyer’s that our club members have been building. As this was many of our club members first time flying, one of our more experienced flyers Austin Monell helped the process by linking two remote controllers together so that he could help trim the planes and act as a back-up in case any pilots got into any flight difficulties.

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We also had a visit from the Ipswich Tigers Team 5459. This is a Robotics group from Ipswich High School which took place in this year’s FIRST Robotics Challenge (www.ipswich5459.com). The FIRST Robotics program is a competition based event whereby groups of high school students form teams and are given a specific set of challenges. They then build a robot capable of meeting these challenges (http://www.firstinspires.org/robotics/frc). In 2016, the 25th year of the competition, 3128 teams involving around 75,000 students participated. In many ways the FIRST Robotics Challenge represents the pinnacle of competition based events in Robotics for high school students, and it was a pleasure to host the Ipswich Tigers, whom even let our own members drive their FIRST Robot 5459. This is tremendously exciting as Ocean Alliance hopes to host our own version of a FIRST Robotic Challenge in Gloucester this winter.

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Last but not least we got to share and test a set of ‘HeadPlay’ goggles (www.headplay.com). When our SnotBot research team goes on expedition, we fly our vehicles using a First Person View (FPV) perspective, whereby the drone pilot is looking at the world through a camera on the drone. We are constantly looking for the best view: of course the crisper and sharper the image, the easier it is to hover directly above the whale. Another area where FPV is very important in in small Quad racing, a sport which has taken off in recent years (pun intended!). Austin Monell brought one of his small racing quads to the field and different club members wore the HeadPlay as Austin raced around the field. Certainly this was the closest to being able to fly that we had ever come! The quad was doing flips and high speed turns and we were very surprised that no one felt sick! As the SnotBot drone operator I found that the 5 inch HD HeadPlay screen was a great improvement from the smaller goggles typically used.

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This meeting was, to me, what our club is all about. Lots of different technologies, lots of different skill sets/equipment and everyone was talking, trying, flying, participating and learning. The Robotics Club is made possible through the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation, and it is on days like this that we are most grateful for their support.

Go Paint Factory Flyers!

Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale

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Two remarkable people joined us in La Paz to document the second (and last) leg of our Sea of Cortez expedition. Adrienne Hall from Sound Off Productions (soundofffilms.com) and wildlife cameraman Tom Fitz (http://fitzpro.tv). Adrienne has worked on a number of projects with my good friend Louie Psihoyos (“Racing Extinction” & “The Cove”) and Tom and I met at a friend’s wedding over 20 years ago.

Tom and Adrienne

Tom and Adrienne

 

By 8:00 am the SnotBot team were in a 22 ft panga heading out into Bahia La Paz both excited and a little anxious. We’d had a very productive time in Baja Mexico but we wanted to put the icing on the cake – we needed to further validate SnotBot as a scientific tool, and to do that we needed to fly with at least one more species of whale and this was the last day on the water, the last day of the expedition. Dr. Jorge Urban was at the helm along with two of his students from the University of La Paz and Adrienne and Tom were in a second boat to get a different filming perspective. So we had the A team, we had DJI drones, we had great weather, we just needed whales.  As we headed offshore I joked with Dr Urban, “OK Jorge we need a blue whale today!” In spirit, he smiled and replied,  “No problem amigo!”

Drone Launch

Drone Launch

And two hours into our search that’s what happened. We saw a blow a long way off (still too far off to confirm what species, but it did not look like a humpback blow). My heart was racing as the boats sped towards where we had seen the blows.  After 10 minutes of high speed running the boats slowed down and we immediately launched a SnotBot. Within seconds we saw a blow, still a long way off.  Luckily the Inspire 1’s top speed is close to 50 mph so I raced towards the whale and was soon close enough to see it though my FPV camera system…. and OMG – it was a blue whale!  I cannot describe my feelings as I approached this remarkable animal gliding through the water. After almost 30 years in this business and a British understated reputation to maintain, I have to admit that my hands started shaking and yes I made a mess of my first approach and did not get a blow sample.  I did not care though, the experience of flying SnotBot over the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet was an experience of a lifetime. To put this animal’s size into context: this is the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet; an adult blue whale’s tongue can weigh 6.5 tons; the heart is so big that a human adult could climb into one chamber.  Our blue whale was stunning in the crystal clear water, seeming to swim effortlessly.  After it dove I just left the drone hovering above its footprint and looked around at the rest of the team who were all ecstatic – last day on the water, beautiful weather and we were with a blue whale. I have only ever seen a blue whale once and when you look at the photo below you realize that a drone’s eye view is incomparable; it’s the ultimate viewing experience. Look at its features, how the eyes protrude so that the animal can see forward; look at all of the different musculature and markings on the animal; just look at its amazing color.  So often with SnotBot we focus on the physical data we are collecting from the blow: DNA, microbiomes, pregnancy and stress hormones, but here we can see that even the photos and video that we take have enormous scientific, educational and emotional value.

Blue body & boat

The whale was not coming up in any predictable manner (position-wise), but it was keeping pretty regular dive times (approximately 10 minutes).  So to be safe, we would prep for drone launch at eight minutes and launch at around eight and a half minutes and I would hang in the air 25 feet up looking and waiting for a blow.  This whale’s first blow was always huge, the second big and the third pretty wimpy and the animal would dive right after the third blow, so I had to get there for the second blow.  It took two more tries. I flew down the length of the body just as the whale came up and we caught a massive blow (there is even a rainbow in the blow) well over 80 microliters and just amazing photos and video.  We had 3 more blue whale blow captures that day before we left the animal, totally stunned by the whole experience, with remarkable data, footage and emotions.

Blue Snotted

I think that it is important to pause here and remember that there is no shortcut with the scientific process. We have spent years developing SnotBot working with many volunteers, conducting endless tests with more than enough failures, and a few crashes ashore and over water.  For the first leg of this expedition we spent three days flying into grey whale blows with 5 different snot collection experiments – a total of 41 flights, all of which collected snot but we made no progress collecting snot sample sizes bigger than we collected in Argentina until the 6th and last experiment. Raising funds for this work has also been a tough road, because it was new and experimental. Yes the Kickstarter campaign was successful, but for a small non profit, developing the Kickstarter campaign and running it all the way through to the fulfillment process took up an inordinate amount of staff time and costs. Five years ago pretty much everyone laughed at the SnotBot idea yet here we were collecting samples from blue, humpback, grey and southern right whales. Success is never guaranteed, hard work is – so to have hit the ball out of the ball park on the last day was an experience that is hard to define.  I have spent much of my life looking at whales from an oblique angle from a boat.  In one of our first experiments together in 1988 Roger Payne and I were flying helium balloons and parasails in Argentina trying to get up into the air and here we were 27 years later getting the perfect aerial view and I can tell you it did not disappoint!

Parasail and baloon

We learned so much on the last two expeditions; we better understand what the challenges are ahead of us and what our current limitations are. At the end of the day, though, SnotBot has been an unqualified success – the capacity and value of drones as marine mammal research tools has been validated beyond our initial expectations. The journey is by no means over though. I hope that you will stay with us; we are going to keep pushing this work forward and we hope that you will continue to support us. If you are interested in contributing to this work at any level or know someone who might want to help, please let us know.  Also be advised that there is SnotBot SWAG available in our store! http://shop.whale.org

SnotBot Store

I have to thank all of you out there who are reading this for joining us on this remarkable journey.  To the many supporters without whom we could not have done this work – thank you, thank you.  My deepest thanks also go to the staff at Ocean Alliance for being the foundation upon which this work stands. Last but not least I want to thank my wife and daughter, my drone heaven has been their drone hell, my wife posted on her Facebook page just before we left “Must be a SnotBot expedition coming up, I have a drone in the bathtub, drone parts all over the dining room table and two drones on my bed.”

Dr. Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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The first leg of the SnotBot Sea of Cortez expedition was to San Ignacio lagoon, where the accessibility of grey whales gave us an opportunity to test a number of different snot sample collection techniques.  After working with fairly social Southern right whales and very social grey whales, the work was about to get a lot harder.  While we had developed a very successful sample collection platform with the DJI Inspire 1 during the first Leg, the question was could we collect snot from other species of less social whales such as humpback, blue & fin whales?

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

So after 5 productive days in San Ignacio Lagoon, we packed up our 16 bags and made the 12-hour drive to La Paz for Leg 2.  I thought that this drive was going to be very boring with hours of endless desert. While we did have plenty of desert, the countryside was spectacular, driving along coastal roads in and out of low mountainous ranges.  The scenery kept changing from desert to dry river beds where greenery was abundant and human agriculture evident. I have seen so much of Mexico from the sea so it was a real pleasure to have this terrestrial counterpoint.

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

We arrived in La Paz late on Friday night with a message from Dr. Jorge Urban that it would be too windy to go out on Saturday.  As disappointed as we were to hear this, it did give us a day to organize our equipment, buy the items that we could not get in San Ignacio, and meet the film team, Adrienne & Tom, who had come to document our work for an out-of-house project (more about that later).  It was also a luxury to have a real shower, plug our battery chargers into every socket in the room and connect to the Internet!!

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

Sunday morning we were up at 6:30 and on the boat by 8:00.  Dr Urban (who I have known for over 20 years) from the University of La Paz was at the helm of his 22 ft panga, so we knew that if there were whales out there that we were with the best man in town to find them.  Alas,  Jorge had some bad news to share. The El Nino was wreaking havoc with the Sea of Cortez ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, and his team were not seeing the typical patterns of whales or abundance – he had just postponed a satellite tagging project because of this.  With those thoughts in mind, we headed out in the Bahia La Paz.  Bounded by the Baja peninsular to the west and the islands of Espirito Santo and Partida to the east, Bahia La Paz extends almost 30 miles north from the city of La Paz and is on average 20 miles wide. These are (typically) very productive whale grounds, and as we spent our first day searching the bay we were regaled with stories of frequent past encounters with humpback, fin and blue whales and occasional encounters with orcas and sperm whales.

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

We covered over 100 sun-blistering miles the first day, stopping every hour to look and listen. Despite the optimal conditions we did not see a single blow. We returned to our hotel that night tired, sunburnt and a little disheartened.  This is the business though, so the next morning we were in the panga by 7:30 and back out on the water.  Today our guide was Iram, another seasoned biologist from Dr Urban’s team.  Alas the day did not go much better; we did put our DJI drones to work, though, sending the Phantom 4 up to 380 feet every hour using it as an eye in the sky.

As effective as the Phantom 4 was in increasing our spotting range, we still did not see any blows, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the wind had picked up to 15-20 knots so we headed back in.  We were quite close to the city of La Paz when we saw a blow and quickly identified it as a humpback whale.  Typically in conditions this windy we would not try for a blow collection (above 15 knots the wind lays the blow down and the chances of more salt water in the blow increases).  But considering that this was the first whale that we had seen in 3 days, we went for it.  We had moderate success, but every now and then we took a wave over the bow of the boat. This was not good because we had a boat full of electronics, 3 drones and supporting equipment along with close 80K of camera equipment (Christian & Tom both had Red cameras).  So we had to abandon the work and head back into port.  As you can imagine, by this time I was really sweating it (and not because of the heat). We had a very successful first leg, but we needed to validate what we had learned with other species of whales. That night I called our logistics and expedition coordinator, John Atkinson (in Canada), to set up a spotter plane for the next day. We did not have a budget for a plane but we had to find whales. We set it up so that we would spend an hour and a half driving the panga out into the bay and then we would call the plane.  Clearly the whale gods were on our side. Right when we were about to call the plane I heard Adrienne shout BLOW.  Everyone leaped into action, and less than 20 minutes later we had our first humpback whale sample and it was spectacular – our petri dishes and the Inspire 1 were dripping with snot.

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

We stayed with this animal for the next few hours, keeping the panga away, but making a number of close approaches with the Inspire 1.  Andy was timing the animal’s dives, which were running at about 9 min. Our procedure was as follows: at 8 min we would prep the Inspire 1; at 8 min 30 sec John Graham would launch the drone and I would hover above the boat ready to go.  Once we saw a blow, my challenge was to get to the whale in time for the second blow.  Once I saw the whale on the surface, I would race the drone towards it and then get into my FPV position (sometimes this would be very disorientating because I would have a drone’s eye view of the world but the boat would be bouncing out of sync with my view).  The whale seemed to like Andy because once he shouted “Should be coming up any second now” and within 5 seconds the whale surfaced. Our drone and launch protocols, our practice as a team, our development of the collection methods all seemed to come together with great results, so we were living the SnotBot dream.  Once when the whale was down Christian sent up his Inspire 1 to film our boat underway, next thing you know the Humpback breached in the frame with our boat in the picture—absolutely blooming amazing.  We went home that night over the moon. Certainly we needed to test SnotBot with other whales, but it looked as if we had a winning formula, all of this work had been caught on camera by two remarkable cameramen, and we still had one day left on the water……. and OMG what a day that was! Ill report on our last day in my next blog.

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

Earth Day Message from CEO Iain Kerr

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More than anything else I see Earth Day as a time to reflect – on what we have done over the last year, of what we hope to do over the next year and how our challenges have evolved. Certainly I am more excited than ever before with the tools environmentalists, activists and scientists have, not just to collect data, but to share the word and engage people. Counter to that, whales now face more threats than ever before, from pollution, to ship strikes, entanglement in nets and lines and acoustic bleaching. Our instant access to often depressing environmental stories can lead to despair and apathy, why should I bother, what can I do? If you ever feel that way I want to remind you of the words or Margaret Mead:

Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.

Now more than ever before is a time of hope and opportunity. Look at the success of documentaries like “ The Cove,” “ Blackfish,” and “Racing Extinction.” Over the last two years I have had the opportunity to work with groups like Parley for the Oceans, G Star Raw & Adidas; groups who are not just trying to clean up the oceans but are trying to take recycling and turn the fashion industry upside down.

As individuals we now have a voice that can be heard around the world, I encourage you to shout out, let us know how you feel, encourage others to get involved. But please remember at the end of the day it is all about our individual actions. I talk to school kids about how honey they see in the market comes from millions of bees carrying a package so small we can’t see it. We have to be the ocean’s honeybees – if millions of people just did something once a month, once a week, once a day for the environment we would change the world – for the better. Ask yourself, what is the blue legacy you want to leave, and have a great Earth (Ocean) Day.

Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

Eye to eye

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez was a remarkable expedition with the highest highs and the lowest lows. I was lucky to have a remarkable team with me: technician John Graham, scientist Andy Rogan and photographer/videographer Christian Miller. We had great weather, food, and, most importantly, whales. Here is part one—San Ignacio Lagoon and gray whales.

SnotBot Patagonia proved that we could collect snot from whales using a drone. The primary goal for SnotBot Sea of Cortez was to see if we could increase the snot sample size so that we would have enough to use for all the different analysis that we are interested in.  The secondary goal was to collect snot from multiple whale species to make sure that our previous collection success was not a fluke (pun intended).

In Patagonia our average sample size was around 20 microliters (one small drop of water).  For the Sea of Cortez we set ourselves an optimistic goal of 80 microliters. Imagine building a go-kart that does 50 mph on the first run and taking it home and saying next time we want to go 200 mph.  The Sea of Cortez is a very diverse region species-wise so we were also hoping to encounter gray, humpback and blue whales.  Last but not least, we wanted to do this work with off-the-shelf drones, so that this work can be replicable and scalable, so we were lucky to have the world leader in drone development DJI providing us with the drones. We took with us the new DJI Phantom 4 and the DJI Inspire 1.

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

Working with Dr. Jorge Urban’s team from the University of La Paz, our first study site was San Ignacio Lagoon. The gray whales are so friendly here that you do not need a SnotBot to collect blows as they come right up to the boat to be touched and you can’t help but get “snotted.”  Because of this, though, they were the perfect whales for us to conduct multiple flights into blows to test our different snot collection devices. We had a total of five different snot collection devices and procedures that we wanted to test.

One would think that drones would not be good snot collection tools–the whales are blowing the snot up, but the drones, to fly, are blowing air down. Technically we had opposing forces.  For our first set of experiments we used different collection tools at the end of a pole, extending the collection device out of the drone’s prop wash.  We ran multiple flights with five different collection methods:

  1. Nitex weave cloth (very similar to wedding veil)
  2. Stockings on a wire frame (this method has been used on a long pole)
  3. A different weave and texture Nitex cloth
  4. A number of Petri dishes on a T bar (an upgrade of our Patagonia method)
  5. A medical sponge material developed in Malden, MA for hospitals.
Collection methods

Collection methods

The idea is that the different holes, size, and consistency of the materials will collect and hold the snot with different levels of success. The problem with this method is that you have to get the snot out of the capture material after the flight, so we brought a centrifuge to Mexico so that we could spin the snot out from the collection material. The Nitex cloth balls were split up into 4 different pieces so that each section could just be dropped into one of the centrifuge tubes after a flight.

On Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday morning we flew over 49 flights into gray whale blows.  We were getting into the blows okay and we were getting amazing footage but we were not increasing our sample size by any significant amount.  So on Wednesday afternoon, we attached two 4 inch Petri dishes and one 6 inch petri dish on top of the DJI Inspire 1 with industrial grade velcro.  The idea here was not to get out of the downdraft created by the drone but to use the down draft of the drone to collect snot for us. We believed that the Inspire 1 would be very well-suited to this because while most drones have big round bodies, the Inspire 1 has a long thin body and the propellers are raised above the body. So we put Petri dishes onto the Inspire 1 (see photos of the petri dishes hanging over the body) flew into a gray whale blow and we hit the jackpot.  The petri dishes were literally flooded in snot–Andy Rogan estimated a minimum of 80 micro liters from just one blow.  If we could fly into more than one blow from an animal (and we did) we would collect more than enough snot for the analysis we wanted to do and probably as much snot (or more) than people who have used long poles to collect snot from whales.

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

I should mention that on my very first flight in the Sea of Cortez I crashed and critically damaged a drone. Not a good start. To be knocking the ball out of the ballpark three days later was more like the script for a movie than an actual scientific experiment.  On Thursday morning we went back out to the gray whales with the Inspire 1 and with ten more flights (a total of 59 with grey whales) we consistently repeated our success from the day before.

It should be said that even this experienced team was overtaken by these amazing animals on occasion. I fly the drones FPV (first person view) so I am not looking at the world around me–I have my head pushed against a Hoodman screen cover so that all I can see is a drone’s-eye-view of the world on my IPad. During one flight no one was responding to my question so I took my head away from the screen to see three guys hanging over the side of the boat hugging a whale. Just before we headed back in on the last day I took off my flight and screen harness and managed to touch a whale myself, which Christian Miller caught on camera.

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

Thursday afternoon we packed up all of our equipment in preparation for the 12-hour drive back down to La Paz where we hoped to find humpback whales and maybe, just maybe, blue or fin whales.  We had been warned that El Nino had had a severe effect on the region and that they had not been seeing the number of whales that they had seen in years past. At this point we did not care – we had over 80 micro liters of snot from a single blow so goal # 1 achieved.  Mission Accomplished!

Extended Interview with Sir Patrick Stewart

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Our Kickstarter campaign was an enormous success, we already have one SnotBot field season behind us (Patagonia) and we are now prepping for our SnotBot expedition to the Sea of Cortez. One of the people who was there from the start of this project was Sir Patrick Stewart. You may have seen the Kickstarter video with Sir Patrick (if not go to the left hand side of our homepage http://www.whale.org) but what you have not seen is an extended interview with Sir Patrick where he shares his deeper interest in SnotBot and wildlife in general.

Ocean Alliance Research Prominent at Marine Mammalogy Conference 

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Just before the holidays I attended the 22nd Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference in San Francisco. The mission of the society is to promote the global advancement of marine mammal science and contribute to its relevance and impact in education, conservation and management. The Society was founded in 1981 and members hail from 25 countries. There were over 2,500 people at the conference which with the different workshops spanned 6 days. Days typically ran from eight in the morning to eight at night. From 8:30 am to 5:30 pm there were five consecutive speaker sessions. In the evenings there were poster sessions and/or social gatherings. Reconnecting with old friends and working on new collaborations were as important as the scientific presentations.

SnotBot talk

Ocean Alliance is a small group but we are proud of the collaborations and partnerships that we have developed over the last 3 decades. This can clearly be seen with the papers and scientific presentations that had Ocean Alliance staff members as lead authors or presentations that used data collected collaboratively with Ocean Alliance staff and/or on Ocean Alliance platforms. Four key Ocean Alliance programs were well represented at this years conference:

The Global Voyage of the Odyssey: Papers 1, 3, 9.
The Gulf of Mexico Expeditions: Papers 7 & 8.
The Southern Right Whale program: Papers 4, 5, 6.
SnotBot: 2 & 10.

1. What drives the genetic structure in oceanic populations of the Sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus).
Alexander, Alana. Et al

2. SnotBot: Making the case for small unmanned aerial systems (sUAS) in marine mammal research.
Kerr, Iain. Et al.

3. Crowdsourcing Moby Dick! Modern and historical data identify sperm whale (Physeter macrocephalus) habitat offshore of SW Australia.
Johnson, Chris. Et al.

4. Short and long-term population consequences of increased calf mortality in the southern right whales off Argentina.
Seger, Jon. Et al.

5. Increased Kelp Gull inflicted lesions on southern right whale (Eubalaena australis) calves at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina
Maron, Carina. Et al.

6. Ongoing significant Southern Right Whale (Eubalaena australis) mortality at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina.
Uhart, Marcela. Et al.

7. The Impact of the Deepwater Horizon on Whales: A 3-year study of metal levels in Gulf Sperm whales in aftermath of the spill.
Wise, John. Et al.

8. Chemical dispersants, oil and chemically dispersed oil are toxic to Sperm whale skin cells.
Wise, Sandra. Et al.

9. Copper and Zinc concentrations in the skin of free-ranging Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus) from around the globe.
Savery, Laura. Et al.

10. SnotBot: Developing an aerial platform for cetacean research.
Kerr, Iain. Et al.

I have been in this industry now for almost 30 years and it was encouraging to see so many young people at the conference who are just starting their careers in this industry. I believe that there is a Blue Revolution underway and people are understanding better now, more than ever before, the value of small collaborative organizations like Ocean Alliance. To all of our supporters, I thank you again for giving us the ability to have such a strong scientific presence at the 2016 Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference. We are looking forward to our new partnerships and the collaborative work that will no doubt unfold in the year ahead.

Iain Kerr
CEO
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Video Highlights of our SnotBot Patagonia Expedition

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Over the last six months there has been a lot of talk and a lot of press about our innovative research drone SnotBot.  The million-dollar question then is, “Does SnotBot work?”  Watch the video below, and you decide.

The camera we used to guide us to the whale and position us over the blow holes was recording all the time.  Not only did we capture a lot of snot, we also captured totally unique footage, including a very precious moment between a mother and calf right whale.
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Thanks again to our Kickstarter backers and other donors who helped make this possible!  Please consider making a donation to Ocean Alliance today, on #GivingTuesday, at whale.org/donate.

Iain Kerr: Update #2 from the Maldives

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Day 4 in the Maldives. We have been traveling down the Maldive Island chain, and today we will reach our last stop and the last (occupied) island in the Maldives: Huvadhu Atoll. I will fly out of here on Monday & then back to the USA on Tuesday. Since we landed in the capital Island Male, we have visited Vaava Atoll, Meemu Atoll, Laama Atoll and North Huvaghu Atoll. Yesterday we had a pretty rough ocean passage lasting about 9 hours between Laamu & Huvadhu Atoll – it was in this deepwater channel that the RV Odyssey found the most abundance of whales in 2003/2004. We saw a large group of dolphins, but the rough seas made any sort of whale watching tough going.

christianmiler_parley_maldives-25lr

It has been a pretty amazing experience to be able to sit down and talk with this group of like-minded, passionate environmentalists every day. None of us have the same speciality (whales, turtles, plastics, clean oceans, education) but everyone has an enormous passion for our oceans. One of the hardest parts of my job (after fundraising) is reviewing stories & science from my friends, associates and media from around the world – stories and data that speak to the constant onslaughts that humanity is inflicting on our oceans. While it is critically important for us at Ocean Alliance to understand what the problems are and who is doing what – this really can get overwhelming and depressing at times. So to be in the Maldives surrounded by some of the most pristine oceans in the world with such a powerful group of activists and environmentalists is definitely an uplifting experience. I will certainly be returning home with renewed enthusiasm.

If you have a moment put these names into Google and read about the remarkable achievements of these Parley Ocean Ambassadors:

Kahi Pacarro – Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii
Christian Miller – Photographer (Nat Geo underwater photographer of the year 2014).
Emily Penn – Founder and director of Pangaea Exploration
Mike Long – Director of Operations, Parley for the Oceans. Maldives Expedition leader. www.parley.tv
Shaahina Ali – Photojournalist & Environmental educator.
Steve Richardson – Adidas Group
Ann Schultz – Ocean Adventurer & nurse.

Not on this trip but on our minds: Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans.

Last night we watched a very humbling and educational film on the early history of Greenpeace called ‘How to Save the World’ (this film has not yet been released). I had forgotten that the first pre Greenpeace campaign was against a nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands. Robert Hunter said, “This test is not just an offense to humanity, nuclear testing it is an offense to nature”. It was after this campaign then that the two philosophies: Green & Peace came about. Greenpeace is now perhaps one of the most recognized environmental brands in the world.

christianmiler_parley_maldives-31lr

As you can see from Christian Miller’s photos, our last anchorage is spectacular & we do not have to look far for wildlife.  As we finished dinner, we had a visit from a nurse shark (my iPhone photo), and we had time for a snorkel this morning.

Shark Visit

I have 3 more days to learn all I can from these extraordinary people. I will do my best to keep you posted on our progress.

From South Huvadhu Atoll, Maldives – I wish you all well.

Iain

Iain Kerr Reporting from the Maldives

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Currently I am in the Maldive Islands on an expedition put together by Parley for the Oceans. Ocean Alliance’s Research Vessel Odyssey was in the Maldive Islands in 2003 & 2004 (see whale sightings chart below) as part of our 5 1/2 year global circumnavigation to collect baseline data on the distribution, concentrations and effects of environmental toxicants in the world’s oceans. I never made it to the Maldives for either of the Odyssey’s visits, but heard nothing but good reports about them from the Odyssey crew.

Odyssey Maldives
I am aboard an 80 ft powerboat called The Dive-Master with a pretty incredible crew of ocean advocates, film makers and scientists. I am aboard as part of a program called The Parley Ocean School. This is another aspect of Parley’s collaborative mindset in which creative people from all aspects of life get together to share their experiences and work for solutions…in Parley’s own words: To raise awareness and to collaborate on projects that can end the destruction of the magic universe below us: Our Oceans. We have another vessel traveling with us with more than 20 people from Adidas. I will find out the exact number before the end of the trip, but between the Adidas folks and our group we represent at least 12 nationalities. The Adidas folks have come to learn about, experience, and then work for ocean conservation.

christianmiler_parley-3
As one of Parley’s ocean ambassadors, I am giving a series of talks during the week and either leading or participating in a number of workshops. I gave my first talk ‘Why Whales’ today – the boat was underway and I was on my 5th slide during which I say – I wish people would not talk about whales and dolphins – dolphins are small toothed whales! As soon as I said this (I was standing looking over the heads of the audience) I saw dolphins racing towards the bow of the boat. The talk was suspended for 10 minutes while we watched them cavort off the bow, and it certainly brought a new perspective to my whale talk.  Emily Penn, the founder and director of Pangaea Expeditions, then gave an amazing talk on her journey and work over the last 8 years. After lunch we all split up for an activity, dive, snorkel, paddle board. We then joined up on a deserted beach and spent a few hours doing a beach clean up.

christianmiler_parley-1

I applaud Parley for putting this expedition together — a good blend of science, exposure to ocean wildlife, and getting our hands dirty — all in the name of Ocean Conservation.

From Laamu Atol in the Northern Indian Ocean – I wish you all well.

Iain Kerr

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #5: “The whales are laughing!”

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I have spent a lot of time in the field, working in over 20 countries more often than not trying to get close enough to animals (without disturbing them) to collect data, whether it be behavioral, health or physical samples for toxicology etc. Every now and then you have one of these special encounters that resets your perspective, reminds you that we are passengers on space ship earth and not the crew and that the passengers may get what they want, but not always in the way they expected.

We rented a 36 ft boat yesterday, with the idea of being able to spend a full day out on the water, with all of our drones, cameras, controllers, chargers, computers and our dry shipper (a container that has been primed with liquid nitrogen) to preserve our samples.

So 8 of us, consisting of the ICB team — including Marcy Uhart (an Argentine who works for UC Davis) — and the OA team, headed out to sea from the town of Puerto Madryn. Quite quickly we encountered a mother and calf, and we got our first snot sample of the day with Scottie and two photogrammetry samples (mother & calf) with Archie. We then worked for over 45 min to get a Snot Sample from an adolescent whale. It was down when the drone was up and left when we were right and so on and so on. But we were patient and persistent and we eventually got a viable sample. We then moved off about half a mile from the whale to go through some equipment checks and switch batteries etc when one of the crew said a whale was approaching the boat from the stern and it was the adolescent we had just sampled.

To be blunt, the whale swam right up to the boat and we were Snot Bombed (whale version of photo bombing), but in this case it included biological matter from whale lungs – we were repeatedly soaked with snot from a whale that was just feet from the boat, first from the side then from the stern. You may think that I am exaggerating here but there is a a photo below from Archie of the whale Snotting us. In the accompanying photos you can see John and I on the port side of the boat running the drone. Everyone else getting an eyeful. Mariano can be seen holding out a pole that alternated between a Petri dish and his Go Pro, as a result we have our biggest Snot sample yet and video looking down the blow hole during the blow. (I’ll post that video when we get back to the USA.)

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
After a 10min photo flight with Archie, I brought him back on board and I took out my own camera. Photos of the day were closeups – so close that you can see the individual cyamids on the whales head.

R whale chin
We need to take pause here and remember that we have spent almost two weeks down here focused on collecting snot, when we see a whale blow and we are not able to get to the whale we are frustrated – we have become a little Snot focused dare I say Snot obsessed and then a whale comes over to our boat and soaks us – be advised that whale breath in small quantities is great. In large quantities it is not that nice, I don’t think that they brush their baleen at night. In the space of 20 min we were all thoroughly Snotted and poor old Carolyn was having a real problem with all of her sterile equipment that was not so sterile any more. Also we could not motor away since the outboard engine was up so the whale would not hit it – so we had to sit it out or maybe Snot it out (sorry).

So why did the whale do this? We don’t know, but the best guess from Mariano is that the adolescent whales are bored and when they see something new just floating in the water they check it out, perhaps thinking that it is a new toy they can play with. After about 20 min when they realize how boring human boats can be they just go on they way and look for something more interesting. If we did not have the remarkable accompanying photos – this story would be hard to believe. It was certainly an amazing experience for the whole team, more than once we were eye to eye with an animal as big as our boat, it refocused all of us as to the importance of learning all that we can about these animals so that we can preserve them for ocean health and diversity and future generations.

As we reflect I guess it goes back to the old saying “be careful for what you wish for” or maybe just maybe… the whales are having a laugh at our expense.

From the VERY snotty skies of Patagonia – that’s how the Snot flies.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #4: “It’s all about the Team”

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Key components of any effective research expedition are flexibility and adaptability. You plan a project, in our case at 43 degrees North with the goal of implementing it at 43 degrees South, and guess what? things don’t always go to plan. We had hoped to do a lot of data collection flying from the shore line, but for some reason the whales this year have decided to spend more time offshore – so the team jumps into a 13 foot 20 yr old zodiac with at 12 yr old two stroke outboard and off we go.

The drones to all intents and purposes are small computers, we also have a variety of transmitters and receivers on the boat (that are also small computers), and then small video displays so that we can have a First Person View of the action from the drone. This means that one good wave over the bow or one piece of equipment dropped onto the floor of the boat (which as much as we bail out is always wet) and the experiment is either over for the day or for the trip. Computers and salt water don’t work together period.

Even so we have been going out two or three miles from our camp every day to find whales. We are encountering 10 to 15 whales a day which is good, but we need to keep moving so we are not sampling the same whales all the time. At least twice the weather was fine when we left camp and then 3 or 4 hours later the winds pick up and we have been beating our way back to camp with equipment in our clothes and in waterproof cases. With all of this equipment onboard in a confined wet space we have been running to strict protocols to make everything work.

A start up flight might go like this:  Everyone in position (yes), Everyone ready to fly (yes) OK – Transmitter on, video & data screens on, calibrate gyros (throttle up and to the left), altitude hold engaged, position hold engaged, boat mode on, check all RC transmitter switches, start cameras on drone (hold as steady as you can so that the camera gyro matches the camera level with the horizon). Take a photo blank to check camera & video systems. Carolyn wipes down the collection arm (one more time) with alcohol and puts on the sterile petri dish. When we say we are ready to fly she takes the top off the petri dish. OK ready to fly, pick up drone and hold it above your head into the wind, remover petri dish cover. All clear (Yes) start engines, throttling up 3,2,1 fly. Start timer, where are the whales?

Find the drone

After a 12 to 20 min flight (depending on which drone we are flying) we fly back to the boat and either John or Mariano hand catch the drone (see photo). Then we hold the drone in place while Carolyn removes the petri dish which she puts into a sterile bag and a cooler.

DCIM100GOPRO
We then look for the next group of whales and head toward them.
Since we are running two different scientific programs, we will often collect a few snot samples with our Yuneec Typhoon drone (Scottie) and then head back into shore and drop Carolyn off to process the samples. Mariano (Scientific Director of our Argentine partner ICB – Instituto Conservación Ballenas) will replace Carolyn and we will head out to do the Photogrammetry program with the WHOI drone Archie. When the weather is good we try to spend as much time on the water as we can.
The tidal range here is over 20 feet so on occasion we have come back to a huge beach in front of the camp – we lug all of our equipment back, return to the dingy and then the inflatable has to be broken down (remove engine, fuel tank etc etc) and then carried/ dragged back to camp.

Big tides
To spend all day in a small boat with 3 other people all the while juggling computers, salt water, drones, cameras & working with whales takes a lot of patience and a lot of energy. We have a great team here from ICB team member Marcos (who coaxes a 12 yr old outboard to life again and again) and always gets us into the best position to fly to the whales & the full shore support team courtesy of ICB. It has been hard work, but we are excited to be troubleshooting new technologies and trying to determine the best ways to make them work for science. How lucky we are to spend time with Right whales, make new friends and work to better understand and conserve the wild world.

Thank you to all of the team in Gloucester for supporting this expedition from our headquarters. I’m off to bed, up at 7:00 am tomorrow to catch the high tide.

And that’s how the Snot flies in Patagonia!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #3: “It’s all about the Snot”

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It’s pretty incredible to be sitting in a small boat about half a mile off the Argentine coast with three friends surrounded by right whales and to be flying a drone.  I have been a RC enthusiast for most of my life, and it was just over 4 years ago that I had the idea to try and bring my hobby and work together.  I had been reading so much about military drones and advances in technology that I felt sure that there was something that could be done with these remarkable machines for the benefit of the wild world and ultimately humanity.

So here we are flying small drones over whales – today I did a total of thirteen flights, each flight lasting around 12 minutes.  I am flying a WHOI drone called Archie to conduct a Photogrammetry study (determine whale size and health through photos – see photo below), and of course flying our Yuneec drones to collect Snot.

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This whole program is a bit of a logistical nightmare. There are so many things to do and check before you get in the boat. We are collecting scientific data, so we need all of the supporting data, latitude and longitude, time, length of flight, height, size of petri dish, animal type, calf, mother etc etc etc).  Flying from a 13 foot inflatable boat, we have to hand launch and recover the drones, so the launcher needs to have on a helmet, safety glasses and gloves. We do not want to contaminate any of the Snot we collect, so our scientist Carolyn from WHOI thoroughly cleans the drone beforehand and wears a mask and gloves.  The launcher also wears a mask so as not to breath or sneeze onto the collection plates.

When we are about 100 to 200 feet from a whale, we stop the boat’s outboard engine and take up flight positions.  I go to the back and sit on the outboard motor, John goes to the front and gets ready to launch the drone, Carolyn is beside him and Marcos keeps an eye on the drone when it is in the air at all times and also drives the boat.  When everyone says that they are ready, I turn on the remote control, John then turns on the drone (keeping it as level as possible so that the camera, gyroscopes and GPS calibrate correctly).  When that is done, John attaches a 2 to 3 foot carbon fibre pole to the bottom of the drone (this pole has a adjustable angle platform at the bottom onto which we put a 6 inch diameter petri dish).

When we see a whale on the surface, Carolyn attaches the petri dish to the platform; she puts one half facing down and the other half facing up.  We are now in sterile conditions, so we take flight as soon as possible.  I fly our Yuneec Typhoon (that we now call Scottie) towards the whale standing up in the dingy, when we are about 50 feet away and I can see the whale in the FPV (first person view) camera screen, I sit down and often put a blanket over my head to keep out the light.  When I reach the whale flying about 25 feet above the water I tilt the camera straight down, when the camera is pointing down we can see our collecting plate (see photo below). I orientate the drone so that the head is straight ahead and I fly up the body towards the head.  When I am above the blow hole with the camera pointing straight down, I drop down to about 12 feet and hover above the blow hole.

Over blow hole

This is when life gets really difficult.  If the wind is blowing the snot can go one way, because of gull harassment some of the whales arch their bodies to keep them underwater (so the seagulls can’t peck their skin) in this case their blows shoot forward, some shoot the blows aft and others straight up one time and then sideways the next time.  Since we have time to stay about the whale, we can sit through a few blows to get the feel for the best place to position the drone.  When you get a blow you know it, thanks to the down looking camera I can see the blow shoot snot straight onto the collection petri dish.

Snot Petri

If it is a robust sample I fly straight back to the boat, if not I try to get a couple more blows on the plate before returning to the boat.  John hand catches Scottie (still wearing a mask) and holds the drone while Carolyn removes and seals up the collection plate, which she puts into a sterile zip lock bag and then into a cooler (in case we collect more snot before going back to camp). Typically our flights are no longer than about 12 minutes, and after collecting snot samples from two individuals we like to go back to shore so Carolyn can process them (more from Carolyn on this later).

In a later post I will talk more about what we have learnt with regards to flying drones over whales and what drones have worked best for us.  We brought down 3 different drones and my favorite is not what I thought it would be. That’s it for now from the Patagonia Team; more soon.

And that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #2

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The weather forecast said no wind today so we got up at 6:00 am this morning and rushed out to whale camp. We have bought some great empanadas the night before and we ate them on the drive out. Alas when we got to whale camp just before 7:00 am the whole area was covered in fog. We could hear whales blowing and snorting very near by but we could not see them. We sent one of our Yuneec drones into the fog in case it was clearer offshore but even though we went out over 1000 ft everything was socked in – we got a very damp drone back. So we serviced and cleaned our equipment (& read manuals) until just after 10:30 am when the fog burnt off.

Fog at Camp

The good news is that we than had some GREAT Snot Bot flights, we did not get Snot, the whales we were working with seemed to be resting and exhaled very slowly – I can say that because we were literally looking down the blowhole – See photo, you can see the snot collector Petri dish. It was great practice to see if we could hold position over a whales blowhole and we are very optimistic and excited for the work ahead.

Later in the day we flew the WHOI drone (Archie) to get some photogrammetry images. We managed to photograph 11 animals, 5 mother calf pairs and one solo whale. I fly watching the video feed from the drone and have a black cloth over my head to keep the sun out. It was pretty exciting today when tracking the whale I saw our small inflatable boat come into the image. The whales seemed curious and came over to check the boat out, you can see that the engine is not running on our dingy nor are we making way – the whales came to us. I am under the back cloth with John Graham, Marcos our ICB team member and Carolyn are also visible in the boat.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

From the Snot Bot Patagonia team – that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #1

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Dear Friends,

We made it to Patagonia with the Snot Bots – thanks to all of you who supported this project.  I am traveling with Carolyn Miller from WHOI and John Graham from Gloucester.  My job will be to pilot SnotBot, Carolyn is dealing with the data and John is keeping everything running and is the back up pilot.  The trip down was pretty brutal with a day flight from Boston to Miami, an overnight flight from Miami to Buenos Aires and then a 5:20 am flight from Buenos Aires to Trelew which necessitated a 3:00 am wake up call.  We are about 42.5 degrees South and 64.3 degrees West.  We are working out of our camp in Argentina where Ocean Alliance has been conducting aerial surveys of Southern right whales since 1971.

We had to get some friends to come to the airport to meet us with their truck because we have a total of 16 bags.  It was fun getting them through customs… The whale camp in Gulfo San Jose is very remote, a small generator (only on when yo need it), no phone no internet and 40 min to a small town with minimal supplies (Piramides).  So we brought about every spare part and tool that we thought we would need (and then some).  After checking into a small apartment in Piramides (no phone, internet or comfy chair).  We went out to whale camp and worked on setting up the drones in the old boat house until about 8:30 pm, we got back to Piramides at 10:00pm and then ate dinner.  A very long day.

Next morning we were up at 7:00 and went back out to camp, alas the temperatures have been in the 50’s with rain and wind speeds up to 20 Knots. Not conducive for flying or collecting Snot or photos.

Patagonia remains one of the most amazing meeting places of land, sea and wildlife.  We have taken on a challenge with the hope of conducting the Snot Bot & Photogrammetry program in 12 days – but providing the weather gives us a break we will make it happen!

We are very grateful for the support that we have been given by the electronic flight company Yuneec – we have two Typhoon drones and one Tornado.  I was flying the Tornado today in 20 knots of wind and while I was feeling a bit unsure the Tornado flew like a dream.  Our snot collection devices are petri dishes on a long pole that hangs beneath the drone.

SnotCollector-scaled

“As I prepare the research drones for their daily mission in the makeshift workshop on the beach, I am lucky to have a spectacular view of the whales and its hard not to be moved by the nurturing and playful behavior of these giant sentinels of the sea”  John Graham

DroneBarn

“While others told me that Patagonia was spectacular its hard to comprehend the beauty and wildlife diversity without seeing it first hand.  Yes we have been fighting the weather, but I am confident that we will soon be very busy, in the meantime I am excited to be here and be a part of this program.”  Carolyn Miller

DroneBarn2

We are all set up here and ready to go.  Tomorrow we will be up at 6:00 am in the hope of catching some calm early morning weather. Keep your fingers crossed.  As soon as we have data and photos we will be posting them.  Watch this space!

 

Filmmaker Robert Nixon Visits the Paint Factory

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On Tuesday long time friend and film maker Robert Nixon visited our headquarters on the Gloucester waterfront.  Robert recently finished a seminal documentary Mission Blue with one of our board members, Sylvia Earle.  Bob brought two young explorers who are assisting Sylvia on a series of expeditions to film America’s unknown underwater wonders, Finn Kennedy and Bobby Nixon.  Finn and Bobby toured the site with me as we talked about (on camera) a host of different ocean environmental concerns.  We even got a chance to fly SnotBot and test SnotShot. The resulting documentary “Blue Centennial” seeks to inspire the establishment of some of America’s underwater wonders as blue national parks.
“Bobby & Finn had a clear interest and understanding of the problems facing our oceans,” said CEO Iain Kerr.  “It was a real pleasure to meet and talk with them.”
Finn’s brother Conner Kennedy joined Ocean Alliance’s Research Vessel Odyssey as a crew member in the Gulf of Mexico in 2012, as we worked to better understand the effects of the Deep Horizon disaster on marine mammals.
Scaled[33] FinnBobbyIKSnotBot-Scaled

It’s been an amazing adventure, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 55, July 18, 2012

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Day 55, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Yesterday marked the anniversary of our launch in 2010. It’s been an amazing adventure since then.

As befitting its name, when you work on a boat like Odyssey you learn that there are certain legends of the ship of whom stories are told in heroic style like the epic Greek poem with which it shares it’s name. There are the wonders of the marine life. There are the unique voyages, the Alaska trip, the Galapagos expedition, the global voyage and so on. Then there are the people, you have heard about many in my emails of the past three years, Roger Payne, Iain Kerr, Captain Bob Wallace, Josh Jones and others. They are the history and adventure of the boat.

After three trips and 254 biopsies, these three Gulf voyages have earned their place among Odyssey lore. With the amazing whales, dolphins, turtles, fish, jellies and so on the wildlife has fulfilled its glory and earned its place in the tales. Certainly, with the unprecedented sampling success in both amount and different types and the weather and equipment challenges, the trips have earned their place too. But beyond them, I think three people have now earned their way in the Pantheon of Odyssey legends.

The first and foremost is Johnny. He came to sea with absolutely no experience at sea or with whales. He’d never held a crossbow or sat a watch or done any of the myriad of jobs at sea. he’d rarely ever seen a whale. Yet, with the oil gushing into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, he was one of the four students to immediately join. He volunteered with no pay for the entire 4 months of the voyage, forgoing the usual summer fun that goes with the undergraduate years of college. He volunteered again in year 2 and took on greater duties as science team leader. This time he was on for the entire 3 months of the voyage. Of course, he was here again this year.

With each leg and each voyage and each year, I would add capacity and complexity to the project. He became my right hand and my go to guy whenever I had to have something done. We now sample so many different things and Johnny was my hands for each one, adapting and revising with me the collection methods for all that we do. Much of what we do here at sea, we had never done before and the boat had not been used to do such work. But with Johnny, and Captain Bob, we were always able to add the capacity, modify the boat and collect the samples. Johnny has been my right hand at my side throughout this most incredible journey. He has done it in brilliant style.

It is impossible to give you a full accounting of all that he had done and how much his has meant to the success of this adventure. But here are a few, he took 200 biopsies including 100 in this summer alone. He was so remarkably comfortable and accurate this year, I even saw him reach under the deer stand seat and biopsy backwards as a whale swam behind him. Over the three voyages, he logged near a couple of hundred hours of the 4-6 am helm watch, between 600 and 700 hours on the mast looking for whales and some similar huge amount of hours sitting on the whale boom. He spent 242 days away from home on these trips most of that unpaid. He also wrote a regular email most days. Captain Bob said last night, he figures Johnny may have taken more sperm whale biopsies than anyone else in the world. A remarkable set of accomplishments for a remarkable kid. Great work Johnny!

Our second new legend is our remarkable cook Sandy. I remember well her introduction to being the cook on the boat. Our prior cook had left with about 24 hours notice. I called Sandy. I said “I need a cook, tomorrow. It has to be you. There is no one else.” She had never been to sea and had never cooked on a boat. But ,there was nowhere else to turn in that time frame while speeding toward the oil crisis. She reluctantly agreed and came. She also came to help me with the science.

In that time, more than 60 people have dined on her meals. All have raved. Favorites include enchilada’s, pot roast, mini meatloaves, macaroni and cheese and on and on. Dinner is always a highlight of the day. The food competes with the whales for raves.

But, Sandy does not stop there. If there is a food allergy or dietary preference, she makes sure those needs are met too. I think she may have invented the snack treasure chest which is beloved by all. If not, she certainly keeps is stocked better than ever before. On top of that, she makes deserts and occasional snacks in the middle of the day. Yesterday, as Bob and I brainstormed on the oil cooler it was fresh baked cookies just the delight needed to help with the ideas. She also ensures a full stock of freeze pops and as you know, freeze pops are the key to science at sea success! What can I say Sandy? After 22 years of marriage, three kids, a soccer life and then a science career and then you manage this too? Awesome.

Finally, there is Cathy. Fresh out of her freshman year of college, she followed me out to sea as one of my four volunteers to tackle this oil spill. She had also never been to sea. She logged many hours on the mast and a bunch on the helm. But, her main task was to do what no one ever had. A task everyone said could not be done. She would try to grow whale cells on a sailboat while at sea. As if that was not enough, the air conditioning had failed as she would do it in temperatures above 90 while the rest of us where on whales on deck. The boat would also be rocking like crazy. Amazingly, she did it. She started the lab and that led us to the discovery of the chromosome anomalies we are seeing in the whales. She got the lab working in the 2010 voyage and transferred it to me when she left. She then ran it all of the 2011 voyage. She was exceptional and groundbreaking. Nice job Cathy!

Thanks to all three of you for being a big reason for our stunning success over these past 3 years.

We made it in. Our trip is done for this year. I have to head out to some work in California and then Sandy and I will return to the boat. Pack up the lab and make the long drive home.

It was a remarkable expedition this year. We took 108 biopsies (yes Johnny took all but 8). We did it in the least number of sea days, 31, including days in and out of port when little sampling could be done and days on the water lost to an oil cooler. In 2010, our first voyage, we averaged 0.88 biopsies a sea day. In this 2012 voyage, despite some challenging impediments, we averaged a whopping 3.5 biopsies per sea day!  That is essentially a 400% improvement over three voyages. We have become quite good at what we do!. We of course continued to collect samples of air, water, prey and other life in the Gulf and this year there were more than 1200 samples of all of those combined.

On behalf of myself and my expedition partner, Iain Kerr, thanks to Captain Bob, Hugh Ike, Sandy, Johnny and all of our science crew this year, Tania, Carolyne, Matt, Madison, Amanda, Leah, Lou, Louis, Jaimyal, Conor and Mukhaye. Thanks also to our Wise Laboratory land support Amie Holmes, James Wise, Chris Gianios, Hong Xie  and all the rest of our lab members who all help and are too numerous to list here.. You all helped make this one a memorable year! We appreciate your hard work. We also tip our cap to leadership of both the University of Southern Maine and Ocean Alliance and all of our funders for all of their support. Thank you.

I am not sure what next year will bring. We will be in the Gulf of Maine sampling humpback, fin and right whales in the fall. We are starting a research program in Vieques, Puerto Rico. There we will set up and land-based research lab in partnership with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and a couple of key Foundations and be studying bioluminescence, corals, sea turtles and whales (Hola Lirio, Mark, Angel and Mark!). We hope to back here for our 4th Gulf trip. One thing is for sure, it will be a busy time. We will try to continue to share the adventures with you!

I want to close with two special thank yous. My son James was also one of my first four volunteers. He worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the voyage and beyond raising funds, preparing supplies and training for hazardous waste duty and doing whatever needed to be done. He setup and maintains the Facebook page and the lab webpage posting the logs as fast as he can. He maintains our house, and our pets. He saved the 2010 samples when Fedex nearly lost them. He is in constant touch with me every day while I am away. He is a key and often unnoticed member of this team. But, he is invaluable. Thanks James for all you have done! We could not have done this without you.

Finally, last but not least by any means, my partner and friend Iain Kerr. Iain, words cannot quite do justice for all you and I have done and gone through together these past few years both thick and thin. So let’s just leave it simply at this – Thank You, my friend. You put your heart and soul into all of it and it shows. Take a bow, you have earned one.

With that, I wish you all well and a great rest of the summer. Thank you all for listening, for your thoughts and prayers, for your words of encouragement and for your support.

Until the start of the next chapter,

Good Night,

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

It's been an amazing adventure, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 55, July 18, 2012

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Day 55, Wednesday, July 18, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Yesterday marked the anniversary of our launch in 2010. It’s been an amazing adventure since then.

As befitting its name, when you work on a boat like Odyssey you learn that there are certain legends of the ship of whom stories are told in heroic style like the epic Greek poem with which it shares it’s name. There are the wonders of the marine life. There are the unique voyages, the Alaska trip, the Galapagos expedition, the global voyage and so on. Then there are the people, you have heard about many in my emails of the past three years, Roger Payne, Iain Kerr, Captain Bob Wallace, Josh Jones and others. They are the history and adventure of the boat.

After three trips and 254 biopsies, these three Gulf voyages have earned their place among Odyssey lore. With the amazing whales, dolphins, turtles, fish, jellies and so on the wildlife has fulfilled its glory and earned its place in the tales. Certainly, with the unprecedented sampling success in both amount and different types and the weather and equipment challenges, the trips have earned their place too. But beyond them, I think three people have now earned their way in the Pantheon of Odyssey legends.

The first and foremost is Johnny. He came to sea with absolutely no experience at sea or with whales. He’d never held a crossbow or sat a watch or done any of the myriad of jobs at sea. he’d rarely ever seen a whale. Yet, with the oil gushing into the sea in the Gulf of Mexico, he was one of the four students to immediately join. He volunteered with no pay for the entire 4 months of the voyage, forgoing the usual summer fun that goes with the undergraduate years of college. He volunteered again in year 2 and took on greater duties as science team leader. This time he was on for the entire 3 months of the voyage. Of course, he was here again this year.

With each leg and each voyage and each year, I would add capacity and complexity to the project. He became my right hand and my go to guy whenever I had to have something done. We now sample so many different things and Johnny was my hands for each one, adapting and revising with me the collection methods for all that we do. Much of what we do here at sea, we had never done before and the boat had not been used to do such work. But with Johnny, and Captain Bob, we were always able to add the capacity, modify the boat and collect the samples. Johnny has been my right hand at my side throughout this most incredible journey. He has done it in brilliant style.

It is impossible to give you a full accounting of all that he had done and how much his has meant to the success of this adventure. But here are a few, he took 200 biopsies including 100 in this summer alone. He was so remarkably comfortable and accurate this year, I even saw him reach under the deer stand seat and biopsy backwards as a whale swam behind him. Over the three voyages, he logged near a couple of hundred hours of the 4-6 am helm watch, between 600 and 700 hours on the mast looking for whales and some similar huge amount of hours sitting on the whale boom. He spent 242 days away from home on these trips most of that unpaid. He also wrote a regular email most days. Captain Bob said last night, he figures Johnny may have taken more sperm whale biopsies than anyone else in the world. A remarkable set of accomplishments for a remarkable kid. Great work Johnny!

Our second new legend is our remarkable cook Sandy. I remember well her introduction to being the cook on the boat. Our prior cook had left with about 24 hours notice. I called Sandy. I said “I need a cook, tomorrow. It has to be you. There is no one else.” She had never been to sea and had never cooked on a boat. But ,there was nowhere else to turn in that time frame while speeding toward the oil crisis. She reluctantly agreed and came. She also came to help me with the science.

In that time, more than 60 people have dined on her meals. All have raved. Favorites include enchilada’s, pot roast, mini meatloaves, macaroni and cheese and on and on. Dinner is always a highlight of the day. The food competes with the whales for raves.

But, Sandy does not stop there. If there is a food allergy or dietary preference, she makes sure those needs are met too. I think she may have invented the snack treasure chest which is beloved by all. If not, she certainly keeps is stocked better than ever before. On top of that, she makes deserts and occasional snacks in the middle of the day. Yesterday, as Bob and I brainstormed on the oil cooler it was fresh baked cookies just the delight needed to help with the ideas. She also ensures a full stock of freeze pops and as you know, freeze pops are the key to science at sea success! What can I say Sandy? After 22 years of marriage, three kids, a soccer life and then a science career and then you manage this too? Awesome.

Finally, there is Cathy. Fresh out of her freshman year of college, she followed me out to sea as one of my four volunteers to tackle this oil spill. She had also never been to sea. She logged many hours on the mast and a bunch on the helm. But, her main task was to do what no one ever had. A task everyone said could not be done. She would try to grow whale cells on a sailboat while at sea. As if that was not enough, the air conditioning had failed as she would do it in temperatures above 90 while the rest of us where on whales on deck. The boat would also be rocking like crazy. Amazingly, she did it. She started the lab and that led us to the discovery of the chromosome anomalies we are seeing in the whales. She got the lab working in the 2010 voyage and transferred it to me when she left. She then ran it all of the 2011 voyage. She was exceptional and groundbreaking. Nice job Cathy!

Thanks to all three of you for being a big reason for our stunning success over these past 3 years.

We made it in. Our trip is done for this year. I have to head out to some work in California and then Sandy and I will return to the boat. Pack up the lab and make the long drive home.

It was a remarkable expedition this year. We took 108 biopsies (yes Johnny took all but 8). We did it in the least number of sea days, 31, including days in and out of port when little sampling could be done and days on the water lost to an oil cooler. In 2010, our first voyage, we averaged 0.88 biopsies a sea day. In this 2012 voyage, despite some challenging impediments, we averaged a whopping 3.5 biopsies per sea day!  That is essentially a 400% improvement over three voyages. We have become quite good at what we do!. We of course continued to collect samples of air, water, prey and other life in the Gulf and this year there were more than 1200 samples of all of those combined.

On behalf of myself and my expedition partner, Iain Kerr, thanks to Captain Bob, Hugh Ike, Sandy, Johnny and all of our science crew this year, Tania, Carolyne, Matt, Madison, Amanda, Leah, Lou, Louis, Jaimyal, Conor and Mukhaye. Thanks also to our Wise Laboratory land support Amie Holmes, James Wise, Chris Gianios, Hong Xie  and all the rest of our lab members who all help and are too numerous to list here.. You all helped make this one a memorable year! We appreciate your hard work. We also tip our cap to leadership of both the University of Southern Maine and Ocean Alliance and all of our funders for all of their support. Thank you.

I am not sure what next year will bring. We will be in the Gulf of Maine sampling humpback, fin and right whales in the fall. We are starting a research program in Vieques, Puerto Rico. There we will set up and land-based research lab in partnership with the Vieques Conservation and Historical Trust and a couple of key Foundations and be studying bioluminescence, corals, sea turtles and whales (Hola Lirio, Mark, Angel and Mark!). We hope to back here for our 4th Gulf trip. One thing is for sure, it will be a busy time. We will try to continue to share the adventures with you!

I want to close with two special thank yous. My son James was also one of my first four volunteers. He worked tirelessly in the months leading up to the voyage and beyond raising funds, preparing supplies and training for hazardous waste duty and doing whatever needed to be done. He setup and maintains the Facebook page and the lab webpage posting the logs as fast as he can. He maintains our house, and our pets. He saved the 2010 samples when Fedex nearly lost them. He is in constant touch with me every day while I am away. He is a key and often unnoticed member of this team. But, he is invaluable. Thanks James for all you have done! We could not have done this without you.

Finally, last but not least by any means, my partner and friend Iain Kerr. Iain, words cannot quite do justice for all you and I have done and gone through together these past few years both thick and thin. So let’s just leave it simply at this – Thank You, my friend. You put your heart and soul into all of it and it shows. Take a bow, you have earned one.

With that, I wish you all well and a great rest of the summer. Thank you all for listening, for your thoughts and prayers, for your words of encouragement and for your support.

Until the start of the next chapter,

Good Night,

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Day 52 Edit, July 14, 2012

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Day 52 edited, Sunday, July14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Its 1:15 am on the east coast, but Cathy posts a careful watch over my work and found a confusing typo.  The passage should read (correction in bold & underline):

Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 42. This number is tightly regulated and maintained.

Cathy has been a night owl since she was born.  Helped me by sleeping in as a baby and now editing as an adult.

Good night again.

John


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A game of cellular whodunit, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 52, July 14, 2012

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Day 52, Sunday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Within a cell the DNA is maintained in structures called chromosomes. These are a combination of DNA and protein that ultimately package the DNA so that when a cell divides into two, each daughter cell gets exactly 1 set of the set of DNA instructions.

My career has been dedicated to studying the impact of pollutants like chromium, depleted uranium, nanoparticles, nickel and other chemicals on chromosomes and the DNA within them. It is a passion I discovered and an approach I learned under my mentor, Steve Patierno, who shares the same passion (Thanks Steve!). While working with Steve, and following my years with him, my major focus was understanding how these chemicals turn normal cells into tumor cells by altering chromosome structure and number, damaging DNA and altering the cellular mechanisms that regulate and protect these structures. We are still extensively involved in this work and have extended it into pioneering the study of how pollutants damage chromosomes and DNA in marine species.

Each species has a specific set number of chromosomes. Humans have 46 chromosomes. 22 matched pairs, 11 that come from mom and 11 that come from dad. Plus 1 pair of sex chromosomes known as the X and Y chromosomes. Females are XX gaining one X from each parent. Males are XY getting an X from mom and a Y from dad.  Sperm whales have 42 chromosomes, 20 matched pairs plus the two sex chromosomes. The particular number of chromosomes is not unique to one species as for example other whales have 42 chromosomes, but the specific number is unique to a species as sperm whales always have 46. This number is tightly regulated and maintained. Alterations in this number can have dramatic consequences. Down’s syndrome is a consequence of a one extra chromosome (number 21). Lung cancers often have more than 60 chromosomes.

You can harvest and prepare cells so that you can see their chromosomes. Roughly speaking, in these preparations – the chromosomes look kind of like an “X” or if the arms are closed an “I”. You can chemically treat the chromosomes in the laboratory to reveal a pattern of dark and light bands that is specific to each pair of chromosomes. The patterns are not defined as simply as 1 dark followed by, 2 light followed by 1 dark or anything like that. There are too many. Instead, they are described in more abstract terms. For example, chromosome 18, when banded, looks like a gummi bear.  In our lab, it is known more as the Wallace chromosome given Captain Bob’s legendary passion for eating gummi bears. The X chromosome is known as the “girl in a bikini” because the most prominent dark bands are placed where one might imagine a bikini. The nicknames continue for each pair and really help teach chromosome recognition. Sandy excels at this analysis.

The pairs of banded chromosomes can be organized on a piece of paper or computer screen into a template called a karyotype that roughly organizes them from largest to smallest. The karyotype is unique to each species. I have attached a picture of a human karyotype that Sandy made. This one is male with an X and Y chromosome. Can you see the Wallace gummi bear chromosome (#18) and the girl in the bikini chromosome (X)? Johnny and I are working to define a variety of whale karyotypes including one for sperm whales. We have not yet devised clever names for their chromosomes as we are still learning them.

Damage to the structure of the chromosomes, which shows up as an alterations in the banding pattern, can have as dramatic consequences as alterations in chromosome numbers.

Our society has decided that the impact of damaging chromosomes is so significant that testing for a chemical’s ability to damage them is a standard test for evaluating the safety of new drugs and determining health risk. Both the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) include chromosome damage testing as a required test in their protocols. If a pharmaceutical company develops a new drug and it damages chromosomes, it will not be approved by the FDA for use. When a company is developing a drug and it breaks chromosomes, they stop its development and move on to another. The only exception is the rare instance when the disease is so lethal the risk of chromosome damage is the lesser of two evils.

We are applying these same tests to the Gulf whales. We are finding the chromosomes in some whales are affected.  This outcome is another answer to that repeated question – What are you finding?

We have grown cell lines from each whale and assessed the status of their chromosomes. The analysis reveals different groups of whales. Some whales appear to be normal. Others appear to have their chromosomes affected. It is a major concern as aberrant chromosomes can lead to many long term negative outcomes.  We believe we have ruled out possible experimental artifacts. Thus, it suggests something out here is affecting the whales on a fundamental level.

For us in the Wise Lab, it now becomes a game of cellular whodunit as we attempt to piece together the factors that may explain what is causing this effect. It might be the metals. It might be the oil. It might be the dispersants. It might be some combination of them. We shall find out. I don’t think its global warming. But, regardless of why, the outcome is not good.

It was a slow day at sea today. The kind of day that lulls you into a quiet state. No whales on the array. No dolphins on the bow. Just the general routine of a team ascending and descending the mast looking for whales in a vast ocean space.

We did see one, maybe two. That made for some excitement as it was a beaked whale, maybe two. But, alas it was too far off and while we found it twice (or two different whales once each), we could not get close enough to sample it nor could we stay with it any further. We also saw a small sea turtle in the Sargasso weed. We did collect some samples as this team did its first Sargasso weed collection of the leg (Picture attached).

So a couple of perks to a day filled with the rhythm of a steady routine.

I’ll end tonight with the sunset (picture attached)

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.752N, 88.877W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

A day at sea can be remarkable, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 51, July 14, 2012

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Day 51, Saturday, July 14, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

A day at sea can be remarkable from beginning to end even when events are somewhat unremarkable. The ocean will provide for interesting things to see and opportunities for close camaraderie.  Take today for example.

The day seemed ordinary enough for a whale group at sea. The sun was glistening in the sky. The team was busy bustling with the work of the day. A gentle breeze blew across the bow. It was a typical pleasant morning in the Gulf, albeit on where a whale had not yet been sighted. One you relish for its calm beauty and try to soak in the moments.

Yet, there was more. This morning offered the subtle and gentle sight of mirror water. Water so calm and gentle you can see yourself reflected in it as if looking in a mirror. I imagine a more sea-going wicked witch in Snow White might have used it saying, “Mirror, Mirror on the sea, who is fairest, please tell me”.  Unlikely, the answer would be Snow White out here though. Maybe Sun Tan instead? But, I digress.

Mirror water is just remarkable and you stare at it just amazed at how calm and reflective it is. It is a quiet but precious gift that jazzes up a slow day at sea. I have attached a couple of pictures of the water surface. One shows reflections of the boat, sun, clouds and whale boom. The other shows a reflection of me taking a picture of the water with the word “Research” that is painted on the side of the boat reflected as well.

Mirror water also raises the bar on the challenge of finding whales. The water is so still and the whales can be so calm in some of their movements that they are hard to see. But, find one we did. Conor spotted the dorsal fin in the distance ahead and we captured our 94th whale biopsy of the summer. The team was quick, thorough and efficient as befits a team taking its 27th biopsy of the leg.  I have attached the picture of the pending biopsy with Johnny on the whale boom and you can see how calm the water is around the whale and how little of the whale shows.  Now, picture that whale a mile off and you can understand why it’s so hard to find.  Nice job Conor!

The afternoon would be yet different.  A series of scattered thunderstorms interfered with many whale watches, but, provided the opportunity for camaraderie and fun. Lunchtime brought a warm Gulf rain and you know what that means… Yep, the Mainiacs from Maine (me and Johnny) rush out and enjoy a summer shower. Mukhaye, Jai and Ike came out and enjoyed the fun and horseplay that comes with a summer rain on deck. The two Lou’s watched us from above on the aft platform. We were soaked, but we laughed and played like little kids in a lawn sprinkler from days of yore.

Later in the day brought a team games of cards as Johnny, Lou Falank, Jai, Conor and Mukhaye gathered around the galley table for a variety of games (picture attached with them sitting in that order). Evening brought dinner and movies in the salon. It is a team that certainly enjoys each other’s company.

But, there were other outdoor amazements as well. Although, they rock the boat a bit, scattered thunderstorms bring amazing cloud formations and dancing lightning in the distance that is a marvel to watch. I have attached a picture of the view from the salon of the clouds on starboard showing the contrast between clouds and sea.  Clearing skies bring rainbows and today we were treated to a full arc of a double rainbow (picture attached of one end). Makes you wonder if whales are the treasure under those rainbows.  Kermit and Dorothy would certainly love them and seeing them can make you break out in their songs…

“Why are there so many songs about rainbows and what’s on the other side?  Rainbows are visions, but only illusions, and rainbows have nothing to hide. So we’ve been told and some choose to believe it.  I know they’re wrong, wait and see. Someday we’ll find it, the rainbow connection. The lovers, the dreamers and me.”.

and Dorothy’s song from the Wizard of Oz…

“Somewhere over the rainbow, Way up high, There’s a land that I heard of Once in a lullaby. Somewhere over the rainbow, Skies are blue, And the dreams that you dare to dream Really do come true.”

They really do.

You know the songs, sing along!

Finally, there is the sunset.  Sunsets are always amazing after some weather has come through. The cloud formations are painted by the sun in the most amazing displays of colors, light and textures. Words just cannot do it justice so a picture is attached. It’s simple stunning.

I think the team is recovered now from its whale mayhem of the first two days. We will soon turn deep to find some. Let’s hope we do.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.458N, 90.699W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

So what are we finding?, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 50, July 13, 2012

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Day 50, Friday, July 13, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

On March 24, 1989, the oil tanker Exxon Valdez hit a reef in Prince William Sound, Alaska and released an estimated 11 million gallons of oil into the water. It was the largest oil spill in U.S. waters. Despite the disaster, little research was done on the impact on whales beyond the immediate acute toll of whale deaths due to being covered in oil. Twenty three years later, the longer term consequences are now emerging as a pod of killer whales in the area, once healthy and strong, will soon be completely wiped out and gone. No one studied the effects of that crisis on whale DNA.

On April 20th, 2010, this Deepwater Horizon accident occurred and dramatically eclipsed the Exxon Valdez accident is size and concern. In fact, it is estimated that the an amount of oil equivalent to the Exxon Valdez accident gushed from the well head in the Gulf of Mexico every 3-4 days. The spill lasted at least 85 days or 21-28 Exxon Valdez equivalents. It was so large – you could see it from space (NASA satellite photo attached). A large follow-up spill was seen in 2011 covering several square miles and was a confirmed chemical match for the oil from Deepwater Horizon (that was the one Iain). This past March revealed a persistent leak (aka “seep”) near the epicenter. Again the major focus was on how many whales died. But, this time we are on the case and seeking to learn the lessons about oils spills and their effects on whale DNA.

I am often asked what we are finding in the Gulf.  It’s a straightforward question, but the answer is more complex and subtle. I think the real question behind it is something more like- how bad is it down there? or Are the whales going to be ok?  Still the answers to even those questions are hard to provide and figure out. I worry too that since the answers are not simple and dramatic the meaning of them may be downplayed in an economically troubled time. It seems some think we should only worry about losing whales if they have significant economic value. That seems entirely shortsighted and simply wrong to me, but yes I can ascribe an economic value to why we need to worry about whales.

We were all troubled by the images of birds, dolphins and turtles bathed in crude oil, while the oil continued to gush in the Gulf. The images were dramatic as were the health consequences to many of those individuals. But, with the removal of the oil from the surface, those dramatic images, where the affliction is obvious to everyone, cease to be shown. I mean everyone knows a bird cloaked from head to tail in oil is not a good thing. But, the only thing that ceases for the health concerns are that they are no longer obvious to all. They are still very real and problematic, but they become very hard to see.

Furthermore, the default expectation is that with the oil gone from view some other environmental stressor must be the cause of any observed ill effects. It seems that the explanation that oil caused the effect has become the least likely possible cause, only suggested after all others have been exhausted.  For example, the past 2 years have seen  a huge spike in the number of dolphin deaths in the Gulf. I have heard government officials present the data and attribute it to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming and a virus, but never as a consequence of 210 million gallons of oil and 2 million gallons of chemical dispersants being suddenly released into the Gulf. Perhaps, it is because they are not allowed to speak of measurements they surely must have made to rule in or out the effects of the spill. I am not sure. But, I’d like to know. Maybe someday, we finally will.

So goes the challenge for our data. Our focus is on DNA and could the oil, or dispersants applied to the oil or the metals within the oil damage DNA in the whales. DNA is on the material upon which all life depends, whether bacteria, plant or animal, whether human or whale. DNA codes the information that gives up the bodies we have and the features we are known by. Each species DNA contains all the instructions needed to create a person, a whale, a turtle a fish and so on. It is our genetic blueprint. Each cell in our body contains these instructions and uses the information in them to carry out its particular specific function. Damaging DNA in those cells alter those instructions and alters the fate of those affected cells.

Sometimes the cells can repair the damage and recover. Sometimes they cannot. Sometimes the fate of the damaged cell is to simply die. Sometimes the fate is to more dire and the cell becomes the foundation of a tumor or other health aberration. If the damage occurs in a sperm or egg cell or in a cell in a growing embryo, the consequences can include infertility, spontaneous abortions, birth defects and developmental abnormalities. None are good for people. None are good for whales. It’s just not a good thing to damage DNA.

To do this work definitively and say specifically it was the oil from the spill that caused the effects, the experiment would involve different tanks of sperm whales in the laboratory that would be exposed to varying levels of crude oil from the spill, dispersed oil from the spill, dispersants used in the spill and metals from the oil in the spill. The whales would be watched for a period of years to see what toxic outcome occurred. That approach is clearly not possible as there are no tanks of whales in the laboratory and insufficient quantities of oil and dispersed oil available from the spill if there were. Thus, we have to consider a less definitive study and instead recreate conditions in the laboratory that mimic the chemicals from the spill.  Instead of exposing whole whales, we treat whale cells.

Our measures in the whales themselves are limited to what we can reliably tell from a skin biopsy. We have no access to lung, or liver or kidney or testes or ovary tissues in these living whales. In other words, we will have to learn what we can from a small piece of skin and blubber and infer from there.

Accordingly, we have collected these biopsies and used the skin to tell us the levels of oil-related metals like chromium and nickel. We will use the blubber to tell us the levels of oil and dispersants. We will grow cells from the small razor thin area where the skin and blubber meet to tell us if there is DNA damage in the whales, themselves. These data will then be combined with our laboratory studies dosing whale cells with the oil-related chemicals to present a picture of what an oil spill could do to whales and their DNA.

What we cannot do is definitively tie these exposures and these outcomes to this specific spill. The reason – there is no way to definitively show the chemicals we find came from this spill. If the oil enters the whale, the body will metabolize the oil into another form and irradicate it’s unique chemical signature. Hence any evidence of oil in the whale will be dismissed by critics as merely a part of life in the Gulf and due to natural seeps on the bottom of the Gulf or perhaps another spill. Similarly it goes for the dispersants, though with them so little is known that the possible metabolism and the things to measure are poorly understood. The metals have a yet different confounder as it’s not so much their metabolism that is an issue, but rather they are elemental in nature and have no unique signature. Chromium and nickel are basic elements. We can measure them, but we cannot identify their original source.

Thus, when all of our data is in. We will have a clear picture of what an oil spill can do to whales and their DNA. We will know that an oil spill occurred here in the Gulf that was the worst marine accidental spill in the world’s history. But, it will have to be up to each person to decide if the outcomes we find were due to this unprecedented,  mammoth release of oil into the Gulf and its subsequent release from surface burns into the marine air (which the whales breathe) or merely a product of the small natural seeps of oil on the bottom of the Gulf and is just how life is in the Gulf. The evidence will tell us about oil spills and whales, but only you can decide if it is due to this oil spill affecting these whales. I imagine some will still conclude our outcomes are due to global warming or a virus or perhaps global warming causing a virus.  I know, absurd, but it will be said.

So what are we finding?

Well, we started by focusing on oil-related metals. Specifically, chromium and nickel.  Why these and not the oil and dispersants?  Its two parts really – one part science and one part budget. The simplest reason is budget. Analyzing for organic chemicals like crude oil and dispersants are much more expensive than analyzing for metals. With a very limited budget, we would get more samples done by focusing on the metals. But, more important than budget was the science. Currently, the best measures for oil and dispersants in whale tissues have not been determined. By contrast, the best measures for metals are known. Thus, while we wait for the chemistry of what to measure to be better defined, we have focused on metals in the whale tissue.

Thus, we have started with chromium and nickel. Both are known to be present in oil. Both are known to damage DNA and chromosomes in humans and experimental animals. We first measured them in oil from the spill. We measured chromium and nickel in tarballs collected on Gulf beaches at the start of the spill, and in oil collected from the Deepwater Horizon riser and found them to be present, well above trace levels,  in the several part-per-million (ppm) range. We confirmed that chromium and nickel were in the oil from this particular oil spill. Next up were the whales.

Biological systems like whales are known to concentrate chemicals found in their environment. It is a consequence of the physiology of complex organisms and the biochemistry of the interaction of the specific chemicals and that physiology and underlying cell biology. We measured chromium and nickel levels in the whales we sampled in 2010. We found them to be high, very high. In fact some of the whales had some of the highest levels of chromium and nickel in the world.

How do we know they are among the highest in the world?  Well, from 2000-2005, Ocean Alliance collected sperm whale biopsies from around the world. We used those samples to determine a global baseline for chromium and nickel levels in sperm whales.  Gulf animals were not included in that study, which was conducted 5 years before the accident. When we compared the Gulf whales to the whales from the rest of the world, the average chromium levels were in the Gulf whales were 1.4-times higher that the rest of the world  and nickel levels were 6.5 times higher in the Gulf whales that the rest of the world. Both increases were statistically significant.

As I mentioned both chromium and nickel can damage DNA leading to health effects in humans and experimental animals. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. We are testing nickel now. We have found elevated DNA problems in both Bryde’s and sperm whales.

Thus, phase 1 of our testing finds elevated chromium and nickel in the oil from the spill and elevated chromium and nickel in the whales. We find elevated DNA problems in the whales. We find that chromium can damage DNA in sperm whale cells. Nickel data are pending. The dots are not hard to connect. We are working to connect them further.

There is still more work to do.  We are working hard to do it. I worry about these whales and what this spill means for them and other whales and marine life affected by future spills. I hope you do too.

It was a quiet day on the boat. One biopsy taken before scattered thunderstorms forced us all into a much needed day of rest.  The sunset was spectacular orange against a blue sea (the Wise Lab colors!) and we had a lovely dinner under the stars.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.676N, 91.010W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

we deserved the chance to slump, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 49, July 12, 2012

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Day 49, Thursday, July 12, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

It was exactly as I feared. The kid woke me up even earlier today!  This time it was 6:30 am and by 6:45 am, we had our first biopsy. It was the start to a very long day that 18 hours later finds me still up and writing to you.

One of the fun things about these voyages is that one creates over time a collection of voyage lore. Unusual events that become ingrained in the fabric of our memories of time at sea through the mention of certain events in hushed tones or the regaling new crew with the events of that time. Stories like the trip around Hatteras in a gale, or the refrigerator contents falling into the lab cabin, or James’s 2 am trip to Fedex to save the samples or the South Carolina transmission trip.

Perhaps, at the top of the list for our Gulf of Mexico lore, sits the story of the day of 18 whales sampled by lunch. Some of you might remember that day, it was during the 2010 voyage. September 10th to be exact.  We had many days and weeks without seeing any whales that year. The spill had clearly driven them away.  I wrote then:

“It’s hard to describe the events of the day as it was a tale of two cities. The best of times the worst of times etc. By 8:30 am, we had taken 4 biopsies. By 9:30 am it was 8 biopsies. By noon, we had collected 18 biopsies. Everyone was doing everything working as a well oiled machine. If you did the math carefully you would find we were averaging a biopsy about every 15 minutes!

Except of course biopsies don’t come in every 15 minutes. No, instead they come in bunches of twos and threes and fours. It takes us longer than 15 minutes to process one in the lab. In no time, it was all Matt and I could do to keep up with the flow of samples. Our jobs had shrunk to a small space rarely seeing much of the outside. I swear all I did for 2 hours continuously was wash and clean glassware, forceps and knives while Matt continued to process the tissue. 18 whales in less than 5 hours! What at day. ”

I remember thinking then about how much easier it would have been to have those 18 whales spread over the day instead of compressed in such a short amount of time. Well, there is an old saying that I myself often say – “Be careful what you wish for”. Today was just that day that I wondered about. We started at 6:30 am. We stopped sampling whales at 8:00 pm. We collected 17 biopsies over the course of the day.

The first one came at 6:45 am. By 8:10, we had four.  By lunchtime we had 8. After that, I lost track. We had exactly the day I thought would be better and easier to manage. We had whales all day. What did I learn?  It does not matter whether you sample them all by lunch or whether it takes all day- 17 biopsies is simply exhausting.

The problem with 17 over the course of a day is that while the pace of sampling, collecting and processing is more manageable. There is no let up. You are on deck and on whales all the time. Jai even did 7 hours on the mast including a 5-hour straight stint!  Louis Hall and Conor were up there quite a long time too. At dinner, Jai thanked the team for visiting him on the mast over the course of the day (for the record, he did choose to be up there that long. I didn’t forget him). We all chuckled.

I had Conor running all over the boat collecting arrows, buoys, logging data, delivering items to Johnny on the boom, spotting whales on the aft platform and of course visiting Jai while he was up there. Johnny was his usual biopsy machine self sampling whale after whale after whale racing between the whale boom for a starboard side sample and the bowsprit for a portside sample. He took all 17 of the biopsies and Sandy processed every one, in addition to her taking photo-id pictures, laying out lunch and cooking our dinner.

The others too worked their tails off.  Mukhaye was logging data, taking pictures, filling in on photo-id for Sandy and of course visiting Jai and spotting whales from the aft platform. Louis Hall would spot whales and visit with Jai and, while he was on deck, haul in arrows and buoys and deliver arrows out to Johnny on the whale boom. Lou Falank found our 6:30 am whale among many others, was always ready in the bowsprit as our secondary biopsier should Johnny falter and of course spotted whales from the mast and visited Jai.

Our helm crew, Captain Bob, Hugh and Ike were steady and steering all day long.  I think their arms may fall off from having turned that wheel so much. Captain Bob even showed off his deft arrow and buoy collecting skills especially when using his toes for arrows that escaped the net.  They didn’t get the chance to visit Jai, but Hugh did finally manage to replace him on the mast. Oh and in case you are wondering, when Jai was his perch in the morning, he helped with pictures and data logging and even an arrow and buoy retrieval.

Great work by a fantastic team!  17 biopsies today, giving us a total of 25 in two days!

By the end, everyone was exhausted. Bodies were slumped everywhere. Slumped on the end of the whale boom, slumped in the bowsprit, slumped on the aft platform, slumped on top of the salon and in the salon, slumped on the foredeck, the aft deck and even in the pilothouse. I am betting had I looked, there was even one slumped in the lab.  But, hey after 13 and a half hours with whales- we deserved the chance to slump!

Our day was so excellent that even Captain Bob, normally a quiet and reserved man, was moved to a demonstrative display of approval – picture attached.

I have attached a picture of the team at work. Louis Hall is in the orange shirt. Johnny is on the whale boom, Sandy has the camera in the foredeck. Conor is logging data. Lou Falank is in the bowsprit. Also attached are photos of a squid mantle we collected that Bob spotted floating at the surface, a cool rainbow that energized our spirits and the sunset that ended our day.

To Bob, Johnny, Sandy, Conor, Mukhaye, Lou, Jai, Louis, Hugh and Ike- on behalf of Iain Kerr and myself- thank you for all your hard work and an amazing day!

The team is sleeping and at rest. I better go join them.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.253N, 89.423W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

First-day-of-a-leg record!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 48, July 11, 2012

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Day 48, Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Over the past three years of Gulf voyages we have switched out members on each leg and launched with different teams. Each team has its own distinct identity and leaves an indelible mark in our memory and some live on in Odyssey lore and we reminisce about the many trips past. The last leg’s team was characterized by a pleasant nature and a spirit of volunteerism and set a Odyssey Gulf record for most biopsies on a leg and daily average. This team is different and I am still learning its personality, but today we certainly made our mark.

It’s only been one day at sea, but I would describe this team as flexible and highly energetic. The team has been up early and folks were ready for their watches as much as an hour before then had to go up! They were ahead of the curve in effort and raring to go. We were with whales so often I was swapping roles left and right. 5 different people collected data and 6 different people worked the net and everyone but me, Johnny and Bob were on the mast or the pilothouse spotting whales, arrows and buoys. We also caught fish, collected water and tried for squid. No go yet on the squid. It was a remarkably flexible and productive group on their first day and what a day it was.

It started early with Johnny waking me at 7 am that whales were spotted close. Having not made it to sleep until 2 am – this day started early for me.  Alas, that whale was not seen again, but Johnny worked the helm keeping us near whales and then Captain Bob took over and brought us right to them.  Bob after all is our secret weapon!

About 10:30 am, I made our first whale call of the day. Conor and Jai were up on the mast and Jai had spotted a whale, his first.  We would then be on whales for the next two and a half hours and by 1 pm we had 5 biopsies in the boat!  The whales were clicking all over the array like popcorn. The next few hours passed by in a wink.

About 4:30 pm I made my last whale call of the day. Conor and Louis Hall were on the mast and Conor had spotted whales dead ahead. Captain Bob again led us to them as our team scrambled into place and over the next 4 hours we collected another 3 biopsies.

All told, approximately 6 and half hours on deck on whales and 8 biopsies collected. That my friends is a first-day-of-a-leg record! 8 biopsies on the first day at depth!  Great teamwork by an energetic group!

There were treats to the day too. At times there were whales everywhere and whales are simply eye candy. We say several juveniles including one that swam right under me aside the pilot house., We say one whale lob tailing in an impressive display of power and strength. Lob tailing is when the whale turns vertical in the water with its tail up in the air, kind of like when we do hand stands on the bottom of the pool.  The whale then slaps it tail over and over on the top of the water with a loud splash.  It is a really impressive sight to see and hear. I think the first year there was one lob tailing a few miles from the boat and we could hear the impact of each splash.

The day ended quite late with dinner after nine. But, we all gathered at the aft table and ate another of Sandy’s tasty meals over some quiet conversation. I pity the cook that follows after Sandy on this boat.  That will be some big shoes er plates to fill.

I have attached pictures of a juvenile with its mother, the whale with its tail vertical about to slam it on the surface of the sea and the team looking for whales.  No sunset photo today as we were all occupied with finding the last arrow with the 8th biopsy well past sunset. Lou Falank spotted it and we collected in and the day ended well. In the team picture Johnny is on the whale boom, Jai is in the white t-shirt and green sneakers, Conor is in the gray t-shirt and sitting on the doghouse, Lou Falank is crouched down in the bowsprit. Ike is in the cap. Not seen are Mukhaye who was in the crow’s nest, Louis Hall who was on the aft platform, Hugh who was on the pilothouse, Sandy who was in the lab and Captain Bob and me who were in the pilothouse.  It’s a fine team!

Now, I need to rest my weary bones because if I know Johnny, he’ll be
trying to wake me even earlier tomorrow!

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
28.511N, 89.100W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Don't Look Back , ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

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Day 47, Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Port can be long or it can be short. This call was short though we did have some fun.  James flew down (it was good to see him after these many weeks) and we went to a see the rock band Boston in concert. It has become something of a family tradition as it was Johnny’s 4th and James’s 3rd time seeing them in concert. It is not a group that tours often, but it is always a blast.

I first saw them in concert in the spring of 1977 when they did their first tour. I was 11 and in 7th grade. My brother Michael who was 15 introduced me to them. It was simply awesome. Whether it was because I was 11, or because Mike introduced me to them, I am not sure, but they immediately became my favorite band and I went again to their concert in 1978. They would not tour again until 1987 and that year found me hitchhiking to it with my old friend Tim.  After that the next U.S. tour was 1997 and Sandy’s first one. I was stunned to learn this one this year was my 9th Boston concert.  It seems the only one I missed was a tour that lasted a week or so in 1988 and was in Canada. Of course Sandy has been to six, so its not just me… I did try once to get Michael to go with me again, but sadly he’s moved on to other tastes. Meanwhile the boys have joined me in the appreciation for the energy, the music and the message in the songs. Cathy came once and is a secret fan. We are not groupies as we have no tshirts or paraphernalia, but we do enjoy the songs and the show.

If you have never heard Boston. I would highly recommend you give them a listen. If you know then and have not listened for a long time try I suggest you go with “Foreplay/Long Time” – Johnny’s favorite. For my friends wrestling with frustration I suggest you try “Peace of Mind” – probably my favorite, but it’s hard to choose. For my friends dealing with change, I suggest “Don’t Look Back” – one of Sandy’s favorites and up there for all of us. For you Michael- it simply has to be “More than a Feeling” – the original classic.  Listen to words. Hear the message. Feel the music and the energy. Crank up the volume.  Go ahead try it.

But, here is the key.  Boston is best played- full volume. You really have to turn it up and dance. Blast the doors off (pun intended Michael) and feel the moment.

We are back on the swells and out to get more samples.  Captain Bob, first mate Hugh, second mate Ike, Johnny as primary biopsier and science team leader, and Sandy as photo-Ider and cook are all here and of course me.  Our new crew are

-Lou Falank, a technician in my laboratory who will be our backup biopsier;

-Mukhaye Muchimuti, an high school teacher from Hyde Academy in Bath Maine. who will be our data logger.

-Jaimyal Lindsey, an undergraduate from Mississippi Valley State College who will be our close-in photographer;

-Dr. Louis Hall, a Professor at  Mississippi Valley State College who will be a spotter while on whales;

and

– Conor Kennedy, a junior at Deerfield Academy, who will be on net/arrow recovery.

Attached is a picture of the team. Front right is Jaimyal in the gray t-shirt. To his right are Captain Bob with the sunglasses around his neck, Sandy and then Mukhaye in the black pants. Behind Jaimyal in the red is Louis Hall. To his right are Ike in the orange shirt and cap, Lou Falank in the black tank top, and Hugh in the light t-shirt and cap. Behind Ike is me, then the mast to my right, then Johnny in orange and Conor in the light blue tshirt.

I have also attached a picture of Boston playing at the concert and our cool sunset.

I will close with a quote from a Boston lyric – “Don’t look back. A new day is breaking.”  and for us let’s hope it has whales!

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.018N, 88.874W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

We are in Biloxi!, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 43

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Day 43, Friday, July 6, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

As if mother nature read my last note, we had some wavy weather coming in. Nothing too serious for too long, but enough to rock us about a bit and give the new folks a taste of rougher seas. Not sure where exactly the storm came from (mom…) as it was not forecast, but we made it through just fine.

We are now headed into port and I imagine by the time I hit send, we will be there.  Here we will say goodbye to Amanda, Leah. Madison and Matt.  They were a great crew! When you exclude the sea time it takes to get out to the whales and then back into port, they averaged 7 whale biopsies a day a truly exceptional accomplishment! Port will be a time to relax, refresh, refuel and restock. James will be down for a weekend visit so it will be good to see him.  I will be in touch again when we return to sea.

I want to take one moment to recognize Matt. When we launched this effort in 2010, Matt was one of my first volunteers and one of only 4 to volunteer for sailing into the oil spill itself while the oil was still flowing. He showed exceptional courage and commitment to give up volunteer 4 months of his time that year to join us in this quest. He did every job we asked and worked through seasickness, heat, storms and exhaustion. He was unable to come last year, but here he was again volunteering to help this year in style.

For those who have followed since day 1, Matt was one of our original members of the monkey brotherhood and shared many a frozen banana with me in the bow. Our 2010 banana shopping spree remains a staple of voyage lore. Thanks Matt for 2 voyages of excellent help at sea. I look forward to seeing you back in the lab when I return.  Enjoy Minnesota and the family reunion!

We are in Biloxi!

Talk to you soon.

Good night.

John

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Thriving in chaos, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

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Day 41, Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Happy 4th of July!

I found a new version of frenetic. Amongst my good friends, I have something of a reputation for, well, thriving in chaos they call it. I can picture each one of them shaking their heads and chuckling each time I tell the latest news. Well, today, chaos reigned and we all thrived out here in the Gulf!   See what I mean – more head shaking and chucking and I haven’t even told the story yet!

It started out simply. Last night, I received a tip from a colleague about where to find whales in deeper water. You might remember, we tried deeper water  in the first leg and found absolutely nothing. But, still, it stuck in my mind that there were whales in the deeper water that I couldn’t find (for those of you that remember James and the lost FedEx samples during the 2010 voyage – well, now you know where he gets that tenacity from). Anyway, my colleague, who will remain nameless, gave me a confidential map and from it where to extrapolate and maybe find those deeper water whales. At least it would put us in the general ballpark.

Whale samples have become our version of hidden treasure and I just could not resist the chance to find another cluster. Despite our earlier failings, we turned the boat towards still deeper water. Murmurs of my insanity went around as those veterans of our last foray into the deep explained that we would see nothing. Not even a bird.

Since it was new territory and we had no real idea where the whales might be, Captain Bob suggested we motor and search through the night. I agreed and with that we started our quest. The array was silent.

I awoke to Johnny cooking 4th of July pancakes for the team (red and blue pancakes) and the general bustle of a day of watches. Everyone went about the key routines. The array was silent.

I sat down to write. Johnny pulled in a Sargasso weed sample and went on watch. The rest of the science crew began to collect samples. The water was flat calm. The array remained silent.

I wrote and wrote as it seems I do every day now. When I heard it. Click after click after click – it sounded like a popcorn machine. It was 11:00 am and we had found whales!

I stepped out on deck and shouted up to Johnny – “I’ve got a popcorn machine in here. Many loud clicks. Now find me whale!”  He nodded.

Thirty seconds later, Johnny yelled down “Whale dead ahead”. But, it fluked. He then radioed down “Well, I kept up my end of the bargain. I found a whale!”.

I told him it that one didn’t count. It was just a fluke… I know bad joke.  But, within a few minutes he spotted another.

“No. Wait.”, he called.  “It’s just dolphins”.

It was here that the chaos started.

I looked at the distance he indicated and searched for the “dolphins”. I couldn’t see them and when I realized the distance I knew it could only be one other thing – pilot whales!  As if reading my mind, he too realized that these were pilot whales and the work began.

Pilot whales are mostly all black with a sharp curved fin. They are small whales but bigger than dolphins. They move around rather quickly and only surface for a few moments. We do sample them, but they require a totally different approach than sperm whales and aside from Johnny, Bob, Sandy and me, this team had never experienced it before. It would take patience and focus and quick arrow changes. But, we had three pilot whales ahead and sperm whales on the array. The day looked promising. The tip I was given was good.

We sampled the first whale we encountered from the boom. We looked for another pilot whale to sample. There was one at 9 O’clock so we started to turn. No., wait Johnny and Madison had two at 3 O’clock. No wait. Hugh spotted 2 at 10 O’ clock. No wait Bob had three more dead ahead.  7 pilot whales!  No wait!

We were sitting in the middle of a pod of probably 40 or more pilot whales. They were everywhere with everyone calling at once.  Poor Ike, was wide-eyed at the helm listening to this total chaos with directions flying in everywhere. Where to go? The excitement was high. The whales were everywhere and everyone was calling out new sightings. It was total chaos and it was awesome!

Or, as my friends would say, a typical day for me.

I started with Ike. I explained that we would simply become a pinball and get no samples if we attempted to listen to everyone. He readily agreed. I told him we would pick one whale until we sampled it and then move to the next. He readily agreed. I said don’t listen to anyone else but me and that will be the whale we choose. He agreed. With Ike on board and raring to go, I shouted out the plan to the team.  All understood and we had a strategy.

I then turned to my biopsier.  Johnny was like a kid in a new toy store dazzled by all the toys and ready to play. He is my son so that means- headstrong and sure of himself. But, at the same time, we have a long history of working together so eventually he will listen. First, I had to get him off the whale boom. It is tempting to stay there because it gets you closer, but these whales are too quick and there were too many to invest the time there. He relented and came off the boom.

He moved on deck. Here he was free to sample from any part of the boat. Port side, starboard side, stern, bow, all were available. The rest of the team just had to move out of the way.  I realized quickly that this effort would need much faster reloading than he could do. The crossbows are very hard to cock. I went with a simple strategy. I would cock and load, while he sampled. He would fire. I would hand him a loaded bow and load the other while he took another sample.  The only challenge was finding the best sampling spot. We raced and raced around the boat, crossbows in hand whales everywhere and finally settled into the bowsprit.

We could see whales everywhere in the water. Absolutely amazing. Chaos returned. Whale on starboard, whale on port. People pointing out whales everywhere. It was awesome! Or in other words. just another day at the office.

I went through the same process I did with Ike.  Pick one whale. Sample it. Then move to another.  Johnny nodded and I asked the team to let me pick the whales. I crowed in the bowsprit with Johnny so I could hand him crossbows, call out the boat directions and keep him focused. Matt was right by my side so he could take pictures and help load the crossbows.  We could see each whale surface and release the arrow at just the right time. From time to time there would be no whales near the bowsprit and Johnny. Matt and I, each with crossbow in hand would race around the boat looking for a better angle. I imagine if you filmed it, we looked like the Keystone cops in shorts!

We sampled 5 pilot whales in about an hour, by which point the pod had dispersed and left. A remarkable accomplishment given how quick they move and how small the target. Only 1 miss I believe. Given the activity, the focus and the concentration, it felt like half the day went by. But, in reality, it was hardly more than an hour.  The sun was grueling hot. I stopped the boat and we all came in for Sandy’s annual 4th of July lunch (hot dogs and beans).  It had been an exhilarating fun time for all.

The day would end with us collecting 2 sperm whale biopsies and another pilot whale in the evening. 8 biopsies on the day. Great work team!

Sandy made us a scrumptious 4th of July lunch and dinner with traditional fare. Johnny, Madison, Ike and Matt lit the fireworks I had bought at Sam’s club and we had our own small private fireworks display.

It’s a 4th of July we will always remember. I hope yours was memorable too.

Attached are pictures of the team collecting samples from the Sargasso weed (Sandy in blue t-shirt in foreground, Madison in gray t-shirt and hat on her left, Matt shirtless next, then Leah in the red and Amanda in the white t-shirt); the team searching for that first whale of the day (all in same attire with Johnny on the boom. Hats appear to be off in this one); one of pilot whales; one of pilot whales near the boom; one amazing picture of dolphins that Sandy took, again showing that clear blue water; and then, in keeping with my comments about the incredibleness of nature- three pictures of some remarkable clouds (note the reflections and colors on the water) including our sunset.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.483N, 89.700W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

No Whales, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

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Day 40, Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

I guess you’d say today was exactly the type of day we needed, especially after the marathon that was yesterday. I am not sure anyone would admit it though. You see today was the exact opposite of yesterday- no whales. Not even a single click on the array. No blows in the air and no fins in the water. No large whales at all.

The team was ready. But, there was nothing to sample. Even the plankton tow came up empty of stuff to collect (picture of Johnny and the girls looking for those samples attached). Things to see. Nothing to collect.

Dolphins (technically whales)? Yes. But, we do not sample them.

The dolphins came to the bow 3 or 4 times over the day. The best was in the morning. Spotted dolphins I think they were. They came and frolicked and we giggled with glee like school children. They were having so much fun and we were delighted to watch.

Then as if someone’s mom yelled “breakfast!”, they all sped away to some unknown location off our portside all at once. As if bow riding was their version of dodgeball or kick-the-can or some other neighborhood game. I have a couple of dolphin pictures attached. This group had a white tip to their beak as you can see from Sandy’s close up picture.

Thus, with no whales clicking or seen, the team could ease up a bit. All were still really worn out from yesterday. Even the youngest of us.

But, there was a notable side to the day. Once again we were awash in the beauty of nature’s colors at sea. It is difficult to choose a favorite they are all such incredible eye candy to enjoy.  I love them all. With such a slow day, you can really take it all in.

It starts with water being the purest of blues offset by bright clean white splash. It’s the kind of blue that just reaches into your soul and says, “Relax. Be at peace.”,  and within moments of mesmerized staring at it you realize you are. You have found a peaceful blue moment in a world mad with the pace of the modern day. You can’t help but melt into calmness and feel at one with the sea.

It then moves to warm pinks, fiery reds and awesome oranges than come with a brilliant sunset to end the day. You stand there riveted by their warmth and glory basking you in happy energy with color splashed across the sky and the water. A sunset that makes you warm all over and then goes “ta da” and disappears into the sea, followed by a eerie haze that makes you go “Wow, did that really just happen?!”

It ends with a pale full moon on a midnight blue sky which fades to black. The moon catching you in its hypnotic glow, flooding your senses with one simple word. Quiet. Within moments, without you even noticing, you are still and the world is quiet. You bathe in that quiet, cleansed by the brilliant white light and is amazing reflection on the water. You realize that all is well and you can now rest and relax and enjoy some warm moments of peace. So you do. You smile and you find grace and gratitude for this gift of a day and for all that you have been given especially for those you have to share it with and quietly you say thanks.

It is remarkable to spend at day at sea with nature’s colors. I highly recommend it. I hope I have been able to share it well with you in my words and pictures.

If you look at the daytime pictures you will see the clear blue water.
Can you feel it’s peace?

If you look at the sunset photos you will see the pinks and reds and oranges and if you look really close sunspots too (in sunset c). Can you feel the warmth?

Perhaps, it’s the moonlight that will touch you gleaming in the sky and shimmering on the sea. Maybe, for a moment, it will be quiet where you are.

I hope at least one brings you some joy. Enjoy the 4th.

The team is resting.

Until tomorrow..

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
27.889N, 89.715W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are
posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs
here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.

Ten, ODYSSEY Gulf Blog (year 3), Day 38, Sunday, July 1, 2012

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Day 38, Sunday July 1, 2012

Dear Family and Friends,

Today marks my tenth anniversary at the University of Southern Maine. The lab started July 1, 2002 with 5 people. Two of them, Hong Xie and Amie Holmes were basically new then.  10 years later they are now research faculty in my lab and keeping the land lab going while I am out here studying these whales and this crisis.  Thanks Hong and Amie for the last decade at USM, for working so hard and being such fine people!

It’s been quite a run. In these 10 years, we have earned more than $12,000,000 in research funds; trained more than 150 students ranging from high school through postdoctoral fellows; published 68 scientific papers, chapters and reports; published 314 abstracts at local, national and international scientific meetings plus another 135 abstracts at USM’s Thinking Matters student research day event; presented scores of seminars and posters at local, national and international venues; and been the subject of numerous articles, videos and commercials in the popular local, national and international press. We have been busy that’s for sure!

We could not have done it without the hard work of my core lab team, all of the staff and students we trained over the years, the dedicated USM staff in so many departments, especially those in sponsored programs and business services that I keep rather busy, my USM colleagues and faculty collaborators and the administrators of USM. Thanks to all of you for years of help and support. I appreciate all of the data, help and guidance. I did take some time to reflect on the many trials and tribulations that contributed to who we are and what we do. It’s been quite a journey.

The lab reached a peak of 50 people in the summer of 2010 when we launched the first Gulf Voyage. Funny thing, I started writing these emails in part to explain to those 50 why I had left and in part to reassure my wife, son and family who were not coming with me.  Who knew I still be writing in 2012.  I figured I would only write once…

Back to the boat.

Today was just weird, frustratingly weird. The early morning was slow, not much going on. The team had slipped into its new daily routine of 2 hours shifts on the mast and searching for whales. Its July so the temperature is getting hotter and hotter earlier. But about 9:30, Ike started screaming “whale” first softly and then louder and louder. Everyone thought he was joking, but then as the passion grew in his voice, we realized there really was a whale.  Indeed, a whale surprised everyone and just popped up next to the boat. The team moved into their sampling  positions. It was an odd beginning to what would be a very odd sequence of events.

I was scheduled to give Matt some more biopsy training so I had moved with him into the bowsprit. My normal position is in the pilothouse doorway so I can ensure things run smoothly. The day before had gone so well, I didn’t think much of the change.

The bowsprit is the very end of the front of the boat on a small platform-like structure that juts out in front of the deck giving the boat a pointy shape. It’s not so comfortable to stand there as the anchor is also there, but the view is fantastic. So I guess oddity #3 was my presence on whales in the bowsprit.  It seems Johnny was not expecting me there and since my presence that far out on whales usually means something is up, oddity #4 happened. He shot and missed. I think it was only maybe his third miss this year.

While the team worked to collect the arrow, Johnny, Matt and I discussed how weird it felt to them for me to be in the bowsprit at that time. Plus it seems I move with some stealth this trip so my movements are going undetected.  I guess it’s three seasons at sea have graduated me from bouncing around deck to gliding?  I am not sure.

While there, we witnessed oddity #5 (and it had only been about 15 minutes since this whole episode started) – the team missed the arrow. But the really weird part?  The 8 foot long net used to collect the arrow was also lost over the side.  That was a first. We watched in seemingly slow motion as they appeared to just toss the net in the water and then watched it sail by. Very weird. (FYI- it turns out the current pulled too hard yanking the net in the water).

But, the whale was back and so with a buoy launched to mark the location of the arrow and the net, we headed after it.

We never caught up.

After a while, we lost all track of the whale and it was time to find our buoy, net and arrow. But, it was nowhere to be seen. Odd. We designed these new buoys to be more visible and to have a radar button to track on radar. But, there we were searching high and low and looking and looking and looking for what seemed like an eternity. Finally after more than an hour, someone spotted it and we recovered all of the pieces. They were travelling at an estimated 1 mph.

That ended a very strange morning.

About noon, another whale was spotted.  I called whales and the team raced into place. As odd as the first one was, this one was textbook perfect. Ike, Hugh and Mat called out spotting directions. Bob steered the boat. Johnny collected the biopsy. Madison scooped the arrow with the net almost as soon as it hit the water. Amanda recorded the data. Leah processed the sample. Sandy took the photo-id picture. I stayed in the pilothouse doorway and coordinated.  Smooth as silk.  Great teamwork!

There were whales clicking all over the array. We anticipated many samples to come.  Just had a weird morning right?

Nope. Weirdness would be the order of the day. we would hear whales all day and get nowhere near them. In fact, the whales are clicking very loudly on the array now while I type. Loud clicks means they are very close to the boat and many load clicks means many whales. Figures, 11 pm at night and whales everywhere (yes I have considered ways to do night biopsying but none will work tonight).  I have attached a recording so you can hear them too. They are clicking so loud I can record them in the salon which is down the stairs and well away from the speakers. I sure hope the whales are there in the morning!

I have attached pictures of Amanda and Sandy again (This time from the bow. Hugh is in the background on the pilothouse and Madison in the person in green behind Amanda);  one of Ike and Madison on watch at the end of the day (Ike is up highest) and one of the whale waving good bye after giving us a sample.

We had a pretty sunset before it went behind the clouds. I have attached a picture of it and of Leah watching it (I took it from on the pilot house looking down).

I also attached a picture of Hong and Amie.

Good night.

John

P.S.  If you want to see our location on Google Maps we are at:
29.493N, 88.837W

just paste in the coordinates and click search

If you want to read the previous days of these messages- they are posted at www.usm.maine.edu/toxicology/gulf and click on “read logs here”.


John Pierce Wise, Sr., Ph.D.