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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

From Patagonia to Alaska

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

 

Iain Kerr and John Atkinson

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Our jaws dropped.

“You don’t even know us.”

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

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

All the best.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska – the science

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

A day at work with the whales in Patagonia

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

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

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

DCIM100GOPRO

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

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

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

A record number of southern right whales counted in Península Valdés

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

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

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

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

SnotBot Indian Summer

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska, Take Two

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From a wet and windy in Alaska.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

A Gala Time Was Had by All

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

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

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

Scott Hufford

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

Bruno Raberg

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

Labor Day weekend art show and gala fundraiser!

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Killed by a Whale” by Roger Payne

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Disentangling a right whale (Photo by NOAA Fisheries)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Payne

“No Place for a Mere Man” by Roger Payne

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Payne

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: A team effort

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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


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

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

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


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

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

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

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

 

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


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

 

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

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

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

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

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Fishes from foggy Alaska.

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Parley x INTEL

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

 

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

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

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

 

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

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

 

Best Fishes from Alaska.

Iain

Art installation with a conservation message grows at Ocean Alliance

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

Here is his statement about the project:

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

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

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

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

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

The Plimsoll Nat Geo team consisted of:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

STUNNED in SE Alaska.

Iain

Parley SnotBot x Intel Alaska expedition: Sleepless in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

Snotless in Alaska (for one more day).

Iain

We keep our robotics intern busy!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

Read more about the Parley x Corona partnership here.

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

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

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

Ocean Alliance hosts Selfie art show at Paint Factory

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

 

 

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

SnotBot ready to help disentangle whales!

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

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

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

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

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Dear Friends,

Roger Payne set the stage at Ocean Alliance many years ago, insisting that there should always be a strong education component of every scientific endeavor we are involved in. More than ever before it is vitally important for scientists to effectively communicate to the general public what they are doing, how they are doing it, and most importantly, why they are doing it.  We are very lucky to have a Nutopia documentary team with us in the Sea of Cortez filming the first SnotBot expedition of 2017. Nutopia is a British production company that is making a series of environmental shows for a major US TV network (more on that as we are closer to the release date).

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

Truth be said it is almost impossible to do science and shoot a documentary at the same time; both efforts take a lot of focus and involve a lot of equipment, so we have had to compromise on our scientific goals somewhat. Luckily for us the Nutopia folks have been a real pleasure to work with. They have told us that this production will be more stylized, and that has meant that more effort has gone into every shot so that they can tell a powerful visual story. We have seen that with the mass of camera gear they brought down and the many different angles from which they have shot every activity.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

We have been working out of two small boats (approx. 26 feet) one for the science team and one for the documentary team, although people seem to be constantly changing between boats during the day. Nutopia has a team of six people (plus the local boat captain), and the SnotBot team is five plus Michael Fishbach from the Great Whale Conservancy and our amazing boat captain Alberto, so 14 people in all.

Clearly each team is determined to have their project succeed: we want the data and they want the shot. On top of this there never seems to be enough time – when you balance our potentially optimistic goals against weather delays, uncooperative, or even absent animals and the constant logistical challenges, it means that we are lucky if the day only runs from dawn to dusk (and when we get back to our accommodation we have to process samples and back up our images and flight data).

Certainly, we will get less physical blow samples on this trip because we have had to dedicate time to our documentary team, but we believe that this is a worthwhile investment.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot's petri dish.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot’s petri dish.

Nutopia has engaged our superstar SnotBot cameraman Christian Miller; you have seen some of his photos from Alaska (and my last two posts). Apologies that some of todays photos are not as exciting as Christian’s but I thought you might like to see the other side of this expedition.

The two unexpected requirements of documentary-making are that we had to wear the same clothes all week (in the hot sun every day working on a small boat!) so that they could have continuity with the final edit, AND we were set up every morning with wireless microphones, so we had to be a lot more circumspect about our comments and conversations during the day :-).

From SnotBot 2017 in the Sea of Cortez, I wish you fair winds and a flowing sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

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Yesterday was one of those typical wildlife days, a day when everything seems to be against you and you think that all is lost and then, in the last hour, it all comes together.

We like to get out on the water as early as we can, 7:00 a.m. on the boat means a 5:30 wake-up call to get ready and get down to the marina. We typically stay out until 6:30 p.m. because we have been seeing feeding activity late in the evening. We are working from the premise that during the day the blue whales’ food (krill) is down deep, and the whales are doing random deep dives to feed (meaning it is a lot harder to track them, but they spend a lot more time at the surface between dives). To help us try to be at the right place at the right time with a SnotBot in the air, we record the length of the whales’ dives so we can look for patterns; if a whale keeps regular dive cycles of approximately 7 minutes, we know that to be ready to collect snot we need to get a SnotBot up into the air at 6 minutes and 30 seconds after it dove.

Our day started with 20 knots of wind, so we kept delaying our departure, until at last at around 2:00 p.m. the winds seemed to be diminishing, so we headed out onto the water. We motored North from Loreto for over an hour and did not see a single blow. Finally just before 4:00 p.m., we saw a blow, then two, then a total of eight blows around us. You can imagine we were over the moon; we had found a group of blue whales!

Excitement faded to frustration as the random pattern of dives meant that we were not able to get to the right place at the right time. Our DJI Inspire 1 can fly at over 40 knots, so in most cases we could get a SnotBot to the whale but they were only doing two or three blows at the surface so all I was getting was video footage of blue whales diving. More typical behavior is for the whales to stay at the surface for six or seven blows. Multiple blows at the surface typically gives us enough time to collect snot, we think that in this case they we just doing shallow dives for krill and so did not have the need for extended surface time or blows. Did no one tell these whales that SnotBot was here and we were making a documentary?

By about 5:45 p.m. the sun was going down, we were all tired and sunburnt, and the camera team was losing light, so it looked as if we were going to be skunked. To be fair we were near a whale once but there was a whale watching boat there at the same time and the National Park had requested that we did not fly when tourists were near the whales. As much as we wanted to go back into port, we decided to persevere and stay out till 6:30 p.m.

At around 6:00 p.m. the situation changed dramatically, the water around us seemed to come alive with bubbling krill and the whales started going into full speed surface feeding mode. In the blink of an eye we had whales lunging and surface feeding everywhere (including right next to our boat). Where did all these whales come from?

This was our last day with the Nutopia film team; the one shot they did not have was video of a whale near our boat to give some perspective of the whale’s size. They also wanted Christian to get photos of SnotBot in a blow (below).

Collecting biological data from whales is harder than many people think; SnotBot is helping us with this challenge but the reality is that persistence is still a key factor. We were tired and ready to go home, but we decided to stay the course, and as a consequence, hit it out of the ball park.

From the Sea of Cortez, wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Cheers,

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: How big are blue whales?

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To describe the size of different objects, we often make comparisons to various everyday items such as school buses or an Olympic sized swimming pool. When the objects we refer to reach a certain size, it can be difficult for us to truly comprehend just how large they are, and we switch off, no longer able to visualize them effectively.

Animals, for the most part, our well within our boundaries of comprehension. An elephant is an enormous animal, yet it is not so different from our own size that we cannot process and understand it.

When we get to the large whales, we begin to cross this boundary. The largest whales of all are difficult to visualize and the comparisons we use become extreme. Blue whales are animals made for superlatives. They are the largest animals ever to have existed on our planet; 99% of species which have ever lived on our planet have gone extinct. How fortunate we are to live at the same time as these great leviathans.

This latest SnotBot expedition has focused upon these enormous animals. I am fortunate enough to have seen most of the great whales, yet this expedition is my first time seeing blue whales, and they truly dwarf any other whales in both length and sheer size/weight. I’m going to throw out a few size comparisons; try to visualize, try to comprehend, the scale of these animals.

 

A blue whale’s tongue can weigh as much as an adult elephant. ITS TONGUE. Try to picture a tongue the size of an elephant.

Adult blue whales need to eat around 8,000 pounds of food per day. That is the weight equivalent of 60 average-sized humans. Every day… They are of course not eating humans, but tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill; 8,000 pounds of krill = 40 million individual krill.

They can grow to 100 feet in length. I still struggle to comprehend this, but it really struck home with me on our first day out on the water with the whales. A blue whale lunged out of the water. It lunged directly away from us, yet its head was only 25 feet away from us. This means that some of its body must have been UNDERNEATH our boat. We estimated the whale was 80 feet long. If it surfaced 25 feet from our boat, and our boat was about 10 feet long, this means that the whale’s tail/fluke would have been about 45 feet on the other side of our boat.

Here is another fact: The global population of blue whales, decimated by 20th century whaling, is currently estimated to be roughly around 7% of its pre-whaling population, around 15,000 animals. Try and comprehend that; 15,000 animals representing an entire species. The largest species which has ever existed on planet earth. Many modern sports stadiums can hold 4 or 5 times this number of people. My university had more students than the entire global population of blue whales.

SnotBot is a tool which can help us understand these animals, and other endangered whales, in order that we can better protect them — and they desperately need our protection. There are many species or sub-populations of whale on the verge of extinction: The Baiji or Chinese river dolphin has already gone extinct. The Vaquita porpoise of the Sea of Cortez looks set to follow (sorry to be blunt, but it’s true). Maui’s dolphin is not far behind. The North Pacific right whale population is estimated to be around 30 individuals, Western Pacific gray whales under 150, Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales under 100, Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale under 40. The largest pre-whaling blue whale population, in the Southern Ocean, is around 1% of its pre-whaling levels. This is a depressing fact: over 30 years after the cessation of commercial whaling, this population has shown few signs of recovery.

SnotBot is a tool which can collect a wide array of data. Thus far we have used SnotBot to collect blow samples, photo-ID, photogrammetry, bio-acoustics, lowlight/night-time studies, behavioural data and bio-kinetics data. Undoubtedly there are many applications of this technology we have not thought of. A tool which can simultaneously collect so many forms of data is rare. But one which can do so economically (our favoured drone, the DJI Mavic PRO, costs under $1,000) is revolutionary. The cheaper the tool, the more groups around the world can use it in their own research/conservation programs to collect all this different data. And with these streams of data being collected all around the world, scientists and conservationists can begin to take great steps forward in our ability to understand and ultimately protect, these animals.

— Andy Rogan

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017, in collaboration with Parley: We’re underway!

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Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

Our field site is Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico. Our principle study species is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (yes, bigger than dinosaurs) – blue whales. A fully grown blue whale can weight over 150 tons and can grow up to 100 ft in length.

Yesterday, (Sunday, March 13) we got out on the water, after a pretty stressful two days getting down to Loreto with a total of 27 bags (including carry-ons). We joined our host for the week —  Michael Fishbach of the Great Whale Conservancy — yesterday morning.  After a couple of hours of unpacking, we were out on the water by 1:30. Even though we like to be on the water by 8:00 am at the latest, our feeling was that we might as well get a few hours on the water to test our protocols, fly the drones and get the team back in synch.

The team this expedition remains principally the same: Iain Kerr, expedition leader; Andrew Rogan, scientist;  Christian Miller, cinematography; and John Graham, engineer (MacGyver). New to the team this year is Kendall Mashburn from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.  Kendall is working with Andy and me to review our data collection protocols and onboard sample processing based on Kendall’s expertise with hormones.

Kendall will take our samples back to Dr. Shannon Atkinson’s lab in Alaska. She will be looking at levels of glucocorticoids (stress hormones), testosterone, progesterone and estrogen (reproductive hormones), and triiodothyronine and thyroxin (metabolic hormones). As if that were not enough, we have a Nutopia film crew with us, filming SnotBot as part of an upcoming documentary special called One Strange Rock.

I am happy and a bit stunned to report that within the first 15 minutes of leaving the dock we had collected our first sample from a blue whale (!) and the day just got better.

As you can see from the photos (thank you Christian and Michael), we had stunning interactions with blue whales right up until it got too dark for us to keep working.

I have to head out onto the water now – who knows what adventures today will bring!
From Mexico wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

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After months of planning, countless phone calls made, funds raised, and supplies procured, the Ocean Alliance crew find themselves in a very familiar place. As I am writing this, we are squeezed into a relatively small metal tube, flying 34,000 feet above the earth at a rate of 418 mph, looking to follow up on last year’s highly successful kick-off of the SnotBot program. Our journey takes us back to the Sea of Cortez, but this time to the town of Loreto for what is sure to be an amazing encounter with the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. The SnotBot team of Iain Kerr, Andy Rogan, Christian Miller, and me (John Graham) is excited to have along with us on this expedition Kendall Mashburn, a wildlife endocrinologist from the University of Alaska. Kendall brings with her years of experience studying and processing wildlife data.

As the tech guy on these expeditions, I am very excited to not only be in close proximity to these huge beautiful creatures, but also to put our new drones and their collection devices through their paces in our relentless search to improve upon the system in which we obtain the data-rich exhaled breath condensate of nature’s ocean dwelling leviathans. I’m not going to give it away, but we do have some intriguing tricks up our sleeves that will hopefully aid us in our research.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Day 1: Jet lagged after our travels from our home base in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we have finally arrived at our destination, the small town of Loreto. We were briefed by our host, guide, and local expert on blue whales, president of the Great Whale Conservancy Michael Fishbach, who used words that make oceanographic researchers salivate, like abundant, feeding, unorthodox behavior, and poop. He than backed up his lofty words with jaw-dropping video footage. Needless to say, we were all very eager to get out on the water and do what we do best: collect whale snot.

After sorting out our gear, we headed down to the docks where we were met by the Nutopia crew filming us for the documentary One Strange Rock, who will be with us this week to document our unique data-collecting process. So, not to leave you in suspense, but stay tuned for the next blog describing how our first day went. I promise, it will be worth the wait!

— John

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

The Art of Racing in the Clubhouse

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The Robotics club certainly slowed down over the winter, but I have to say the incessant development of drone tech has not. As well as using the robotics lab as a general maker space and clubhouse, last year in the robotics club we were primarily focusing our efforts on small airplanes (thank you Alex Monell for the design, development an implementation). A massive Thank You also to the Applied Materials Foundation, whose generous support allows us to run the Robotics Club and special events such as these.

For 2017, I was keen to get the club members into small FPV quadcopters. FPV, for the uninitiated, means First Person View — you wear a headset with TV screens that gives you a live feed from the drone that you are flying.  You feel like you are actually in the plane.  Some FPV pilots have to sit down when they fly or they fall over, because they are so immersed in the flight experience.

Robotics club participants wear FPV headsets (and sit down) while flying quadcopters.

Robotics club participants wear FPV headsets (and sit down) while flying quadcopters.

One of the great things about the small FPV drones is that they are easy to race in small spaces; we don’t race as much for the competition as just for fun.  We had two small drones flying around the clubhouse recently, hitting the walls, etc. and everyone was engaged and laughing, flying and having fun.  To me this type of edutainment is what the robotics club is all about.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

The problem we were facing was the cost. On this page (a great site if you want to get into this field), the small racing drones were starting at a cost of $200; 10 drones for our club would be $2,000(!), more than we want to spend on any one item at a time.

A Tiny Whoop drone.

The good news is that micro drone’s have gotten better and better and cheaper and cheaper; just type Tiny Whoop into Google and see what you get.  Here is a great page on Tiny Whoops. The thing I like is that these tiny drones are very customizable — bigger engines, different cameras and tuners, they are great for our club.  We can build them to spec at the club, for around $60 each.  You will be hearing more about this soon!

I am writing in a mild state of panic as tomorrow I am heading out to the Sea of Cortez for a SnotBot expedition, where I’ll be flying some much larger drones.

— Iain Kerr

OA science manager reflects on adventures with SnotBot

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Christian Miller)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talking about SnotBot and more to Rockport Rotary Club

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Today, I had the pleasure of speaking to members of the Rockport Rotary Club about the many projects we’re involved with here at Ocean Alliance. Rotary is an organization of business and professional leaders united worldwide who provide humanitarian service, and help build goodwill and peace in the world.

 

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr with Rockport Rotary Club's president, Jack Reed.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr with Rockport Rotary Club’s president, Jack Reed.

The main objective of Rotary is service — in the community, in the workplace, and throughout the world — so I was happy to be able to bring Rockport Rotary up to date on the projects we’ve undertaken that are a service to the Cape Ann community and to planet Ocean! I talked about our work rehabbing the Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory, which sat for years empty, crumbling, and polluted on the edge of Gloucester Harbor. It’s now Ocean Alliance’s headquarters, and is becoming a vibrant part of the community, hosting our Robotics Club, launching research expeditions around the globe, collaborating on community art shows, and becoming a positive sign of growth on the waterfront.
I  talked about our innovative SnotBot drones, and what a game-changing technology they have been for whale research. I also talked about how SnotBot has also turned out to be a great educational tool. The kids who come to our Robotics Club, which meets once a week at our Paint Factory headquarters, have been learning all about how to build and fly drones, and they have even helped solve a data problem we were having with SnotBot!
Our thanks go out to Judy Manchester for arranging the talk and to all of the Rockport Rotarians for listening and for the great work that they do.

The Robotics Club with a donated Roomba.

Robotics Club fun

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Ocean Alliance’s Robotics Club, led by CEO Iain Kerr, meets each Wednesday, allowing kids from local schools to work on various drone,  boat, and plane construction projects (making and repairing models and machines).  Students learn skills including soldering (wiring and connecting circuit boards), programming, and flying on a simulator or in a gym or field.

We rely on donations of all kind, and recently an old iRobot Roomba was donated to the Robotics Club. The members lost no time in taking it apart and tinkering with it. Austin Monell (bottom right) built a radio controller interface so that the Roomba could be controlled by a hand-held radio controller.  In the future, we’re hoping to put together a Gloucester Robotics challenge using a Roomba as the core programming platform!

The Ocean Alliance Robotics Club is made possible by the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation, without whom we would not have the capacity to run this highly successful club which offers so much to local children in the Gloucester/Cape Ann area.

 

Doing What Really Matters, by Roger Payne

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Donald Trump’s nomination of climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Administration is grotesque. Confirmation of Pruitt would threaten the world with the most disastrous and lasting damage that the Trump administration is likely to be able to create. This country needs an EPA Administrator whose rulings are based on science not on the lobbying agendas of special interests.

Of the trepidations that are expressed about a Trump presidency almost all concern its impacts on just one species… ours. However, the overwhelmingly most important and lasting consequences of the next 4-8 years will be the impact of Trump’s policies on the rest of life on earth (euphemistically referred to as: “the environment”).

As I have stated before, a strong argument can be made that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is not E=mc2, or plate tectonics, or the structure of DNA, or decoding the human Genome, or the threat of global warming, or the engineering advances that put a man on the moon; it is the discovery that our species is utterly interdependent with a broad array of other species, each one of which interdepends with a somewhat different collection of species. What makes this discovery so consequential is that unless we stop our destruction of the rest of life on earth we have no future—i.e., unless we make conservation of life the primary consideration of all of our actions our children and grandchildren—yours and mine—won’t make it.

It is possible, though painful, to imagine ways in which we can endure the unsettling inconveniences and embarrassments that the bottomless ignorance of Trump’d policies will unleash on our species. But if the Trump administration further accelerates humanity’s damage to life on earth there is a significant chance that he will devastate not just our species but Nature itself.

There can be no greater political consequence of Trump’s ignorance. Compared to what the Third Reich accomplished, a disruption of the conditions that enable life as we know it would make World War II seem like a “minor disturbance.” After all, most of its devastation was directed at one species and it physically damaged a very small area of the world.

One of the perennially hardest questions to answer is what it is that makes humans different from other animals. It’s usually attributed to tool use or language but it turns out that several other species possess languages that share many of the fundamentals of human language, and recent work shows that numerous species make and use tools.

I believe the thing that makes our species unique is our overwhelming capacity for denial—something at which Trump and Co appear to be masters—the most serious example thereof is the refusal of Trump to recognize the undeniable importance of making the fate of non-human species our number one priority, simply because our lives are so utterly controlled by our interdependence with other species, which means that if we keep destroying the species with which we interdepend, life as we know it will be reduced below viability.

So job number one is to prevent the confirmation of Scott Pruitt or anyone else likely to make the actions of the EPA into a means of accelerating humanity’s race towards self-destruction.

I can see no point more important point on which to spend every hour, every dollar, every thought, every effort than to stop Scott Pruitt. All other threats from Trump affect only our generation. Even if he blunders us into an all-out nuclear war it would be less damaging in the long run than failing to stop the wholesale destruction of the environment. I ask each of you reading this to make environmental protection your first priority from this point forward. Environmental issues matter more than any of the other temporary inconveniences that Trump’s ignorance will be aiming at our lives.

Roger Payne

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

2016: the year in review

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A message from CEO Dr. Iain Kerr

2016 has been a most productive year for Ocean Alliance. If you go to our website (www.whale.org) you will find blogs and videos about our work with: SnotBot, STEAM initiatives, right whales, blue whales, ocean plastics and climate change. You will also find expressions of interest in our work from Secretary of State John Kerry as well as from students of the Parley Ocean School in Jamaica.

You know what a solid bang for the buck we provide: when I told commercial drone operators at the Drone World Expo the cost of a SnotBot expedition they said they didn’t know whether to laugh or cry, given how much we do for so little.

Most charities raise up to 40% of their funding in November and December; we hope that you will confirm your continued belief in the work we do by making a donation or buying some SnotBot swag in our store or adopting a whale.

From continued development of benign research tools such as SnotBot; data collection for the 48th consecutive season of our Southern right whale program (the longest continuous study of a great whale behavior on the planet) and our STEM and STEAM education initiatives. Our vision is an ocean that is healthy for whales and humans.

Please help us turn that dream into a reality.

Highlights from 2016

• January: Extended SnotBot interview with Sir Patrick Stewart posted on our website.

• February: CEO Iain Kerr was asked to join the Advisory Board of Drone World Expo, where “thought leaders, industry experts and end-users gather in the heart of Silicon Valley to present real-world solutions to business and environmental challenges.”

• March 25-April 6: Our second SnotBot Expedition was launched to Baja California. Our team visited two different locations, collecting respiratory or “blow” samples from gray whales in San Ignacio Lagoon and blue and humpback whales in Bahia La Paz, where we were visited by a film crew from drone manufacturer DJI. The expedition was an enormous success.

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

• April: Ocean Alliance was a consultant for Sonic Sea, a documentary on sound pollution in our oceans. We also provided whale recordings for Sonic Seas.

• May 30: The 4-minute video produced by DJI during our SnotBot Baja California expedition went live. This incredibly well made video, created by award winning cameraman Tom Fitz and producer Adrienne Hall, has already been viewed more than 130,000 times on YouTube.

• June 4: At the International Whaling Commission meeting in Slovenia. Dr. Mariano Sironi, one of our partners at the Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB) in Argentina presented a report about our Southern right whale program.

• June 8: SnotBot is labelled one of the top 8 breakthroughs saving our oceans by Matthew Mulrennan, the manager of the XPRIZE Ocean Initiative.

• June 15: The Big G Foundation supported the development of EarBot. This gave us a prototype to take to Alaska during our third SnotBot Expedition for trials.

• June 18: Ocean Alliance collaborated with the North Shore Arts Association for an exhibit and fundraiser that lasted over a month. This show included a series of talks including one by Iain Kerr and a performance of “Sea Change” by Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow. Local artists painted on old slates from one of the Paint Factory buildings; these unique and historical pieces of art were then put up for auction. Over $9,000 was raised and shared between Ocean Alliance and NSAA.

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

• July 22: We were given a 30-foot Bertram vessel called Double Header. This is the perfect boat for our regional SnotBot and toxicology programs. We have named the vessel Cachalot, after the French/Spanish name for sperm whale.

• July 26: We hosted a successful Harbor Cruise fundraiser with the generous help of our partners at Seven Seas Whale Watch and their vessel the Privateer IV. We raised over $4,000 which, for a first event, is a success. We intend to make this an annual event. http://www.whale.org/gloucester-harbor-cruise/

• August 10: Ocean Alliance launched —this one to Frederick Sound, Alaska. third SnotBot expedition —this one to Frederick Sound, Alaska. The trip achieved solid advances in SnotBot methodology and we were able to collect significantly more samples than our original goal. We also made the first tests of ‘EarBot’ (for listening to whales underwater) and ‘FLIRBot’ (a drone equipped with an InfraRed camera for studying/detecting whales at night/in lowlight conditions) and collected some exceptional footage of whales.

• Stories on SnotBot exceeded 400 press articles worldwide! This includes two facebook videos that combined have gotten over 2 MILLION views!
https://www.facebook.com/PlayGroundMag/videos/1228292177210656/
https://www.facebook.com/thedodosite/videos/911934465607896/

• August: SnotBot is to be a kids book! We are working with the publishers Houghton Mifflin to create a “high interest reading” book for Pre-K through Grade 6, that will be released in 2017! The book is being produced as part of a Pinnell Classroom Literacy project, a high-interest reading and literacy program.

• September 3 – 5: we held an open house and art exhibition on our site at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory in association with the Trident Gallery, called The Deep Sea Has Its Stars. Over 1,000 people visited the site, which was wonderful exposure for us in the city of Gloucester, and we raised over $4,000. The success of this event means that we will also make it an annual event. Board members Linde McNamara and her husband, Mac, volunteered at the event.

• September 7: Roger Payne joined Paul Winter in Nantucket for a “Whales Alive” concert.

• September 11: John Atkinson flew down to Argentina to join Vicky Rowntree and the ICB team for the 47 consecutive field season and aerial survey studying the Southern right whales at Peninsula Valdez.

• September 12: Tom Costello from NBC Nightly News visited Ocean Alliance to shoot a story on SnotBot. http://www.whale.org/nbc-nightly-news-visits-ocean-alliance/

• September 16 – 17: Roger Payne and Andy Rogan attended the Our Oceans Conference in Washington D.C., hosted by the State Department. SnotBot was personally invited to be at the event. Roger and Andy introduced SnotBot to Secretary of State John Kerry, who labelled footage of whales filmed from SnotBot ‘mesmerizing’ and ‘so amazing.’ The conference also included keynote speeches by President Barack Obama and Leonardo DiCaprio. Other exhibition hall presenters included Oceana, SkyTruth/Google, Pew, the US Navy, Seavision, Liquid Robotics, and NASA (all with multimillion-dollar budgest as against Ocean Alliance’s less than $1 million budget).

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

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

• September 20: SnotBot is announced as one of three winners of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition. Award to be presented at Drone World Expo.

• September: Roger Payne’s work was featured in the 2016 Indianapolis Prize Guide to Animal Conservation Giving.
Pages 32 & 33.

• October 14 – 16: Iain Kerr worked with the Parley Ocean School in Jamaica to educate and introduce disadvantaged children to our oceans and the problem of ocean plastics.

• November 7 – 14: Iain Kerr went to the Maldives with Adidas and Parley for the Oceans in a program associated with the new Adidas shoe made from recycled ocean plastic.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel -- some had never snorkeled before.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel — some had never snorkeled before.

• October 14: Our work with the local high school robotics team, the Ipswich Tigers, is reported on by CBS Boston affiliate WBZ-TV. The students made an altimeter for SnotBot that informs the pilot how high the drone is above the whale through an earpiece, a vital piece of equipment. This is the kind of program we love: high school kids making a genuine difference to our primary research program. This was also reported in our local newspaper.

• November 1: Of all the videos made on SnotBot, this is one of the most exciting! The US Department of State made a video on the program that they then shared with their embassies all around the world!

• November 15 – 16: Iain Kerr gave a SnotBot talk at the Drone World Expo in San Jose, and gave a second SnotBot talk as a winner of the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition.

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

“It has been an incredibly productive year! We thank you for giving us the opportunity to do what we do best. As we look to 2017 I can tell you that we have some very exciting projects and collaborations on the horizon! We’re excited to take SnotBot to the next level, and formally introduce EarBot, FLIRBot, and other bot’ that are changing the way we do whale research. We’re also looking forward to continuing renovations of our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory and our 48th consecutive Southern right whale season. But most of all we are looking forward to sharing some adventures with all of you and continuing to take steps towards protecting whales and the ocean environment in which they swim.
Roger Payne – Founder and President.

Iain talks about SnotBot at Drone World Expo

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

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I was on the road for almost two weeks, and flew over 21,000 miles from Boston to the Indian Ocean, and then from the Indian Ocean over the pole to LA and then back to Boston.

I spent the last two days of the trip at the Drone World Expo (DWE), “The Defining Event for the Commercial Applications of UAS Technology.” I am on the advisory board for DWE, so it has been a real education to see this conference come together. Most of the equipment, people, and processes were on the cutting edge, so it was a great opportunity to meet with leaders in the field of drone and sensor tech. Many of the visions for the future were applicable to the work that Ocean Alliance hopes to do over the next three to five years, and while much of the tech was above Ocean Alliances current budgets, I expect that the prices will drop considerably over the next couple of years.

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SnotBot was one of the three winners of the Innovative Drone Exploration and Application (IDEA) Competition, a new competition created by the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA) and DWE.  Winners of this competition had all of their expenses related to DWE covered and were asked to talk about their project at the Expo. As a DWE advisory board member, I was also invited to give a second talk on our work, so SnotBot was very well represented at DWE.

SnotBot tech John Graham and I were also surprised by how many people seemed to be aware and supportive of the SnotBot program, from all the feedback we received we feel comfortable in saying that we are a leader in the field of “drones for good.”

 

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An impressive array of technology was on display at Drone World Expo.

An impressive array of technology was on display at Drone World Expo.

I was a little disappointed that over 90 percent of the technology, applications, and ideas were based solely on terrestrial projects. I spent much of the conference going around saying my favorite line:  “We live on planet ocean, not planet earth,” and since 71 percent of the planet is water, you need to be looking to drones that work above, below, and on the water. I know a few companies that are going home and expanding their visions for their tech to include oceans.

Onward! Upward!

CEO Iain Kerrflies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

CEO Iain Kerr checks in from the Maldives

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CEO Iain Kerrflies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

CEO Iain Kerr flies the Mavic Pro while at the Parley conference in the Maldive. (Photo: Christian Miller)

I am very lucky to be in the Maldives Islands as part of Parley Ocean School.  I am here with five other Ocean Ambassadors, Emily Penn, Kahi Pacarro, Christian Miller (SnotBot team member), Mike Long, and Maldivian Shaahina Ali with the Park Hyatt Hadahaa.  Sitting down and just having a meal with these folks is amazing, spending almost a week with them is an educational experience and then some.  What I found enlightening is that even though the team represents people from around the globe — Emily in Britain, Kahi from Hawaii, Christian from Australia, Mike and me from mainland USA — our stories, passions and goals are amazingly similar.

One of the reasons I am enjoying this program so much is because of its scope; it’s not often that you join a program that has a local, national, and international perspective. Every evening there are lectures on the boat on ocean plastics, ocean pollution etc, every morning we go out and have an ocean experience, and then every afternoon we have workshops, beach clean ups, or meet with local school kids, educators, and policy makers. We are here with over 20 staff from the Adidas Corporation. Adidas this month (in collaboration with Parley) will be putting on the market 1 million shoes made from ocean plastic. I plan on buying mine as soon as I get back.

Considering that the Adidas team represent people from across the corporation — design, finance, marketing, logistics, etc. — the workshops and discussions we been having as it relates to commerce, plastic and our oceans have been very educational and I think empowering to all.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel -- some had never snorkeled before.

Iain and other Parley Ocean School attendees took more than 60 Maldivian school kids out on a reef to snorkel — some had never snorkeled before.

Going into the local schools and talking to kids about oceans and plastic pollution has been fantastic; two days ago more than 60 kids experienced three different ocean lectures at their school, and then we took them out onto the reefs to snorkel – many had never snorkeled before, but you can be sure that they will do so again.  As I write this blog another 60 plus kids are out on the reef with the Adidas team and Parley. Yesterday we had two soccer games against a local woman’s team and a men’s team, I think that the local teams had practiced more than ours so we won’t discuss the score.

A theme of the trip is the Parley initiative AIR. Avoid-Intercept-Redesign, I encourage you to read more about it here.

I did of course bring a drone with me to the Maldives; right before I left I received one of the newest drones from DJI — the Mavic Pro — and I am smitten.  This is the smallest drone DJI has ever made, but it has (most of) the capacity of a Phantom 4.  I would not have brought a larger drone like a P4 to the Maldives, just too much gear to lug half way around the world. I have already taken the Mavic Pro with me on a couple of excursions where I would not have taken a larger drone (attached photo of kids Snorkeling).  As far as I am concerned the foldable design and consequently resulting in ease of use/portability along with a 4K camera and 24 min plus flight time makes the Mavic Pro the current leader in the market for enthusiasts like me (we bought this drone it was not donated).  We will be trying out the Mavic Pro as a SnotBot platform in early 2017. I think that the very light footprint of the drone might mean more snot is collected in our petri dishes on top of the drone by the rotor vortex’s (more on that later).

With drones on my mind, next Monday I am flying from the Maldives to LA then Silicon Valley, CA, to give two talks at Drone World Expo.  I will send at least one more blog from the Maldives before I leave and will be sending a blog from DWE.

All the best from the Indian Ocean.

Iain Kerr

By Photo: LA(Phot) Vicki Benwell/MOD, OGL, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=30417972

More Good News about the Oceans, by Roger Payne

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‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

I have lived through eight decades of bad news about the environment with good news always as rare as rain during a long drought. But after years of watching the oceans suffer blows at the hands of our species I suddenly sense that the world has arrived at a tipping point, and good news is starting to flow like water.

I wrote last time about the miracle of the Our Oceans Conference at the U.S. State Department during which the total expanse of marine protected areas was tripled and $5.3 billion was pledged to insure that such a grand plan would be fulfilled and that IUU fishing (Illegal, undocumented, unregulated fishing) could be punished rigorously.

The latest cause for thanks came last Friday, October 28th with a grand announcement from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). It is a consortium of 25 countries that includes the United States, Russia and China. After 11 years of negotiation and patient diplomacy this consortium finally voted unanimously to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea—an area of 600,000 square miles, 72% of which now has the status of a no-take area.

When I showed joy over this fact to friends, I got a disdainful reaction form some of them; “The Ross Sea? Antarctica!? Couldn’t they have protected an area that’s a bit more friendly—a bit more accessible?

Though most people don’t find the Antarctic Ocean friendly and accessible, for many non-human species it is an unimaginably productive paradise. I am not sure there is a comparably large area anywhere on earth with so much life. In the Antarctic summer the upwelling of mineral rich waters that have been traveling for thousands of miles through the perpetual darkness of the ocean deeps, brings that mineral richness up into 24-hour daylight that triggers an explosive growth of short-lived, quick-to-reproduce plants called diatoms. These single-celled plants are some of the most beautiful life forms on earth and some of the most abundant. (To a biologist like me the word ‘abundance’ means species per unit area.) The diatom plants enable all of the food chains above them, including the incalculably abundant, tiny shrimp called krill (the main food for all larger Antarctic animals; fish of many species, penguins, seabirds, seals, dolphins, beaked whales, and baleen whales—the latter including the most massive animals that have ever lived, the blue whales).

Given such a robust food chain, saving the Ross Sea is like saving the Serengeti Plains of Africa. There are areas of greater diversity, but we’re talking abundance here. And it is cause for celebration that so much of that abundance has just been designated as a no-take zone with the first review to take place only after 35 years.

It’s the kind of good news that, frankly, I never thought I’d live long enough to see. Back when I started studying whales I used to say in a voice of gloom that because overhunting had laid blue whales so low, it would be at least fifty years before they could show any measurable recovery. I stressed “fifty years” because that seemed like an eternity to my then 30-year-old self. But time passed and I have lived through more than those five decades. And although my gloom at times reached greater depths I am thrilled by the positive news we are starting to hear about the oceans. Hope is no longer just “a thing with feathers,” it has wings and it perches not only in enigmas like the soul but on solid branches that connect to limbs and trunks with roots that grip the earth. And it is growing ever stronger, and emboldening a brighter future.

Roger Payne

“Our Ocean” Conference—The Miracle of 2016, by Roger Payne

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I spent last week in Washington, DC where I attended the Our Ocean Conference. I was surprised to see how consequential this meeting turned out to be. Although I have been to dozens of international conferences in my long life, no other meeting ever left me with such hope. To be blunt, I usually regret the time I spend attending conferences, as many seem to me to be a nearly seamless waste of time. But this was different—shockingly different!

The feeling in the room was electrifying as leader after leader from country after country stood in line waiting to announce that they were pledging some incomprehensibly large amount of money, and/or setting aside some incomprehensibly vast square mileage (some pledged their entire Exclusive Economic Zones) as a Marine Protected Area where fishing would be restricted. It was a powerful start at repairing some of the damage our species has done to marine life.

During the conference a total of more than 5.3 biliion dollars (U.S.) was pledged for ending ocean pollution and IUU fishing (Illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing) as well as for maintaining existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and establishing new ones.

IMG_73322015 was the first Our Ocean Conference, and by its end the total area of MPAs covered about 1% of the oceans. But by the end of this year’s Our Ocean conference the MPA pledges had grown to cover 3% of the oceans; and the stated goal for next year’s conference is to bring that total up to 6% of the oceans.

The reason I find this so consequential is that almost anything that makes the news these days has two characteristics: it is usually bad news, and in the rare cases that it is good news it only benefits one species, ours. This time it was extraordinarily good news and it will benefit all life on earth in wonderfully positive ways.

I, like so many other invited guests had decided to follow my wife’s advice and go, although I had all-but-no hope that it would be of any consequence. But by the end of the first day I stood speechless… awestruck by what we had all just witnessed.

And then came the second day, and it outdid the first!

I, of course, realize that in order to have this unprecedented growth of interest in ocean health bear fruit, the protection of MPAs will have to be enforced. I see the main player in this effort as the Sea Shepherd movement with its new focus on helping developing countries police their MPAs by offering local law enforcement officers a chance to get out to where the poachers do their dirty work and arrest them at sea and in the act. I see this as a particularly powerful direction for marine conservation organizations to follow, which is why Ocean Alliance is pleased to be cooperating fully with this pioneering work by the Sea Shepherd movement.

Ocean Alliance’s recent emphasis is on perfecting the use of drones to assess populations of ocean life—seen most famously in the success of Iain Kerr’s SnotBot. Taking such a step follows smoothly in the wake of our global Voyage of the Odyssey in which we made the first global assessment of how badly toxic metals and several synthetic molecules are contaminating sea life… worldwide. That exercise proved our efficacy in assessing the extent of ocean pollution and we plan to scale it up so that other entities can monitor their MPAs—but can do so by sampling the blows of the main indicator species, whales, rather than by taking skin/blubber biopsies.

But identifying problems is just the beginning. We need to find ways to solve those problems in ways that are scalable. As our global “Voyage of the Odyssey” clearly showed, the two major sources of the contaminants that affect ocean life come from: 1) Big Industries that follows the practice of dumping their wastes into the air which then carries the contaminants into the sea, and 2) Big Agriculture—principally synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are washed into rivers and from there down to the sea where they get into all ocean life.

We are now working with Urth Agriculture, an organization that is helping farmers increase their yields while renewing their soils and holding ponds by replacing synthetic fertilizers with microbes that cost a fraction of synthetic fertilizers. Plus, the microbes also rebuild soils rather than continuing to poison them the way synthetic fertilizers do.

The word miracle is much overused, but if you witnessed one, as I did last week, what else can you call it? I had never dreamed of seeing what happened at last week’s conference. Listening to the comments of the participants it became clear that of the many conference organizers who worked so hard to achieve the result, Secretary of State, John Kerry stood out. It was his ability to encourage a kind of friendly rivalry among sovereign nations as to who could promise the biggest percentage of their physical and fiscal resources to improve ocean health (a kind of marine potlatch) that created what I believe should be called The Miracle of 2016.

In the interests of full disclosure, neither Ocean Alliance nor I have asked for, nor stand to receive any financial benefit from the State Department, and although I have shaken his hand, I could easily forgive Secretary Kerry if he didn’t remember me from a sea cucumber. The man deserves our deepest, collective thanks.

What is now most obvious is that this brilliant start needs to be funded generously by governments and foundations as well as by everyone with the vision to see the peril our future holds unless we take the trident that Kerry has passed to us and brandish it as though our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

Roger Payne

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

 

M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

 

 

NBC Nightly News visits Ocean Alliance

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On Monday Sept 12th, Tom Costello from NBC Nightly News visited Ocean Alliance to shoot a story on SnotBot.

Mr. Costello was accompanied by his producer Jay Blackman, a videographer, and soundman. The weather was absolutely beautiful and the NBC team were on site from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm.

NBC 3 TN

Our CEO and chief SnotBot pilot Iain Kerr was interviewed and filmed flying SnotBot. Understanding the unique perspective of a drone, he offered to shoot some video of Mr. Costello for the news story with SnotBot. NBC are now heading to interview Dr. Scott Baker at Oregon State University, who is analyzing SnotBot samples from our most recent expedition to Alaska.

NBC 6 TN
“We are very excited to have NBC Nightly News show an interest in this work,” said Dr. Kerr. “Mr. Costello was a real pleasure to work with, and he asked some great questions with regards to SnotBot and whales both on and off camera.”

SnotBot Alaska was the last Kickstarter-funded SnotBot expedition, so the grind of raising funds to keep the SnotBot (and now EarBot) program moving forward now goes back into high gear. We hope that the exposure offered by Mr. Costello and the NBC team will help with this process.

Details of when the show will air will be posted on Ocean Alliance’s Facebook page – likely it will be the week of September 19th. 

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.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-40
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.

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-41
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

Thank You for a Successful Gloucester Harbor Cruise! – by Andy Rogan, OA Science Manager

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On Tuesday the 26th July we hosted our Gloucester Harbour Cruise (which turned into a sunset whale watch!). We are thrilled to announce that it was an enormous success, raising almost $4,000 to support Ocean Alliance and our activities protecting whales & their ocean environment.

With all of the donated food and great weather we knew that we were in store for a great evening, but we were over the moon when our partners (and incredibly gracious hosts), Seven Seas Whale watch, told us that the humpback whales on Stellwagen bank were close enough to shore to access in the time we had available. Our evening on the Privateer IV was thus off to a great start when it turned from a tour of the harbor into a whale watch with our president and founder Dr. Roger Payne!

IMG_0005-Tasia Blough

Photo by Tasia Blough

 

As we went out to sea, Roger and CEO Iain Kerr talked about our work, our hopes and ambitions for the oceans and our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory. The stars of the show were the whales which make Stellwagen Bank their summer home. During one whale dive Roger talked about a similar night he had at sea over 40 years ago when he first heard whale songs.

We reached the whales half an hour before sunset and were treated to a stunningly beautiful display. Lots of fluking into the sunset (to the delight of all with a camera!) and surfacing right next to the vessel thrilled all on-board, including Roger!

Photo by Alex Paradis

Photo by Alex Paradis

IMG_1083-2As we headed back to Gloucester after watching the sun dip beneath the horizon (with a glimpse of a green flash) the silent auction and the raffle got in to full gear, and after a few more tales from Iain and Roger, including his poetic description of ‘The Borneo Cat Drop’, the raffle prize winners were announced.

A great time was had by all and it was fantastic being able to connect with so many Gloucester and Cape Ann locals: a tremendous success all round and we were thrilled to raise $4,000 to support our research & restoration activities! So great a success was it, that we are hoping to make it an annual event!

Enormous thanks are due to a lot of great friends. First and foremost, to Seven Seas Whale Watch, whose vessel the Privateer IV and crew kept everyone safe and happy, and to their captain Jay, whose instinctive understanding of Humpback whales got us so many wonderful encounters. Also to the many local groups that kindly donated food and drink to the cruise including: Cape Ann Brewery, Stop & Shop, the Common Crow, Maritime Gloucester, Passports Restaurant, Latitude 43, Ryan & Wood Distillery, Cape Ann Coffee, the Studio Restaurant and Sugar Magnolias. Thank You so much for your generosity: you made this night the success it was!

And finally to the Ocean Alliance staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly during the whole planning phase and during the evening itself: and in particular to Rebecca Graham, the orchestra conductor, and our board member Linde Mac.

 

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UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

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This interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr originally appeared on the UAS Vision website, an independent global forum for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems community.

We wanted to find out more about the team behind Drone World Expo – what makes them tick, what motivates them and what are the secrets behind the success of the event. We will be interviewing several of the Advisory Board members over the coming months. We start with Dr. Iain Kerr, the CEO of the Ocean Alliance, an organization recognised as an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding by renowned scientist Dr. Roger Payne in 1970. Iain has pioneered research using UAVs  to collect data from whales and the ocean environment.

  1. What was the trigger for your move to the USA? Was Ocean Alliance your first employer?

I first came over to the USA looking for adventure, I had just finished four years at university I wanted to go and explore the world, my sister had friends in Miami and the Bahamas so that seemed like the best place to go. A year or so later I started a small company in Miami called CDI hovercraft.  These were small light weight hovercraft that were the ultimate all terrain vehicles, we sold some to rice growers in the Mississippi, gold miners in Brazil and adventurers or early adopters looking for a new type of transportation.  I still see these hovercraft as a solution looking for a problem.  I have always liked to tinker with machines.  After CDI Hovercraft I worked as a yacht delivery captain for a few years but my first formal job was with Ocean Alliance when I captained their research vessel Siben to the Galapagos in the 1980’s.

  1. What was your first encounter with a drone ?

I studied engineering at the University of London (part of a teacher training course) I don’t know why but I have always had a great fascination with Helicopters, so I wanted to build a gyrocopter for a final design/build project at University. Luckily my dad persuaded me to build a Hovercraft (see photo below – less height to fall if something goes wrong) hence the Hovercraft company in Miami.

Hovercraft Shoreditch
I did not do much airborne tech work for the next decade that I spent at sea but when I came ashore I instantly started back up with gas powered RC helicopters. I did not like the constant engine issues, exhaust and fuel problems and my landlord did not like the dead spots all over the lawn.  About another decade later when battery powered helicopters and planes came onto the scene I leapt back into the field with both feet.

  1. What do you see as being the advantage(s) of using drones for conservation?

I could spend all day answering this question – I believe that drones for conservation and research are akin to the invention of the microscope for cellular biology.  They are opening up a whole new world for us to explore.  They are affordable, quite, adaptable, reliable and scalable.  I was recently hovering above a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.

Blue body short
Through FPV [First-Person View] I was just sitting 20 feet above this remarkable animal watching, its movement, its musculature, its respiration rate, its patterning and then a few minutes later I had, DNA, Microbiomes and who knows what else from its snot and it never even knew that I was there.  If we truly want to understand what effects humanity is having on wildlife we need to study them in a non invasive manner (see the observer effect) – todays drones are the ultimate realization of non invasive research. I also believe we are only just scratching the surface of the potential for these machines.

  1. Which airframes did you select for your most recent expeditions to the Sea of Cortez and Alaska and why ?

When we first started the SnotBot program we built prototypes with our friends at Olin College of Engineering, we soon realized that companies like DJI were spending millions on research and development and it would be easier for us to modify their product than create a whole new product. When you spend a lot of money and time getting a team on location, you want a drone that you can rely on and DJI had that in spades. We also really liked the interface that the DJI products have with the iPad or iPhone and the flight log App. Using a drone to collect whale blows is a bit counterintuitive, the whales are blowing up but the drones are blowing down.

Inspire 1 SnotBot[2]
In Mexico we wanted to explore two avenues of Snot collection, the first was to use a number of different Snot collection devices on a pole (trying to get out of the downwash) and the second was to use the drone rotor circulation or vortex’s to collect snot for us, taking advantage of the prop wash as against fighting it.  The DJI Phantom 4 was perfect for attaching poles and different payloads.  The thin body of the DJI Inspire 1 (as against the typical round body) meant that we could put Petri Dishes on the top of the Inspire and collect snot as it was sucked in by the blades and pushed down along the thin body (see photo).  We chose wisely, this method was very successful.

dripping
5. There is now a wide variety of exhibitions and conferences about UAS in the USA.  Why did you choose to support Drone World Expo (http://droneworldexpo.com)?

I started by looking at their advisory board, I really liked the fact that they had such a diverse collection of people, from industry, legislation, investment, science and innovation.  The skills experience and expertise that this group bring to the table is quite remarkable.  I also like the fact that this conference represents a true cross section of the industry, I see other conferences that are more focused on one aspect or another but in their own words:  “The DWE conference program will provide a road map for the application and deployment of drone solutions and key insights for participants into how to measure and maximize on the value drones can add to commercial businesses”.

“Aerial and Underwater Drones” by Roger Payne

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It was 46 years ago that I first saw right whales off Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia and started the study of their behavior that Ocean Alliance has continued without a break to this day (making ours the longest continuous study of a whale species based on known individuals). In that first year I watched the right whales from a high cliff and when they came beneath it could see through the water exactly what they were doing and in perfect detail. By filming the patterns of white markings (callosities) on their heads, I could also tell who they were. However, because they were almost always on the move the perfect views from above never lasted more than a few minutes. We could run along the rim of the cliff for a while, looking down at the whale but it was both exhausting and dangerous as any misstep would plunge you headfirst onto the rocks, 150 feet below.

By accurately plotting their positions with surveyors’ theodolytes we later found that at Penìnsula Valdès right whales prefer to be in 5 meters of water—not 4½ meters or 5½ meters but 5 meters of water. They stick to that depth tenaciously in our study area in Golfo San José. In fact, I have never seen a more sharply tuned behavioral preference for water depth in any whale species. It was clear that if you could observe from overhead the whales could not get out of your sight because of their strong preference for water that is only 5 meters deep—a depth through which you can see the whale’s entire body.

For all those reasons, from year one I longed to observe right whales from the air. Sure sure, underwater observations were possible but whenever you approach closely, the whales either leave at once or stop whatever they are doing and come over to examine you closely—often, they try to intimidate or dominate you as well. It is all very impressive but you see nothing of the whale’s normal behavior which is why you are there in the first place. Because it was so clear from the start that aerial observations would enable us to make huge advances in understanding right whale behavior, we tried in that first year to find a helicopter we could afford to charter from which we could observe the whales’. But neither then nor later could we find one at a charter price we could afford. Years later when we were cooperating in the filming of an Imax film, we did finally have the chance to keep a chartered helicopter at whale camp for 10 days. The views we got from it were great but we had to observe from much further away, since helicopters disturb right whales much more than the fixed-wing planes we were used to.

Parasail and baloon

Roger and Iain’s early attempts to observe whales from above in 1987, with a parasail and balloon.

For years I simply yearned to have a model aircraft that could carry a TV camera. I was sure it would be able to get closer without disturbing the whales and that would give us better results. However, none of us had the skills to operate such a machine and it was clear that learning to do so and keeping that skill honed would be a full time occupation—hard to accomplish since there is a long roster of other things that demand one’s full attention during our all-too-short field seasons.

As time passed affordable drones finally began to appear. In 2006 I had the luck of meeting MIT Professor Daniela Rus, two of whose former students had developed a very successful octocopter called the Falcon. We took it and them to Argentina in 2008 and tried it out as a tool for observing right whales. The results were stunning. First off, as long as we kept the downdraft clear of the the whales they simply ignored the drone. Here’s an example of what you can see from a small drone when above a right whale:

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

At the same time Iain approached Professor Andrew Bennett at Olin College of Engineering and they began building what they dubbed the SnotBot, (one of my least favorite names but a great machine that collects blow samples from right whales, subsequent analyses of which enable you to learn about the health and reproductive state of the whale). Iain is currently off doing this work on the second of three expeditions that Ocean Alliance funded through Kickstarter.

While all of this explosive development was going on Iain was spending evenings and weekends learning how to fly drones in his back yard and the result of that effort made it clear that the dream of studying behavior of whales with drones is now a reality.

Allow me to go out on a limb and predict (in the spirit of Moore’s law) a trend in the amount of information one can get by using drones: I predict that the number of papers on whale behavior based on drones will roughly double every three to five years—thereby tempting one to conclude that if you want to learn about whales, don’t waste your time on, or in, the water, get up in the air.

However, everyone who does accept the challenge of designing drones that can operate in the far-more-difficult world of underwater observations will find that the amount of data they can get on whales will increase even faster. I suspect that in a few more years the explosion of papers based on underwater drones will be increasing at twice the rate of papers based on aerial drones.

I have often felt that by great good fortune I was born at a time ideal for learning more about whales. However, I now feel that an understanding of the world of whales is only in its very earliest, most primitive beginning phase and that its full fruition will come as a result of both aerial and underwater drones—rather than from observations by divers or from shipboard.

Blue body 2

 

Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

“Art of the Sea and Science,” a collaboration of North Shore Arts Association and Ocean Alliance

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WHAT: “Art of the Sea and Science”
EVENTS: Art exhibition, silent auction, lectures and performance series
WHEN: June 17th through July 30th
WHERE: North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, Gloucester, MA 01930
ADMISSION: Open free to the public with suggested donation of $5 for lectures  and performance series
CONTACT INFO: NSAA at 978.283.1857 or arts@nsarts.org

  • June 17-July 30 “Art of the Sea and Science” exhibition
  • June 17-July 30 Original artwork on Paint Factory Slates silent auction
  • June 26 (12:30-1:30) “Why Whales” lecture with Dr. Iain Kerr
  • June 26 (2-4pm) Reception open free to the general public
  • July 7 (7pm) “Sea Change-Reversing the Tide” performance with Dr. Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow (noted New Zealand actress)
  • July 23 (3pm) “The Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art” lecture with Karen Ristuben
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“From the Harbor” by Sharon Bahosh

American writer, artist and philosopher E. Hubbard said “Art is not a thing, it is a way.” The historic North Shore Arts Association of Gloucester celebrating its 94th year, reflects this philosophy with its “Art in Action – Connecting Communities” focus this season, by hosting a groundbreaking collaboration with Gloucester’s marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance, now headquartered in Gloucester’s iconic Paint Factory, and historic Rocky Neck Art Colony.

Supporting the Ocean Alliance mission to protect and preserve our oceans and marine life and North Shore Arts Association and Rocky Neck Art Colony’s mission of supporting the arts, an “Art Exhibition of the Sea and Science” will be on display June 17 through July 30 in the galleries of NSAA. Although works of all genres will be on display, the main focus will be works depicting the sea and Cape Ann.

A very unique component of the exhibition will be a show and silent auction of works painted on old roofing slates removed from the historic Paint Factory building. These historic slates donated to NSAA by non-profit Ocean Alliance provide the substrate used by NSAA Artist Members to create original paintings, each approximately 12″x24″ depicting a myriad images. Bids for the silent auction may be placed June 17 through July 30 by visiting or contacting NSAA. One hundred per cent of silent auction proceeds will go to fund the ongoing restoration of the NSAA’s gallery building and Ocean Alliance’s Paint Factory headquarters.

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“Whale and Calf” by Anne Demeter

The collaboration also offers an extraordinary series of Ocean Alliance and Rocky Neck Art Colony lectures and performances. This special programing was made possible through partial funding by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The first of the series will be marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance presenting a lecture “Why Whales?” by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr on Sunday, June 26th, 12:30-1:30pm followed by a reception, open free to the public 2-4pm. A dynamic performance/poetry reading, “Sea Change: Reversing the Tide” will be presented by President of Ocean Alliance Dr. Roger Payne – whose profound discovery of whale songs has been a major force in their protection – and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow on Thursday, July 7th at 7pm. Rocky Neck Art Colony President and arts and marine conservation advocate Karen Ristuben will present a lecture “Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art on Saturday, July 23rd 3pm. All lectures and performances are free with a suggested donation of $5.

To learn more about these three iconic non-profits visit www.nsarts.org, www.whale.org and rockyneckartcolony.org.

About the Lecturers and Performers

– Dr. Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance President and Founder

Dr. Roger Payne states, “I am so disappointed that the Arts and Sciences are taught separately – both the Arts and the Sciences lose. They should be co-mingled.” Ocean scientist Payne embodies the best of the Arts and Sciences functioning together to do something probably neither could have done separately.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr shares, “Because Dr. Payne is a musician. . . because he is an artist/scientist, his training allowed him to identify, and make the most profound discovery about humpback whales. That whales sing songs!” Prior to his discovery in 1967, along with Scott McVay, whale sounds were a mystery. Payne knew, however, that “a song is a rhythmically repeated collection of notes” and was able, because of his music training, to identify the particular songs of individual whales that he later confirmed can be heard over thousands of miles of ocean.

Having worked aboard the sloop “Clearwater” in support of Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York, Payne is considered a pioneer in his field. In the hope of sharing the work of artists/scientists, recordings of whale songs were placed aboard American Satellites Voyager I and II. Drs. Payne and Kerr have also stimulated interest in conserving our oceans and marine life by testifying before congress and presenting before the United Nations.

 About SEACHANGE: Reversing the Tide (performed by Dr. Roger Payne and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow

What is the most consequential contribution of science in the past 100 years? Is it E=mc2, the structure of DNA, decoding the human genome, plate tectonics, the computer revolution, putting a man on the moon, the development of nuclear weapons? None of those directly affects the lives of every human being on earth—most indigenous peoples are simply unaware of all of them. However, respect for the hundreds of species that make the world habitable for us, and with which we interdepend is utterly consequential. Indigenous people were first to guess at it but scientific discovery during the past 50 years has proved it. And the consequence is that discovery is—if we ignore the destruction of the wild world until it can no longer keep the world habitable, our species will not survive.

The evidence for and the consequences of this broad claim are explored in Seachange: Reversing the Tide. In this hour long presentation Roger Payne and his wife, actress Lisa Harrow combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of poetry to argue compellingly that man is not the overseer of Life on earth but an integral part of Life’s complex web and conclude that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is the realization that our species’ survival requires that we attend not just to our own wellbeing but to the wellbeing of the entire web of Life—nothing else we can ever do will be nearly as consequential as understanding that point. The audience emerges with a clear understanding of humanity’s role in the natural world and of the urgency of our need to start living sustainably.

Since 2004, Roger and Lisa have presented SeaChange: Reversing the Tide to audiences in universities, film festivals, schools, churches, conferences, libraries and other public spaces,  off-Broadway, the UN, and in people’s living rooms, throughout the US, as well as in New Zealand and the UK.

Currently, a team of New Zealand/Canadian documentary makers are raising the funds from international sources to make a film of the piece, which they are calling Pale Blue Dot after Carl Sagan’s book, an extract from which are the last words of SeaChange.

“SeaChange moves its viewers. The strength of its ecological convictions derives from well-marshalled facts of the reality of our despoilment of the planet, and the emotional impact of the poetry the piece uses. Most importantly, Harrow and Payne turn away from despair, to what is to be done.” Roald Hoffman, Nobel laureate, chemist and writer

“Thank you, both of you, for that haunting and lovely stage piece. You had me thrumming all the way home.”

– Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

“I think of our planet as Planet Ocean, not Planet Earth because almost three quarters of the planet is ocean.” A self described adventurer who loves ocean science, Kerr was granted a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Southern Maine in honor of his 20 years of ocean research in over 21 countries.

On a trip out of Gloucester harbor in 1993 on a whale watch boat he saw the Paint Factory. Recognizing that such an iconic building, with its long maritime history, might capture the hearts and minds of people thereby stimulating their interest and involvement in ocean and whale conservation, he realized it would be a valuable place to headquarter Ocean Alliance.  As a result, the organization contacted the Annenberg Foundation which ultimately provided all the funds necessary to purchase the Paint Factory.  Kerr emphasizes that, since the building is mortgage free, all donations go to the ongoing restoration of the Paint Factory buildings.

The OA organization is a pioneer in developing benign research tools for studying our oceans, the most recent iteration being drones – which they have dubbed “Snotbots” – which gather specimens from the spray spouted through the blow holes of whales. Award winning actor Patrick Stewart has long been a friend to Ocean Alliance and was instrumental in garnering funds for the “Snotbot” research program. This research method is hailed for its non-invasive approach to studying the health of whale populations.

When asked what is meant by “Alliance” in the OA title, Kerr said it “reflects the idea that, along with collaboration from many other scientific organizations, all of humanity needs to be allied to preserve our oceans.”

Finding Gloucester reminiscent of the small fishing village in South West England where he grew up, Kerr and his wife chose to make their home East Gloucester.

Slate_Abbe,Jude_OceanReporterFV

“FV Ocean Reporter” by Jude Abbe


Karen Ristuben, Artist and Marine Conservation Advocate

After a conversation in 2009 with Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, about the challenges of preserving our oceans, Ms. Ristuben became actively involved using her artistic energies to build awareness about marine conservation. Fascinated with the qualities of reflectivity and transparency, she adopted working in glass as her artistic medium.

Then, looking out at the ocean from her Gloucester home she “realized how reflective and transparent” the water is. Also she began noticing the accumulation of plastics on the sand in front of her house. Inspired to take action, Ristuben developed a dynamic performance/lecture using the arts – music, photography and her own videos – creating an art piece as a vehicle to communicate information about the toxic effects of plastics pollution on our oceans. She states, “If there’s something in the world that needs attention – if you present it within an aesthetic framework – it becomes compelling, and they will be engaged and more likely to learn and become an agent for change.  Without an aesthetic element the offering is two dimensional.

Presenting a performance translates the issues through artistic media which then asks a viewer to be a part of it, to experience it, and be touched by it – which then leads to audiences to inquire – what can I do?

Ristuben suggests that people get involved through something that they know and care about that surrounds them. She was surrounded by the sea.  She says, “One can be most effective when talking about something from your own perspective. It allows others to do the same. It gives permission to bring your own life into your art.”

A longtime resident of Rocky Neck and current Rocky Neck Art Colony President, Ristuben sees new excitement and possibilities for forming new working partnerships, especially under the banner of the Cultural Districts, between local arts and scientific communities on Cape Ann.

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“Cod” by Phyllis Bezanson

Today is World Oceans Day by Roger Payne

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Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.

World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year since the Rio Earth Summit, and Starting in 2003 the worldwide events have been coordinated by the World Ocean Network, which late in 2008 persuaded the UN to officially recognize World Oceans Day. Ever since, June 8th has featured ever greater numbers of celebrants, celebrations and events.

Each year World Oceans Day has had a different theme. This year it is: “Healthy oceans healthy planet.” That’s a good theme, given that if the oceans die we won’t survive, because the ocean and the life within it perform so many crucial services that keep the planet livable for us. So even if you live in central Kansas, don’t like seafood, have never seen the ocean, and think that it has no relevance to your life, you should know that it is the ocean that keeps Kansas and the rest of the US livable. As the Secretary General of the UN said on that first World Oceans Day after the UN had recognized it: “Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”

An easier way to make the same point is to say: If the oceans die, we die.

The reason for such a drastic claim is that ocean plants provide half to two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. You may think you could get along fine with half to one third of the oxygen you’re used to; after all, you once climbed that mountain and it was almost 10,000 feet high, and you did OK. You didn’t need oxygen. So how bad could it be to have to get used to breathing air with a third as much oxygen as we’re used to? You and I could get used to it. But oops, it’s the equivalent of being on top of a mountain 100 meters higher than Mt. Everest.

“But,” I hear you say, “People have summited Everest without oxygen.”

Yes, they have, but they didn’t stay on the summit very long.

Given the suite of major problems with which we humans have burdened the ocean:

  • Acidification that kills shellfish and corals,
  • The aquarium trade threatening coral reef species,
  •  The collapse of albatross populations from longline fishing,
  • Noise pollution from ships’ traffic and seismic profiling for petroleum,
  • Oil spills,
  • Offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters,
  • Marine pollution,
  • Gyres of microplastics,
  • Macroplastic trash and tar balls on beaches,
  • Mariculture and its many associated problems,
  • Global and seawater warming that reshapes ecosystems (particularly in polar seas),
  • Unregulated fishing,
  • Unreported fishing,
  • Over-exploitation and extinction of species,
  • Destructive fishing practices like driftnets, trawling, dynamiting for fish on coral reefs,
  • Invasive alien species,
  • Sea-level canals,
  • Etc.

Could we not afford to give our attention to such problems for more than one day a year? Or do we think these problems are not serious enough to warrant more of our attention, and that in one day each year we will become interested enough to solve them before it’s too late?

Or is it just that we like grandstanding, with efforts that cannot possibly solve a problem but that make us feel as though we are making a difference, even when the difference we are making is insignificant?

I think that events like Earth Day and World Oceans Day do make a significant difference but only if we open our calendars or our wallets and contribute enough time or money to make us confident that what we are doing has a chance of making a difference. That is my challenge: that you judge the effectiveness of your efforts today and if you find that you could have done more… do it.

Roger Payne

“Data: More or Less?” by OA Science Manager Andy Rogan

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Perception of our jobs, as marine biologists, varies enormously and is almost always fairly wide of the mark. The, sadly fairly inaccurate, vision tends to be some variation of endless weeks spent cruising over flat-calm and crystal clear deep blue oceans, interacting daily with a myriad of charismatic ocean life, hair going lighter and skin going darker under an infinitely azure and cloudless sky.

These days, the reality is that less and less time is being spent in the field collecting data. Field work can be incredibly expensive, and more time on the ocean means less time in the office fund-raising. Nowadays there are hundreds of groups collecting data: from big oceanographic institutions such as Woods Hole & SCRIPSS, universities and other academic groups, government organizations such as NOAA and non-profits such as Ocean Alliance. This is of course a wonderful thing. Competition inevitably leads to a more efficient, productive industry. Yet, for the most part, we’re competing for the same resources: more hands being put in the same pots for smaller sums of money.

What this means is that when the time for data collection comes along we need to take full advantage. This puts more pressure on us to collect all the data required in that short period of time, and brings to the fore a familiar question in the scientific world. Data: more or less? Collect too little and you could miss out on crucial information, a seemingly innocuous data point which forms the vital piece of the puzzle. Collect too much, and every extra piece of information becomes more time-consuming, more complex and leaves more room for error (and if you are too busy with your head down recording information, you risk not even seeing the whales in the first place!).

One of the major advantages of SnotBot is that it allows us to collect a high number of samples: a good sample size. Small sample sizes are major bottleneck to most data collection techniques which involve collecting physical, biological samples from large whales. SnotBot changes this, by allowing the researcher to race over to a whale, collect a sample/multiple samples from the same whale, race back to the research vessel, wait for the sample to be removed and appropriately stored before flying off to the next whale and repeating the process. Of course, if I had my head down recording every single variable of each flight, this would considerably slow the process. So where does the balance lie?

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This was a conundrum we had to figure out, to decide what was important and what wasn’t. With well-established measures of data collection, many scientists live by the expression, ‘less is more’. Collect only the vital pieces of information, making for a more efficient and more easily analysed data set with far less room for error. SnotBot is not a well-established measure of data collection. Indeed much of the value of these early expeditions is about testing different drones and collection devices in an effort to determine the most effective and practical ways of collecting as much exhaled breath condensate, or ‘blow’, as possible. As we take these first steps into the world of SnotBot, we don’t know what the most important factors will be in shaping whether or not we get a sample and how large that sample will be. As we look to establish SnotBot as a mainstay of marine mammal research, it is imperative that we collect as much data as possible. In 5 years’ time we don’t want to look back and say, ‘if only we had collected this piece of information or that on every SnotBot flight’. We will be able to look back at mountains of data and determine what the most important factors really are. Then, and only then, will we be able to look up a little more often and get to enjoy the experience of being in the company of whales.

Having said that, it might be a stretch to say that we didn’t have many good encounters with whales…

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

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OK, so stop me if you heard this one….

A German, two Brits, and a Yank are in a small wooden Panga boat off the coast of the Baja Peninsula using a drone to collect whale snot….

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well why should it? This one was written just weeks ago, but in the making for several years. Although this opening screams for a side-splitting punch line, I have none, for this is no joke. After reading this, you may want to store it away under the category of “You were doing what?” as part of the Bizarro Files.

This blog is just Part One of a series in which I intend to take you on a journey as seen through my progressive-corrective lenses. All of us who participated in this expedition were given the task of writing down their own individual experience. I’m the tech guy/ engineer on this mission, but my goal in writing these blogs will be to “focus” more on the trek with smatterings of geeky, techie stuff sprinkled in. I’ll try to keep it fresh and not to be too redundant of past articles.
The Ocean Alliance SnotBot crew consists of what is fondly referred to by its fearless leader as the A-Team. Not unlike the popular ‘80s television series, the group consists of characters in their own right; Iain Kerr (group leader and drone pilot), Andy Rogan (scientific researcher), Christian Miller (photographer/ documentarian), and me, John Graham (engineering tech). The mission is to perfect the technique in which we collect data rich, liquid exhalation, also known as “snot”, from our cetacean subjects. Spoiler Alert…….. It was a resounding success!! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Following up our “blow-catching” drone debut last September in Patagonia, Act 2 finds our ragtag team in the Sea of Cortez, and for those of you who are geographically challenged, such as me, that is off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our gear consisted of 16 very heavy and oversized waterproof shipping containers, also known as Pelican cases, and personal backpacks. The night before our departure, my wife Rebecca was pulled into the madness that was my packing process. I stood on the bathroom scale, straining to hold the over-stuffed equipment trunks in my hands, and due to my obstructed view, Rebecca recorded the results. I than subtracted my own weight to get the final poundage of the gear. 50 pounds is the cut-off for check-ins without incurring a huge surcharge. It was the first and only time in my life that I wish I weighed more, because in my mind, the more I weighed, the less the bags weighed. This was my feeble attempt to get the luggage to be within the TSA limits. All this research gear was necessary because you never know what you’ll encounter while doing research in remote locations. Small hand tools, check. Battery powered tools, check. Panty hose, check. Wait…What? (I’ll explain later.) We started our journey by leaving from Logan Airport in Boston and landing in Los Cabos San Lucas, you know, the place where the Love Boat would “set a course for adventure”. And indeed it was truly to be an adventure. After a brief overnight stay and having the Mexican Customs Department graciously lighten our load of Pesos as “payment” for allowing us to bring our plethora of gear into their country, we headed out on a 10 hour road trip.

Desert drive

Desert drive

The vistas were ever-changing with diverse terrain ranging from deserts replete with huge prickly cacti standing like silent sentinels strewn across the landscape; to its counterpart, the oases, with fields of lush green farmland and small ponds used for irrigating the crops. This is followed by mountainous roads so windy that the famous “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street in San Francisco, should hand over its crown and admit defeat. I would consider it one of the most beautifully diverse drives I have ever taken. Apart from the confusing and dangerous road rules, like random stop signs on the main highway or having to play a game of “chicken” with a tractor trailer in order to pass, the drive was quite enjoyable. There were however, the occasional sheer cliff drop-offs void of all those pesky guardrails with near-by asphalt adorned with the skid marks of vehicles not so lucky to negotiate the turn. This served as a not so gentle reminder to keep our eyes on the road and not be seduced by the scenery.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at our destination, San Ignacio. It is an amazing little town, whose image is easily conjured up by anyone who may have seen a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Passing multi-colored buildings of stucco and a beautifully crumbling old church in the center of town, we made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t difficult to find, being it was the only one around for miles. Upon our arrival in town we were also exposed to the amazing aromas that wafted in through the van’s open windows. The drive there had provided us little in the terms of substantial nutritional intake, just the usual road trip fare of cookies, chips, and candy bars. We quickly unpacked all our gear into the two rooms that served as a brief respite to recharge our batteries after the long drive, than we headed off on foot into town to find the source of the delicious food bouquet. The sounds and smells of fajitas with chicken and beef grilling pulled us towards a little cafe with outdoor seating. These sensory cues draw me back to that place in time as I sit to write this. After sampling the local cuisine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. We were informed by the hotel manager that on that very night of our stay, the annual Miss Baja Pageant was to take place. Sounded interesting until we discovered that right outside our rooms was the runway for the eager contestants and the festivities didn’t get started until 10:00p.m… This made it difficult for all of us to get sleep, but poor Christian must have drawn the short straw when it came time to choose roomies. The blaring music being emitted from the huge speakers outside was probably a welcome distraction compared to the noises from within his room. He showed great fortitude by not smothering me in my sleep with a pillow in pursuit of muffling the snoring bear in the adjacent bunk with only a night stand and Gideon’s bible as a barrier.
Morning came quickly, as we repacked up the car, grabbed a quick breakfast of huevos, jamon, y frijoles (eggs, ham, and beans) from a roadside tent stand and hit the road for San Ignacio Lagoon. The remote camp was to be our home for the next 5 days. After shooting some “B roll” (that’s movie lingo for the clips that act as filler between the actual action and help set the mood), for our cameraman/ documentarian, Christian, we were on our way. It was a bright sunny day, dirt roads, more cacti, vultures, and a van full of gear and eager SnotBot crew members. The only thing left behind was our memories in a cloud of dust as we made our way to what brought us to this country in the first place, to research Grey Whales by use of our drone platform.

San Ignacio Church

Next blog: Salt, eggs, and rice…..Hint: it’s not a recipe.

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

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