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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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. IT’S 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

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John

Aloha, Hawaii

By | aug14 | No Comments

I recently returned from a fantastic trip to Hawaii, where I got to connect with some old friends, make new friends, and even say hi to a few humpbacks (even though it was blowing 30 knots the day we went out).

It’s a long trip, and jet lag had me staggering my first day in Honolulu, but wouldn’t you say yes to getting out of New England in February to give two talks in Hawaii?  My first talk was at the Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island.  I have to say that while Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the old Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory buildings on Gloucester Harbor are pretty amazing, these folks have us beat.  What a spectacular facility, and the staff offered tremendous hospitality. Coconut Island is cut off from the mainland so you have to take a small boat over to the institute.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

I was surprised when my new friend and guide Dr. Aude Pacini invited me to get into another boat to go over to their marine mammal stranding facility at the edge of the Marine Core Base on Mokapu peninsula.  I could not have been happier, there were V22 Osprey assault planes landing on my right and an extensive marine mammal stranding facility on my left. Dr. Kristi West was my type of whale biologist; she was clearly very passionate about her work, even though dealing with dead or stranded animal is not exactly everyone’s cup of tea (or as nice a smell).

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

A specimen at the marine mammal stranding facility on Mokapu peninsula

Kirsti gave me a tour of their facility, showing me where they did their necropsies, letting me look over the shoulder of a scientist who was reviewing the stomach contents of a recent stranding, and even letting me to walk into their large freezer that held a biological treasure trove of frozen marine mammal parts.  After a tour of this facility it was back to Coconut Island, where I gave a talk on the Voyages of the Odyssey and the toxicological consequences of our consumer lifestyles.

The next day I was invited to the main campus in Honolulu, where I gave an talk on how we developed SnotBot and showed some videos of snot collection.

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

Giving a talk about Ocean Alliance and SnotBot in Honolulu

I must say that I found the generosity and collaborative spirit of everyone I met to be right down our street (as I often say, we are Ocean Alliance, not Ocean Alone). I talked with people about collaborating on some archival toxicological work, drone projects, and entanglement and stranding projects. I promise you the fact that I was in Hawaii in February as against New England had nothing to do with my enthusiasm.

I see enormous potential for groups like Ocean Alliance and the University of Hawaii to work together; the distance between us only increase the value of our perspective.  At the end of the day, as much as I was enchanted with the islands and the climate, it was the people who made the trip worthwhile, so my undying thanks go to Pam, Dr. Ruth Gates, and Dr. Aude Pacini. Aloha and Mahalo nui.

Racing micro drones in the Robotics Club.

The Art of Racing in the Clubhouse

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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).

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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!

 

Doing What Really Matters, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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.

unknown-3

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.”

 

2016-11-16-10-17-25

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

By | Ocean Alliance News, Robotics | No Comments
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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

‘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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Downwind Snot Collection 2

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

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

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

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #1

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Iain

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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.

 

DSC02592

UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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
Slate_Bahosh,Sharon_FromTheHarbor

“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.

Slate_Demeter, Anne_WhaleandCalf

“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.

Slate_Bezanson,Phyllis_Cod

“Cod” by Phyllis Bezanson

Today is World Oceans Day by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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?

IMG_3816

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…

DSC01184

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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.

IMG_6319

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.

IMG_6325

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.

IMG_6326

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

Go Paint Factory Flyers!

Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

Tom and Adrienne

Tom and Adrienne

 

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

Drone Launch

Drone Launch

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

Blue body & boat

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

Blue Snotted

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

Parasail and baloon

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

SnotBot Store

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

Dr. Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

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

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

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

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

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

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

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

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

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

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

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

Helping Sea Shepherd Capture Nighttime Drone Footage

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Earlier this year, Ocean Alliance CEO and resident drone expert Iain Kerr helped Sea Shepherd Conservation Society put together a drone package to support Operation Milagro II in the Sea of Cortez.  Operation Milagro II was launched in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise, principally through entanglement in gill nets.  The vaquita are one of the world’s smallest cetaceans, and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California.  They are the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with the population suspected to be only a few dozen individuals.  Although all gill nets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threat is posed by the gill nets used to catch the Totoaba fish due to the size of the mesh.

Having set up successful daytime patrols and working closely with the Mexican government, Sea Shepherd believed that the poachers might be setting gill nets at night.  Sea Shepherd staff called Iain Kerr and explained the problem.  After a series of conversations, Iain suggested the DJI developer drone Matrice 1 and the FLIR Vue Pro night vision thermal camera. “The Matrice is a very adaptable platform.  Crucial for this project was reliability of the DJI product, the 40 minute flight time, 3 mile range, and plug and play capacity of the FLIR Vue Pro Night Vision camera,” said Kerr.

Just this week, Iain received an email from Sea Shepherd thanking him for the support and success of this collaboration.

“We are over the moon with these results,” said Kerr. “So often we hear bad news about drones.  This project proves the enormous potential of drones as wildlife conservation tools.”

Earth Day Message from CEO Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

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

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

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

Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

Eye to eye

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

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

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

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

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

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

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

Collection methods

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

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

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

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

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

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

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

Chemical Pollution Threatens Marine Life, by Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In a rare move, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have tried to revoke their temporary approval of a new pesticide on to the market.

The decision has sparked fear amongst the industry which creates these pesticides over concerns that this might represent a more long-term shift in policy, whilst offering hope to activists who have long been pushing for more stringent safety protocols which all new pesticides must pass.

The EPA are basing this move on evidence that suggests that the pesticide under question, flubendiamide, bio-accumulates in fresh and salt water ecosystems, inhibiting the ability of key environmental drivers to perform necessary biological functions. This can ultimately lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

At Ocean Alliance, we cannot claim to fully understand the regulations which the EPA and industry must conform to regarding the release of new pesticides on to the market. What we do understand are the potential risks of pesticides and other pollutants, and how incredibly important it is that robust safety measures must be implemented and carefully adhered too before a product is deemed suitable for the open market. Whilst this might be costly to the industry, the risks of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.

The January 1979 National Geographic magazine included an article written by our Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne, an article famous for featuring a song sheet of Roger’s whale recordings, which was at the time the most produced song sheet in history. What fewer people know is that in the same article Roger made the following statement:

‘Pollution has replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales, and in its way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination, and simple human carelessness, then nothing can save the whales.’

38 years later, we can definitively say that Roger was correct. Chemical pollution is one of the greatest threats marine mammals face: in my opinion it is one of the three greatest dangers together with the growing threat of climate change & ocean acidification, and bycatch in global commercial fisheries, which is estimated to result in the mortality of well over 600,000 marine mammals every year. We are constantly releasing a suite of new chemicals into the ocean environment, many of which can take some time to bio-accumulate and begin negatively affecting the marine ecosystem. By the time robust evidence exists to prove this, the damage is already well and truly done. At the most recent Marine Mammal Conference in San Francisco, Ocean Alliance scientists sat in on a lecture in which NOAA scientists discussed the findings of their latest research in which they were monitoring toxicants in the waters off of California. Of the number of toxicants detected, between 30-40% were entirely unknown. This is an incredibly worrying statistic.

The threat of organic pollutants (which includes many pesticides) has long been recognised and has resulted in many compounds, such as the insecticide DDT and the widely used industrial compounds PCBs, being banned across much of the world. In 2004 the international community came together to meet this growing threat, signing the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an attempt to reduce or eliminate the release of POPs into the environment.

Recent studies however have suggested that some toxicants can have significant negative consequences to the marine environment even at low doses and many years after their use is banned. Researchers at The Zoological Society of London have one of the longest running data sets on PCBs in the world. Their research strongly suggests that PCBs today represent THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT to marine mammal apex predators in Europe, a full THIRTY YEARS after they were banned. Indeed they are recognised as the most likely reason the last resident population of Killer whales (Orca) no longer have the capability to breed, meaning that population, with its unique culture and language, is functionally extinct. Levels of PCBs are similar in coastal waters of the United States and it is likely that they are having a similar effect on marine mammal populations there and all over the world in areas which PCBs were readily used.

Of these many thousands of new chemicals being released annually, all it takes is for one to be a new ‘PCB’, before enormous damage is done to life in our oceans. The economic costs of this would be colossal, not to mention the costs to the environment (though of course the two are very much inseparable). Certainly, they would dwarf the economic benefits of releasing a pesticide early without proper safety checks.

As above, we do not claim to know whether the EPA guidelines and safety measures regarding the approval of new chemicals are robust enough or not. But we do know that if they are not robust enough, we are likely causing harm to the environment which will make its effects known for many, many years to come. Since Roger made his statement in 1979, Ocean Alliance has been striving to save our oceans and marine mammals by studying this ever-growing threat, indeed at the Marine Mammal Conference in December 2015, four papers were presented using data collected during the 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey and the 2010-2014 Gulf of Mexico program.

Here is the link to the original article on NPR.

Andy Rogan is Scientific Coordinator at Ocean Alliance.

Irish Documentary “Atlantic” to Premiere in US on March 19

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Launched in Ireland in recent days, ‘Atlantic’, narrated by Emmy Award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson, took Best Irish Documentary at the Dublin International Film Festival.  Its US premiere will take place at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC on Saturday March 19 at 2.15pm at the Carnegie Institute for ScienceDiscussion with director Risteard Ó Domhnaill will follow the screening.

Shot across the North Atlantic over a number of years, the film follows fishing communities in Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland, who are losing their livelihoods as oil companies drill ever deeper into their waters, and “super-trawler” fleets fish their stocks to the brink.

A large part of the story involves seismic airgun mapping for oil and gas, and what the future holds for marine habitats faced with such invasive technology. As this is such a crucial issue along the eastern US seaboard at the minute, this would be a great opportunity to see what other communities further afield are facing with the same issue.

“How The SnotBot & 3D Printing Are Unlocking The Key To Whale & Ocean Conservation,” from our partner CAPINC

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The following article first appeared on the CAPINC website on March 1, 2016.

Ocean Alliance, like the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has its origins in the bounty and fauna of the sea. Headquartered in the historic Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory, Ocean Alliance, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1971 by renowned biologist Dr. Roger Payne. Ocean Alliance strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. Led by Dr. Payne, CEO Dr. Iain Kerr , Ocean Alliance works with scientific partners to collect a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life. Ocean Alliance uses this data to advise educators, policy makers, and the general public on wise stewardship of the oceans to mitigate pollution, prevent the collapse of marine mammal populations, and promote ocean and human health.

Innovation In Conservation

CEO Dr. Iain Kerr has spent years researching whales, and explained that the best way to understand the ocean and its inhabitants is through biological data. In the past, the only approach to attain physical samples from whales was through a biopsy crossbow. This method provided valuable specimens, but proved to be a large undertaking. Dr. Iain Kerr explained,

It seemed to me that there had to be an easier way to do this. Having been a hobbyist and a Maker for most of my life, and in watching the direction in which the hobbyist drone industry was going, I realized that there was a real opportunity to use drones to benefit whales and humanity.”

Dr. Kerr’s overall goal was to develop a research drone that could be used to collect non-invasive biological and photographic data from marine and terrestrial mammals. Using the collected samples of DNA, viruses, bacteria, stress and pregnancy hormones from whale blows, researchers could gather data to better understand whales, the oceans, and humanity’s effect on them in a benign manner. The team at Ocean Alliance believed that the drone design should be easily replicable and scalable, so that it could be adopted as a research tool around the globe. Using their design skills, Ocean Alliance created the first SnotBot.

What Is SnotBot?

SnotBots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and students from Olin College of Engineering. Guided by a remote driver, they hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the mist (blow) exhaled from its lungs on petri dishes. SnotBot then returns that “snot” sample back to researchers a significant distance away. This non-invasive technique not only collects substantial physical data from each specimen, but also leaves the whales undisturbed, allowing for a more accurate biological picture of the animals.

With over a dozen iterations of SnotBot, the designs evolved with the team’s better understanding of the machine capacity and payloads. The more they learned, the more they were able to push their designs and plans. With a natural hobbyist inclination to make, break and test things, Dr. Kerr believed in 3D printing as a tool to help further their ideas.

I like to think of Ocean Alliance as an ocean innovator. I sometimes joke with my friends and say we’re not on the cutting edge; we’re on the bleeding edge. It’s tough to be an innovator. And often it’s tough to express an idea, or realize an idea, and test an idea. It can be very expensive. And this is where I think 3D printing is changing the world.”

MakerBot Replicator Mini

MakerBot Replicator Mini

Using 3D Printing To Advance The Design Process

January of 2015, CAPINC donated a MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer to Ocean Alliance to help further their SnotBot and robotics designs. The addition of the 3D printer has allowed Ocean Alliance to brainstorm multiple iterations of designs, enabling them to test their ideas in the field.

This is where a company like CAPINC comes in because you can’t go down to Home Depot and say I need something to attach a FLIR camera to a drone that is light weight, adaptable, and adjustable. So the capacity for us to even build prototypes of what we think we need, or actually build the real thing, is very exciting.”

The MakerBot Replicator Mini is an entry-level 3D printer, ideal for new users interested in 3D printing, with minimal investment required. Dr. Kerr and his team have enjoyed having an in-house 3D printer.

The unit that we have, that CAPINC has been supporting us with, has been a MakerBot, which, I must say, has been a lot of fun. And I think as an entry-level machine it’s worked very well for us. I will admit we’ve done our prototyping with the MakerBot and then we’ve gone to a next-level machine to do the final products.”

One of the projects 3D printing was heavily used in was designing the SnotShot. The SnotShot was created by Olin students to simulate various whale blowholes & blow patterns, allowing Ocean Alliance to test the different types of blows they might encounter with the SnotBot. This gave the team a better understanding of how to capture the most snot possible, before they even set sail on the open ocean. By 3D printing simulated blowholes for different whale species, they were able to test their SnotBot designs and make updates, saving them valuable time on their expeditions & avoiding prototype testing over live animals.

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

Along with their ocean and whale research, Ocean Alliance has spearheaded the development of an on-site robotics program. The Applied Robotics Club meets every Wednesday evening, providing an opportunity for people in the community young and old, to learn and explore anything from coding to design & construction, giving them to get hands-on experiential learning. Dr. Kerr has not only enjoyed the MakerBot 3D printer for SnotBot prototyping, but with the robotics club.

The 3D printer has been invaluable! Not only in building unique parts that we need, and silly things that we might not need, but were fun to do, it has also helped us develop our thought and design process. It also encouraged both students and staff to explore ideas of building components that otherwise would almost be unimaginable.”

SnotBot Expeditions

Since it’s first iteration, the SnotBot has been thoroughly tested and went on its first expedition this past fall in Peninsular Valdez, Patagonia. Ocean Alliance chose this location due to its enormous biodiversity. Since the 1970’s, they have been studying in Patagonia, with this last expedition being a great success.

We have just completed the first successful SnotBot expedition to Patagonia. We have proved the viability of these drones as useful and adaptable research tools. In the course of the next year we plan to run a minimum of two more expeditions, one to the Sea of Cortez and one to Frederick Sound, Alaska, to build up our data sets, get as many flights over whales and work with as many whale species as our budget will allow.”

These future locations were specifically chosen based on the species that frequent the habitat and drawing from the experience of Ocean Alliance’s previous research expeditions.

The Future Of SnotBot

Formulating innovative and new ideas like the SnotBot takes brainpower and a determination to try multiple iterations. Traditional manufacturing methods cost extensive time and money, two things that are precious to not-for-profit organizations like Ocean Alliance. Luckily, 3D printing breaks down manufacturing barriers by allowing intricate designs to be built in-house for a substantially lower cost. CAPINC is a proud sponsor of Ocean Alliance and their 3D printing needs.

The future is big for SnotBot and its upcoming designs. With the next two expeditions already funded through their Kickstarter campaign, Ocean Alliance is still in need of donors to help create future SnotBot iterations for new data sets. To learn more about Ocean Alliance and their projects, including the SnotBot, visit them at whale.org and explore their Kickstarter Campaign, where you can become a donor and get frequent updates on their research and expeditions.

SnotBot-Expedition-CTA

“Thank you, FLIR!” from OA Scientific Coordinator Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

During the summer of 2014, whilst studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the FLIR Corporation we had the opportunity to test a night vision (Infrared) system aboard our research vessel Odyssey.

How these cameras work is complex, involving the range of light which they detect. Whilst not technically accurate, they essentially detect heat. This means that they are commonly used in night vision applications as they do not require the same visible light which allows us to see the world around us. Since they display an image based on temperature differentials they actually have daytime and night-time uses.

At Ocean Alliance we are always looking for new tools and technologies which might help us better understand whales. One problem with studying whales (and indeed many animals) is that we do not have a good understanding of what they do at night, simply because we cannot see them. Are they searching for and eating food? Are they mating? Socialising? Resting? Does their behaviour even change much during a day/night cycle? Whales are acoustic animals, which means sound is very important in their everyday lives. By listening to them (via an underwater microphone or hydrophone) we can gain a better understanding of where they are and what they might be doing at night and during the day. But it often leaves us with a very incomplete picture.

This is where infrared cameras & the FLIR Corporation come in. FLIR is the world leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of thermal imaging infrared cameras. FLIR cameras are used for many military, commercial and recreational activities. The value of FLIR systems in search & rescue and disaster situations is incalculable. New products to the market include the FLIR One that fits on the back of an iPhone and the FLIR Vue which fits on a drone.

As you can see from the attached video, this technology is a game changer enabling us to study whales at night. Indeed you can often see where the whales have been simply by the wake and the footprint which they leave. When we did test studies on our vessel, the camera was so powerful that it could see where we had been standing because our feet had left residual heat on the deck! We even observed Sperm whales breaching at night, something which likely has never been seen before (sadly the only footage we have of this event was taken on a smart phone looking at the video display).

For us this is all very exciting, and leads to many possibilities. Along with our interest in new technologies we are very excited about our ‘SnotBot’ program, which is all about developing drones for whale research (you can read more about it here). In the future we will be merging these two technologies, mounting a FLIR Vue camera on SnotBot!

We also think that this tool has enormous potential for other industries which might come in to contact with whales. Ship strikes are a major threat to whales all around the world. If we could fit vessels with FLIR cameras which could detect whales at night, we could potentially stop many needless whale deaths. Oil and gas companies use seismic airguns when searching for hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seabed. These airguns are incredibly loud and potential harmful to whales. If they had FLIR camera they would have a better idea of whether there were any whales in the vicinity at night. These are just two examples of how FLIR cameras could help protect whales.

Many, many thanks must go to the FLIR Corporation for being an innovator in this field and for lending us this remarkable piece of equipment.

Andy Rogan is Ocean Alliance Scientific Coordinator.

CEO Iain Kerr Joins Advisory Board of Drone World Expo

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has been named to 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.”  The advisory board, comprised of several prominent industry leaders, will help set the direction of the education program for the 2016 event, to be held November 15-16 at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

During the 2015 event, our partner Yuneec Aviation proudly displayed how we deployed its drones in the first SnotBot expedition in Patagonia.

DCIM100GOPRO

The complete press release from Drone World Expo can be found here.

 

Extended Interview with Sir Patrick Stewart

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

The Silver Bullet, Part 2: Less is More — Much More, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In my previous blog I pointed out that if you accept the premise that overpopulation is the root cause of all of humanity’s biggest problems, then if we all work on having fewer children, we will also be helping to reduce all of the world’s major problems.

I also noted that we need to get rid of the near-prohibition on even talking about overpopulation, because only when we get rid of it can we start applying what I’ll call the Two Step Program—a method that has been successful in the broadest possible variety of human cultures and that works its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. I.e. it is not like the policy China recently revoked which penalized couples for having more than one child—there’s nothing mandatory about the Two Step Program. It’s entirely voluntary. Here it is, in all of its complexity:

Step 1) Offer women a free education.
Step 2) Offer everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried, the rate of increase of the population has started to fall.

That means that the effectiveness of the Two Step Program has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. But most importantly: it lowers population growth rates voluntarily. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives; free contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

For many people, the big deterrent to having no children or only one is that it seems to be so purely negative. But a small family offers ENORMOUS advantages.

It is those benefits that are the subject of this blog.

Let me offer a list of some of the positive things that having one child or no children bring:

  • You avoid the astronomical costs to yourself and the environment of raising more  children… and grandchildren.
  • You can give one child your full attention.
  • You can give one child the best education.
  • You can give one child the most healthy diet.
  • You can give one child the healthiest and best lifestyle.
  • If you have one child and he/she follows the same principles that your child did you will have only one grandchild.
  • If you have only one grandchild you can give it your full attention and offer greater help in giving it the best education, most healthy diet, and best lifestyle.
  • You will have more time yourself for other things (and have more fun doing them).
  • Every street, every store, every public space, every space of any kind you occupy will be less crowded.
  • You will experience fewer traffic jams.
  • You will waste less of your life waiting in lines.
  • Your commuting time will be shorter.
  • The price of housing will be lower… everywhere.
  • Your world will be more tranquil.
  • You will see more stars, even when you are close to cities.
  • Your life will feature more encounters with more abundant, and more unusual wildlife. And if you live in the country the dawn and dusk choruses of birds will be richer and more enchanting.

But of most direct advantage to you and your child will be that if you and your friends have worked hard enough to persuade several others to follow your example, then every other problem the world faces will be starting to get smaller. E.g.:

  • Global warming will start to slow down and will eventually stop.
  • The oceans will start becoming less, rather then more acidic, and coral reefs and seashells will start to reappear (although, alas, extremely slowly).
  • Species extinction rates will slow down and will eventually return to their almost unimaginably slow normal—a rate between a thousandth and a ten thousandth of the current, Anthropocene extinction rate).
  • The air you breathe will become cleaner and less polluted.
  • The water you drink and in which you wash your food, your dishes, your clothes, your child and yourself will become less polluted.
  • The ocean in which you swim, and in which the fish you eat grow up, will become less and less polluted (as will, of course, the fish).
  • And you will have better luck fishing, because there will be more and bigger fish.
  • When you snorkel you will have better underwater visibility.
  • Hunger and homelessness will come to an end.
  • The rate of topsoil loss will slow to far less significance.
  • Aquifers will refill.
  • There will be fewer causes (and excuses) for wars.

But the best of all, “Oh my best beloved,” you will not have to apologize to your child or grandchild for having done nothing to help solve the world’s biggest problem. You can, in fact, boast about having participated in its solution. And you will not have to tell your grandchild what a tiger was.

Or an elephant.
Or a rhinoceros.
Or a panda.
Or a pink dolphin,
Or a cheetah.
Or…

Well, you get my point.
We have come to the really hard part: doing something to achieve these benefits. You and I must both stop postponing action—must stand up and do something about overpopulation. One thing we can do is to spread the word about how utterly important the advantages of having a small family are.

But that will only happen if take the time and the initiative to talk to, and write to, our friends and relatives, about this uncomfortable subject, all the while emphasizing the urgency of slowing overpopulation and the importance of keeping families small (for there is, unfortunately, only one way to lower population size humanely and that is to reduce family size).

Step one is getting the world to pay attention to how important small families are. And I believe that that will only transpire when people understand how enormous the advantages are of having fewer children.


So now comes the thing that is hardest for me, personally, to do: in the interests of full disclosure I must admit that although I love them individually, collectively, and in all of their combinations, I have four children. I realize that in the eyes of most people, that gives me no right to offer any advice whatsoever about family size.  However, my excuse is that all of my children were conceived before
The Pill became broadly known and broadly available (I realize that, like all excuses, that’s pretty weak).

Each child was a triumph of biology over whatever form of birth control my wife and I were practicing at the time, and always because some previous technique had failed. But it is because of that history that I think what I have to say does have value and may be something that should not just be discarded out of hand. For I have noticed that if someone who has failed at something is willing to be honest about why they failed, their advice is likely to be more valuable than the advice of someone who succeeded at it. For example: I would rather hear about driver safety from someone who has survived an accident than from someone who’s never experienced one. (The corollary to that is that because I am in the latter category I realize that I know less about what strategy is likely to fail than those who have suffered the consequences of such failures.)

During the time that has passed since the years in which I was busy failing at non-reproduction, contraception has experienced several game-changing advances. The one that finally saved my wife and me was my getting a vasectomy (I couldn’t find a people-doctor willing to risk doing it as it was an illegal procedure at the time so I got a veterinarian to do it). It was as clear then, as it is now, that in any partnership it’s the man who should have such an operation; for we men only require a local anesthetic, whereas the equivalent operation for a woman requires a general anesthetic, and that can be life-threatening.

My reason for offering this vivid example of too much information about one’s private life is to say that having personally experienced it I know that after a vasectomy sex is not less pleasurable, it is more pleasurable. You can’t detect any differences in sensations yet you now know there is no longer any danger that you’ll give your partner an unwanted pregnancy—something she appreciates as much as you do, and demonstrates by her reaction.

In summary:

Smaller families offer monumentally positive advantages, both for individuals and society. If enough people can be persuaded to experience those advantages, the problem of overpopulation can be solved—by advocating for the Two Step Program:

1) Offering women a free education.

2) Offering everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Given how many other problems will be lessened by ending overpopulation, I suggest that there is no greater mischief any dogma can create (religious, moralistic, or otherwise) than placing obstacles in the path of techniques whose goals are to reduce the human population without pressure.

The Two-Step Program achieves such a reduction and it is time for all of us to participate in promoting the goal of solving the population problem equitably by employing such techniques.

— Roger Payne

Ocean Alliance Research Prominent at Marine Mammalogy Conference 

By | Uncategorized | No Comments

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

SnotBot talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Kerr
CEO
IMG_6121[3]

The Silver Bullet: A New Year’s Resolution to Tackle Overpopulation, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It’s that time of year when we decide on what New Year’s resolution to make. I suspect that the best ones are those that make the biggest differences, and to make a big difference you need to address a big problem. So… to make a good resolution: 1) identify the biggest problems; 2) choose one, and; 3) resolve to do what you can to reduce that problem.

When I say the biggest problems I’m talking about REALLY BIG world problems: global warming, ocean acidification, extinction of species, overpopulation, air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, hunger, homelessness, social injustice, overconsumption, loss of top soils, depletion of aquifers, and numberless wars.

The trouble with the biggest problems is that they are all so big and what causes them is so different in each case, that solving them involves dauntingly complex approaches. This results in a generally accepted belief that there is no such thing as a silver bullet for any of the world’s biggest problems.

I challenge that belief; let me be provocative: I agree that each of our biggest problems has a root cause but I believe that a root cause for every biggest problem is the same root cause—overpopulation. That means that if we could somehow reverse overpopulation we would be helping cure not just overpopulation, but all of our biggest problems.

Let me put all this another way; if you agree with me that overpopulation is a root cause for all of our biggest problems then the only valid conclusion to be drawn is: if we can solve overpopulation we will be helping solve all of our biggest problems. That makes solving the overpopulation problem a silver bullet.

But to start solving it we must first get rid of what seems almost like an embargo on even discussing overpopulation.

That is something that every one of us can help remove by giving every organization we are part of the strong message that overpopulation is the world’s number one problem, and that until we can reverse it there is no hope, but once we start reversing it there will be huge amounts of hope, because we will be reducing the severity of every one of the world’s biggest problems.

That step will show that there is a silver bullet that can help solve all of our biggest problems, and that silver bullet is simply having smaller families.

The most important thing about this is that we already know how to make the population get smaller without forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

The method has reduced the population of the most dissimilar imaginable human cultures. Furthermore it has worked its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. It is not like the recently revoked China policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. There’s nothing mandatory about the technique I’m promoting. It’s entirely voluntary.

Shooting this Silver Bullet involves two steps:

  1. Educating women
  2. Offering everyone free contraceptive materials, along with training in how to use them effectively.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried the population has gotten smaller (as long as proper instruction in using the free contraceptives was given).

So the effectiveness of this silver bullet has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. And best of all, it works to reverse overpopulation voluntarily—not punitively. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives. Contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The thing that makes this approach work is that it turns out that the natural inclination of women everywhere when they get an education is to do something with their lives in addition to bearing and raising children. So if they have access to free contraceptives it turns out that a significant number of women will use them to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the population gets smaller.

Some organized religions have major objections to solving the overpopulation problem. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women and making contraceptives available free results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two countries with the lowest birthrates in the EU are 90 and 99 percent Catholic. And Italy, the country that hosts the Pope, is an EU leader in reducing its population. (And I have seen the claim that Italy also has more women PhDs than any other European country.)

If I am right (or even if I’m only partly right) it means there is a silver bullet that can help cure all of our biggest problems. I say that’s reason enough for each of us to make our New Year’s resolution be: to devote our free time and energy to telling everyone we know everywhere about this silver bullet and asking them to help spread the word about the benefits of small families. If you, and I, and they do this we will all be helping shrink the world’s biggest problems.

And we will all be striking at the roots of these problems while everyone else is slashing at the branches.

In my next blog I will discuss some of the benefits of small families.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Seasons Greetings and Thanks from Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Roger Payne developing a benign research tool in Antarctica – the penguin suit

Dear Friends,

As your year-end thoughts reflect on the past and the future, I would like you to know that Ocean Alliance had a remarkable year. (I encourage you to go to our website and see the diversity of postings).  I believe in the power of a small group of passionate individuals — a point Margret Mead made famous by saying… (but you know what she said).

This year we worked with half-a-dozen partners around the world, collected data, conducted data analyses and published papers. Ten scientific presentations at the recent biennial meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy featured our work. Based on our data CEO Iain Kerr addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations about giving ocean conservation priority in the Paris climate talks agenda (COP-21). Our Kickstarter campaign supporting SnotBot was a big success. Not only in creating an innovative research tool, it also showed the effectiveness of large numbers of people giving small contributions.

But… I urge you to consider how even more effective it might be if smaller numbers of people gave slightly larger contributions to Ocean Alliance as year-end gifts.  I am hoping you are one of that small number who will help us promote healthy oceans to benefit humanity and ocean life.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Intern Spotlight: Gregory Taylor

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Hosting interns at Ocean Alliance is hugely important to us.  The work we do simply could not continue if it weren’t for ensuring we nurture a new crop of next-generation scientists, researchers and engineers into the world each year to solve the pressing challenges faced by our oceans.  So we thought it fitting that each of our interns gets introduced to you and a chance to shine in a spotlight, and as a thanks for all their hard work, with hopefully a bit of a leg-up into their new career.

Name: Gregory Taylor
Studying: Environmental Science
Studying at: Endicott College

What brought you to choose to study this subject?

I chose to study environmental science because I knew it was something that was going to need a lot of attention over the course of my lifetime. Climate change and all of its consequences (ocean acidification, sea level rise, etc.) along with deforestation, CO2 production and many other global environmental issues, all require the attention and responsibility of everyone who lives and breathes on this planet. I wanted to study the environmental sciences so I can help fix the mess we have created because I feel that responsibility is partly mine. It is also a very broad and interdisciplinary field that I am positive I will be able to find a job in where I can help fix the pressing environmental issues of our generation.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?

Well first, I created a ~10 terabyte library of video data from The Voyage of the Odyssey. I also further developed Ocean Alliance’s internship program by creating formal intern and volunteer applications, as well as created a welcome packet for new interns. I am currently working on expanding Ocean Alliance’s whale adoption program.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?

The site. It is so amazing coming into work every day at such an iconic building and being able to see and hear the ocean right under my feet. I also particularly enjoy working with both 7 Seas Whale Watch and Ocean Alliance on their joint summer internship program. Creating the new application and smoothing out the selection process will make things run much smoother next summer.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?

My biggest challenge here was finding the confidence to talk at staff meetings. In the beginning I don’t think I said anything during meetings. Now I have my own speaking time towards the end of the meetings and feel confident enough to throw my two cents in at any point. The team has actually wanted to move forward with a few of my ideas!

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?

I have learned how important whales are to life on earth. These animals are the sentinels for the oceans. That means that if they are affected by ocean meta-trends like microplastics, pollution, acidification etc, then we can use them as models for the effects owe might see as humans. For example, we share food sources like fish. If the whales are unable to eat because pollution is killing off their prey, then not only will the whales be without fish, but we will be too.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?

Working for a non-profit is, in a way, more satisfying than studying. It is more hands on here so for example, I can give myself tasks to work on and when I complete those tasks I feel a sense of immediate reward, whereas at school I may work on things for weeks to months and not get that reward sense at all. Getting an A on a test is great but there are always going to be more tests. Making intern applications, welcome packets and expanding their whale adoption program that can be used for years to come is much more satisfying to me.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?

A humpback whale named Milkweed. On one of my first whale watches this past summer we spotted her and watched her for a long while. At one point I was looking over the starboard side after she went down on a dive and she came up and spy-hopped right in front of my face. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever felt. Seeing her (almost) face to face gave me a sense of how big she really was. That moment in time has been fixed in my mind ever since and has been a driving factor in my desire to conserve and educate people about these gentle giants.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?

Racing Extinction by Louie Psihoyos. It is one of the most moving documentaries ever created in my opinion. It exposes the illegal endangered wildlife trade in other countries, not only to see how brutal some of the things they do are, but also to offer alternatives. Manta Rays play a huge role in the film. In Indonesia they are the natives’ main source of income (they can dry and sell the gills and dry cartilage to china) Shawn Heinrichs works to get them on the globally endangered list- and succeeds- as well as offers the natives a new perspective on the Manta Ray. He shows the younger generation how beautiful the creatures are and was able to really connect with the kids. The film also brings awareness to anthropogenic climate change and the causes of it. It really is a great film I highly recommend it.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?

Well, when I am done studying I will have a B/S in Environmental Science, and am currently applying for an MBA, so hopefully I can find a job somewhere that is focused on helping the environment and that can utilize the skills I have.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?

We all have to do something. The problems we face aren’t going to be solved by just a few people. We all contribute to the problem so we all need to help fix it. My hopes are that as time progresses, the people who previously denied climate change and every other important environmental issue will change the way they think and really start to see what is wrong and how to fix it. The more people that change and do something the more people will follow it would create a movement, when movements happen, legislation happens, and that is really what we need.

Ocean Acidification, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

By now, most people probably know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But fewer people know that the CO2 the seas absorb combines with seawater to make carbonic acid, which raises the acidity of the oceans. Since humanity started burning coal in earnest 150-200 years ago the seas have become 30 percent more acidic and it is now known that in some areas such species as oysters, and corals are already being prevented from retaining (or forming) their shells, simply because these animals can’t make their shells or their stone-like houses if the water is too acidic.

Ocean acidity also devastates a series of tiny animals with unfamiliar names like pteropods—a kind of snail with wings that are used to fly underwater. Pteropods form shoals containing millions of individuals and are a principal food for baleen whales.

Ocean acidity already affects such tiny planktonic organisms as coccolithophores, corraline algae and foraminiferans, all of which live at the bases of ocean food chains. If the seas get acidic enough to cause these plankton populations to crash, it will demolish the complex food pyramids that support all economically important ocean food pyramids. That’s because all such food pyramids are entirely dependent on plankton. If the plankton die, the whole pyramid dies. No phyto-plankton, no zooplankton. No zooplankton, no fish. No fish, no whales (or seals, or sea birds, or the roughly1billion people-who-depend-on-fish as their primary source of animal protein). We must also not forget that it is plankton that provide the oxygen for two out of every three breaths we take (a topic I will have more to say about later).

Scientists now predict that people must either plant billions of trees to convert the excess CO2 into wood or stop producing so much carbon dioxide. If we don’t do either, ocean acidity will more than double in the next 40 years.

But how bad could that be?

Well, in the last 20 million years ocean acidity has never changed at a rate any faster than 1/100th of that rate. Life has no mechanisms to cope with such rates of change.
____________
One of the benefits of the 21st session of The Conference of The Parties (COP) currently taking place in Paris is that several independent organizations seem to be starting to consolidate their efforts—a step that seems bound to give them greater impact. Of particular promise is the recently announced Tapestry of Hope, representing 1700 local service projects that combine Jane Goodall’s powerful Roots and Shoots programs (now operating in more than 130 countries) with Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue (which specifies 46 Hope Spots—each being an area critical to ocean health).

When Drs. Goodall and Earle announced this important initiative Sylvia Earle noticed that the agreement the COP was discussing failed even to mention ocean acidification—a rather strange omission, I thought, given that ocean acidification may just be a more immediate and all-encompassing threat to life on earth than global warming is, simply because it may reach lethal levels sooner (it is already high enough so that such key species as corraline algae, staghorn coral, pteropods and oysters are unable in some areas to get carbonate ions to precipitate out of solution and that means they cannot form their shells or coral skeletons that they need to protect and enable their lives.

It is clear enough that life on land will take a terrible hit from global warming, but thousands of species will nevertheless probably survive by moving to higher ground or expanding their ranges into the polar seas where the water can be counted on to remain cool, even when the oceans warm overall, simply because polar waters will continue to lose heat during the dark months of winter.

The acidity of the seas, on the other hand, will inexorably increase over time, worldwide. This means that neither the polar oceans nor any other part of the seas will represent a Coventry where the levels of acidification can be counted on to remain low enough for life to persist.

All in all, the massive increase in CO2 from burning fossil fuels produces two quite separate effects on ocean life. But the time it takes for the oceans to become dangerously acidic seems to be shorter than the time it takes them to become dangerously warm. In general, seriously consequential acidity appears to take decades while seriously consequential warming appears to take much longer before it exerts a comparably destructive effect on ocean life.

In each case these rates depend on the intensities at which different species are affected—a subject about which there is very little information. However the fact remains that the time it takes for heating to affect species negatively may be significantly longer than the time it takes to see similar damage from acidification.

But the key point here is that although both are triggered by increasing CO2, warming and acidification are very different processes and it would be naive to assume that the rates at which their effects will cause problems for ocean life should be the same. They can be expected to affect different species and different ecosystems after different delays and therefore should be considered separately.

In summary: I believe that the most imminent threat we face may very well not be global warming but the acidification of the oceans, simply because acidification seems to be causing serious mischief to ocean life sooner.

If that it turns out to be true I would not be surprised if the most serious problem our species now faces is ocean acidification, not global warming.

© Roger Payne
Dec 9, 2015

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Japan’s Latest Move, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The recent sudden departure by Japan for the Antarctic is a particularly grim development on several counts. In spite of the ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague ordering Japan to cease their “Scientific Whaling Program” because it does not qualify as scientific research, they unilaterally awarded themselves a quota of 330 minke whales and slipped their moorings and left.

The quota they gave themselves is a third of what they took last time they went whaling in the Antarctic. 330 is clearly an arbitrary round number that has no possible scientific justification, particularly in light of the fact that when the zero quota came into effect Japan argued vigorously for increasing the numbers of whales they killed—claiming that they needed larger sample sizes to produce valid results. That argument was their response to criticism of their “research” proposals by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which reviewed their proposals every year (and rejected their proposals every year). In doing so, one of the things that the committee discussed was that there was already so much data of the kind Japan proposed to take that regardless of what those data showed the sample size would be so small it couldn’t make a valid difference to the conclusions one could already draw from the much larger existing dataset that dated back to the commercial whaling era.

In every year the Scientific Committee recommended to the Commission that it ask Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers and in every year the Commission complied with that recommendation by formally asking Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers. However, every year Japan went ahead and issued a permit to its whalers anyway.

In spite of this grim history and the fact that the recent International Court of Justice ruling saying that Japan’s “scientific research” did not meet the standards of scientific research, Japan has now added to its shame by once again awarding itself a permit in order to re-institute its non-scientific, “scientific whaling.” And having done so slipping its moorings without fanfare, and vanishing over the horizon in the direction of the Antarctic.

The strongest evidence that there is no improved science in the offing but only further subterfuge comes from the fact that by asking for a third as many whales this season as she took in her last hunting season, Japan’s tacit argument is that even smaller sample sizes are important—an argument that runs counter to her earlier claims.

I would like to know whether there is any limit to the willingness of Japan’s whalers to ignore the norms of science? I have always assumed that honesty must have a lower limit below which you cannot go—a point where there is no further truth available that can be removed—an absolute zero of honesty. Have the whalers figured out a way to go below that point? If so is there any limit to their tolerance for shame. Is it perhaps infinite?

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne, Founder and President of Ocean Alliance, has been the leading proponent of non-invasive whale research for over 45 years.