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Parley SnotBot Alaska: the view from behind the camera

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

 

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

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

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

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

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

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

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

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

Alex Tate
Producer of Earth Live