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Andy Rogan Archives | Ocean Alliance

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Andy Rogan

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

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Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain

OA science manager reflects on adventures with SnotBot

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

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

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

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

(Photo by Christian Miller)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Roger Payne

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

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

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards Upwards, Fingers crossed.

All the very best.

Iain

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

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

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

IMG_0005-Tasia Blough

Photo by Tasia Blough

 

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

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

Photo by Alex Paradis

Photo by Alex Paradis

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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…

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SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

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

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

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

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

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

Desert drive

Desert drive

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

Ocean view

Ocean view

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

San Ignacio Church

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

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

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

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

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

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

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

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

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

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

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

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

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

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

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

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

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

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

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

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

Collection methods

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

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

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

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

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

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

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

Chemical Pollution Threatens Marine Life, by Andy Rogan

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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.

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

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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.

Ocean Alliance Research Prominent at Marine Mammalogy Conference 

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

SnotBot talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Kerr
CEO
IMG_6121[3]

Our Five Years in the Gulf Draws to a Close

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This week marks the end of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, the fifth and final year of Ocean Alliance’s program assessing the health of the Gulf of Mexico marine ecosystem in a toxicological context through the bio-indicators that are sperm whales. It’s also the end of our second year working in partnership with the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society–what is hopefully the beginning of a long and fruitful relationship from which the true winner will be the oceans, the life which inhabits them, and ultimately our own species. Sperm whales next to OdysseyCertainly much of the difficult work has been done, but we cannot forget the hard road ahead of us–the analysis of the data accumulated over the five years of study. When all is done, we should have a comprehensive picture of how the toxicants released into the Gulf of Mexico in the aftermath of the Deepwater Horizon oil blow-out affect the long-term health of marine mammals and hopefully the marine ecosystem, how we can go about protecting it, and how future toxicological catastrophes might better be contained. The next step is to raise the funds for this expensive yet incredibly important data analysis. In the meantime, we have learnt much. The analysis done so far has shown worrying signs. In particular, we have found that concentrations of chromium and nickel in Gulf of Mexico sperm whales are significantly higher than those that we found in whales in other parts of the world, and the dispersant used in the Deepwater Horizon disaster has been found to cause DNA damage and cell death in sperm whale cells at low doses. Marc Rosenberg on OdysseyPerhaps the most important thing is that each and every person who has crewed on the Odyssey in the Gulf has left with a profound sense of purpose about what we are doing and why this type of ocean conservation program is important–not only for the Gulf of Mexico but for the whole world, for the Gulf truly is a microcosm for wider ocean systems. The majesty, beauty, and fragile nature of the Gulf and the extraordinary animals which inhabit it, combined with the ever present and increasingly heavy footprint of man in the shape of the oil rigs, container ships, run-off from the Mississippi and the innumerable and inescapable plastic and visible trash constantly remind us of our connection to our incredible planet and how its fate is inextricably linked to our own. Over the past five years we have accumulated too many thank-you’s to name. Probably over 100 people have crewed these expeditions, with boundless shore support, donors, marina owners, dock-masters, relatives and well-wishers providing support without which the campaigns would not have been possible. On behalf of the crew, let us just say a quick thank you to a few select individuals: to Captain Bob Wallace, the only ever-present who has led the campaigns from the front line and who has kept both crew and boat working efficiently and safely; to the Wise family, who dedicated three entire summers and many hundreds of hours in the laboratory to this program (and more to go); to Sea Shepherd Conservation Society & volunteers, who made the final two seasons possible; and finally to Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr who has, quite literally, run this show (whilst running Ocean Alliance at the same time…). Thank You! -Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014Odyssey in the Gulf drone photo

Saving the Best for Last: The Final Leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

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With the final leg of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 being the return of the RV Odyssey to her home port of Key West, FL., and with numerous crew members on tight schedules with flights to catch, there were always time limits on how much we could achieve along the way. As part of our schedule, we had only one full day on the traditional sites southwest of Pensacola where we normally search for whales. As any crewmember could tell you, one day is never enough.

There has been a consistent theme across these “Leg summaries,” all centered around how to describe the emotions when we find a whale against the odds. As before during this highly successful campaign, experience, patience and a vessel perfectly suited to finding and tracking whales proved a tough combination to beat. Sure enough, around midday on our first and only day in the traditional sperm whale habitat we had quiet clicks, then loud clicks, then blows, then a biopsy.

calf breachAs we tracked the whales–an adult female and a large juvenile, we were subjected to an extraordinary show, its rarity only exceeded by its spectacular nature. The juvenile whale performed two bouts of full breaching, each with 4-5 breaches, with the second bout occurring only 100 metres from the vessel. To see the massive hulking body of a sperm whale erupting from the waves in an explosion of muscle and foam was quite indescribable. How lucky we all are!

With these biopsies achieved, the Odyssey left the whale grounds overnight, heading for the continental shelf that runs parallel north-south with the west coast of Florida, approximately 100 miles off. In the past, as we go further south the likelihood of finding whales decreases, though we’d heard there supposedly exists a mysterious population of sperm whales northwest of the Dry Tortugas. After two nights and one day with no clicks, we regarded the chance of finding whales as increasingly unlikely as we ventured into waters further south than we have ever found whales before. Lo and behold, at 6 a.m. on the third day a lone whale seemed to come completely out of nowhere. Five minutes after being detected acoustically it was spotted, and half an hour later we added another biopsy to our data set.

Harry Milkman on watchLater on that afternoon, even further south, another set of clicks beamed through the boat. They seemed far too frequent and numerous to be bottlenose dolphins and as we got closer it became apparent that it was in fact a large group of whales!

As we headed even further south, well in to the afternoon another sound came over the array–clicking, but seemingly too numerous, too rapid, and too far south to be sperm whales. Large dolphins perhaps–Risso’s or bottlenose? As we got closer, something seemed amiss. The clicks, whilst very frequent, were too robust and steady for dolphins.

As it turned out, we had just run directly into the largest group of sperm whales we have encountered all summer–anywhere from 5-15 animals in a couple of square kilometres. It was almost certainly a group from the evasive population northwest of the Dry Tortugas. Five years of searching, and the final sperm whales to be encountered! The samples obtained on this last day are incredibly important, as the levels of toxicants within can be compared with those from the northern Gulf. Over five years we have now found whales from as far west as the Texas/Louisiana border, all along the continental shelf to the deep water northwest of the Dry Tortugas. Do the continuous, if sporadic, locations of whales along the shelf suggest that connections between these populations are more common than previously believed? Who knows, but this exciting discovery raises important questions that need answering.

As the day drew to a close with the sun’s light fading, our deadline for arrival in to Key West officially ending this campaign’s quest for biopsies, a sentimentality grew over the crew. In the backdrop of a magnificent sunset, the dinghy was put in the water to get some last photos of the Odyssey after a highly successful fifth and final season. As the dinghy sped around the Odyssey with the light fading fast, the shapes of some bottlenose dolphins became apparent bowriding the dinghy. A final farewell from those creatures we are striving to protect.

-Andy Rogan, Scientific Director for Operation Toxic Gulf 2014Odyssey Dinghy sunset

New Video: The Science of Operation Toxic Gulf

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In this new video from Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, Scientific Manager Andy Rogan explains the research goals of the campaign on the RV Odyssey in our fifth year following up on the Deepwater Horizon disaster, our second partnered with Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Roger Payne joins the crew to help with the biopsy process:

A listing of scientific papers by the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology from our Gulf expeditions so far can be seen here.

Operation Toxic Gulf Crew Biopsy Most Endangered Whale Species in Gulf of Mexico

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Andy Rogan, Scientific Manager:

I had been up the mast for around an hour and a half before something in the periphery of my vision caught my eye. I turned quickly, but whatever I saw had quickly disappeared beneath the waves. I continued looking in the general direction, quite far off of our port bow, and sure enough, a couple minutes later a large dark shape cut through the water heading straight at us! I couldn’t identify the species immediately. But what I did know was that I had never seen it before, and that it was special. Read More

An Extraordinary Odyssey Encounter in the Gulf of Mexico

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Leg 2 Part 2 by Scientific Manager of Operation Toxic Gulf Andy Rogan:

Dawn on June 18th broke, a last ditch effort for the leg to get more biopsies. And as we turned north to explore a new area a quite extraordinary day began with a familiar sound.

Watching a whale on FLIRA click. Not a whole series of clicks. Just one. There was a sperm whale out there somewhere, but it was some distance away. To find a sperm whale from just one click requires patience, vigilance experience and skill. And that is what was applied. One click turned into a short cluster of clicks. The boat headed in the estimate direction of the whale, regularly stopping to reduce interference from the engines on the hydrophone. The clicks became louder, clearer. Eventually a quiet yet steady train of clicks visualized across the computer screen. One train of clicks turned in to two trains of clicks. Two trains of clicks=two whales. A few hours after the initial click, an array of dotted lines littered the screen in front of us. Read More

The First Sperm Whale Encounter of Operation Toxic Gulf 2014

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Guest Post by Odyssey Scientific Manager Andy Rogan:

Operation Toxic Gulf 2014 Leg 2, Part 1

The second leg of our Operation Toxic Gulf campaign was quite extraordinary. When I decided to write a blog about the leg it quickly became apparent that I could not justify cramming it all into one entry, and so it was split into two. This blog documents the first half of the leg. Read More

SEA SHEPHERD VISITS THE PAINT FACTORY

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Sea Shepherd at Paint FactoryMembers of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, including founder Captain Paul Watson, paid a visit to our headquarters, the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory in Gloucester, MA this weekend. The stars of the Animal Planet series “Whale Wars” had a tour of the facility and paid a visit to local businesses and restaurants during their stay, attracting quite a bit of attention on Main Street where the locals recognized and welcomed them to Gloucester. Read More