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Iain Kerr Archives | Ocean Alliance

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cheers,

Iain

Aloha, Hawaii

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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

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The Robotics club certainly slowed down over the winter, but I have to say the incessant development of drone tech has not. As well as using the robotics lab as a general maker space and clubhouse, last year in the robotics club we were primarily focusing our efforts on small airplanes (thank you Alex Monell for the design, development an implementation).

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

Talking about SnotBot and more to Rockport Rotary Club

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

 

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

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

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

The Robotics Club with a donated Roomba.

Robotics Club fun

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

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

 

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

2016: the year in review

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A message from CEO Dr. Iain Kerr

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

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

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

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

Please help us turn that dream into a reality.

Highlights from 2016

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

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

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

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

Ocean Alliance Mexico expedition. Photo: Christian Miller

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

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

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

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

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

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

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

Painting on slate tile by Anne Demeter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

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

Iain talks about SnotBot at Drone World Expo

SnotBot makes a splash at Drone World Expo

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

Onward! Upward!

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

CEO Iain Kerr checks in from the Maldives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All the best from the Indian Ocean.

Iain Kerr

NBC Nightly News visits Ocean Alliance

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

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

NBC 3 TN

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

christianmiler_alaska_snotbot-40
Existing methods of acoustic data collection broadly fall under two categories: fixed and vessel based hydrophones. Both undoubtedly have valuable applications, but are limited by the flexibility they can provide. Fixed hydrophones are taken out to sea and moored in place, either on the seafloor, in the water column or at the surface. They can be left at sea for months at a time and are excellent for collecting large, long-term data sets. They are however complex and expensive tools which require significant resources to deploy, maintain and recover; and are highly inflexible. For times when more flexibility is required, scientists use hydrophones deployed from boats. This automatically introduces a problem. The very presence of a boat (particularly if the engine is on) is what scientists call a confounding variable that could change the behaviour of the whale & diminish the quality of the acoustic data collected.

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

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

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

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

Best Fishes from Alaska.

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #6 – FLIR

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

Boat FLIR comparison

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

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

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

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

Iain and the Alaska SnotBot A team.

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

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

Onwards Upwards, Fingers crossed.

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #3

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

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

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

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

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

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

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

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

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

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

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #2

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

Dear Friends,

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

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

Photo by Christian Miller

Photo by Christian Miller

Downwind Snot Collection 2

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

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

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

All the very best.

Iain

SnotBot Alaska Expedition, Dispatch #1

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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


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

Iain

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.

 

DSC02592

UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

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

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

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

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

  1. What was your first encounter with a drone ?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Aerial and Underwater Drones” by Roger Payne

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

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

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

Parasail and baloon

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

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

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

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

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

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

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

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

Blue body 2

 

Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

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

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

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

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

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

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

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

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

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

Desert drive

Desert drive

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

Ocean view

Ocean view

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

San Ignacio Church

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

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

Robotics Club Update, May 2016

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

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

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

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

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

Go Paint Factory Flyers!

Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale

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

Tom and Adrienne

Tom and Adrienne

 

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

Drone Launch

Drone Launch

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

Blue body & boat

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

Blue Snotted

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

Parasail and baloon

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

SnotBot Store

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

Dr. Iain Kerr

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

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

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

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

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

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

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

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

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

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

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

Dr. Iain Kerr

 

 

Helping Sea Shepherd Capture Nighttime Drone Footage

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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

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

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

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

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

Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

Eye to eye

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part I

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

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

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

DJI P 4-1

DJI Phantom 4

 

Inspire 1 Petri-1

DJI Inspire 1

 

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

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

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

Collection methods

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

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

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

DJI Inspire 1 with collected snot

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

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

Iain FPV-2

Iain using Hoodman screen

 

christianmiler_oceanalliance_mexico-4

Iain touching a whale. Photo by Christian Miller.

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

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

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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

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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.

CEO Iain Kerr Joins Advisory Board of Drone World Expo

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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

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

Ocean Alliance Research Prominent at Marine Mammalogy Conference 

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

SnotBot talk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain Kerr
CEO
IMG_6121[3]

Video Highlights of our SnotBot Patagonia Expedition

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

The camera we used to guide us to the whale and position us over the blow holes was recording all the time.  Not only did we capture a lot of snot, we also captured totally unique footage, including a very precious moment between a mother and calf right whale.

Thanks again to our Kickstarter backers and other donors who helped make this possible!  Please consider making a donation to Ocean Alliance today, on #GivingTuesday, at whale.org/donate.

Iain Kerr: Update #2 from the Maldives

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

christianmiler_parley_maldives-25lr

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

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

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

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

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

christianmiler_parley_maldives-31lr

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

Shark Visit

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

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

Iain

Iain Kerr Reporting from the Maldives

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

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

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

christianmiler_parley-1

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

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

Iain Kerr

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #6: “Pack Your Bags, We Are Heading To Patagonia”

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This update was written by John Graham, Ocean Alliance Robotics Coordinator.

It was less than one week ago today that I was standing on the seaside cliffs of Patagonia observing whales go by just below me. It feels very surreal to me to think back on the last two weeks as being more than just an amazing dream, but the photos I have from the trip provide me with proof that it was all very real. So let’s back up a little bit, back to August 25th. On that day I was at work when I got a text. No, THE text. The one that simply said “Pack your bags. We are going to Patagonia”. WHAT!!! Wait a minute. Where is Patagonia? (geography isn’t my strongest suit). Oh, Argentina. Oh, and we leave in less than 1 month. This is going to be awesome!

Fast forward about 3 weeks, 4 airports, 3 planes, 1 hotel, 4 cabs, 1 car rental, 3+ hours of driving, and more security checks than I could keep track of, and we have arrived in the small town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina. This is to be our home base for the next 2 weeks. It doesn’t take us long to convert our accommodations into what some would describe as a scene from a Spielberg movie in which drones have taken over our world. Well that’s what you get when you travel with 16 large cases of research equipment.

About Piramides: it is a wonderful little town whose main source of revenue is from whale watching. The people are very open and accepting of outsiders. Their patience even extended to my minuscule ability to speak Spanish. Most of my language training comes from my exposure in the healthcare field, but I don’t think asking if they are having any pain or need medication will get me very far. We managed to find a small restaurant called “Guanacos” that served up delicious meals and, more importantly, had wifi. Albeit the wifi was touch and go, and poor Iain would stay up late praying to the internet gods that the emails he painstakingly sent out, actually did go out. We witnessed a lot of the dreaded spinning wheel of computer progress that trip.

Every morning we would make the 45 minute drive down dirt and gravel roads to the whale camp. It was amazing to look around and see nothing but dry brush, sheep, and guanacos. (Side note: Guanacos are like llamas) Iain did his best to keep the anemic rental car on the route, all the while eating the morning’s meal of empanadas. I lost the challenge of “who can spot a guanacos first” game, so I had to unlock the 2 large wooden gates every morning that allowed us access to the whale camp.

The Camp: no modern conveniences; no electric except for the occasional generator to charge drone batteries; no running water except for collected rainwater used only for washing dishes. Very desolate and very beautiful. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this is what I would describe as my vision of Nirvana. The energy that is created from the union of sea, sky, and land is breathtaking. We are greeted by not only the science team from the whale camp but also by the sight of whales. Whales as near and as far as you can see. Breaching, tail lobbing, and most importantly to us, the nectar for which Snotbot thirsts for, whale blow!!!

The Whale Camp continues a long-running study of the southern right whale that Dr. Roger Payne started back in the ‘70s. Ocean Alliance conducts this study with the support and partnership of Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB http://www.icb.org.ar/). A hike up onto the cliffs high above the camp leads to the site at which a small outpost once stood on the edge overlooking the sea, which was the place where Roger & team would sit and observe whale behaviors. All that now remains is scattered debris, but the site still echoes of past optimism for a world that includes cetaceans playing a major role in the health of our planet. One can’t help but to feel that energy carrying over today. It was also very meaningful to be here with Iain at the location at which he and Roger first met.

The ICB crew at WHALE camp, led by Mariano Sironi, was one of the greatest group of dedicated oceanographic research staff I’ve ever met. Their eagerness to help with whatever task was placed before us was refreshing and much welcomed. Also, the camp may not possess any of today’s modern conveniences, but they sure do know how to cook with what they’ve got. I wasn’t going to return home any pounds lighter after Mariano’s bread pudding con Dulce de Leche.

We worked all day, every day, in the pursuit of succeeding in our missions. These included the collection of exhaled breath condensate from whales (aka SNOT), photogrammetry, and whale identification. It was slow going at first, but the team quickly adapted and devised a system that worked well and before you know it, we were putting our first samples into a minus 80 deg dewar (a giant vacuum flask) for preservation. It was both an honor and a thrill to be a part of such ground-breaking research technology.

The team consisted of Iain Kerr (team leader and primary drone pilot), Carolyn Miller (WHOI researcher and resident expert on the drone affectionately called “Archie”) and me (drone technician and backup pilot). We would take to the sea most days in a small inflatable Zodiac piloted by Marco, a guy that would do whatever was needed of him, which mostly consisted of the frequent pull starts of the boat’s aging and uncooperative outboard. Guys like Marco are a rare breed and my life is richer having had the opportunity to work along side of him.

JohnIainMarcos

Oh, I almost forgot to mention the famous outhouse. You would sit (as one does in an outhouse) leave the door open, and you would have the most spectacular view you’ve ever had while taking care of business. Talk about your perfect moments in time. Sadly, all future versions of this ritual will never be able to hold a candle to that point in time.

photo 5[6]

We set up a small workshop in the metal corrugated Quonset hut on the beach that usually would serve as the boat house. Here is where I was able to put all my skills learned while watching “MacGyver” to the test. When working in the field at such a remote location as this you learn quickly the value of preparing for the worst and making the most of what you have on hand. At one point we had run into an issue with one of the cameras on a drone. Some loose parts, a hacksaw, bits of wire and solder, and, of course, duct tape, and we were back up and running. We all proved our worth on this expedition, Iain flew near flawlessly, and Carolyn processed the specimens and data with the utmost of care. And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work and emotional support of the Ocean Alliance staff that helped make this trek even possible.

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I would have to say that being in a small boat and having huge whales swim just feet to inches right underneath me, was an experience like no other. I was never scared, more at peace than anything else. This comes in at a close second only to being soaked straight in the face by a curious juvenile checking out what the heck we were doing. His thought process must have been something like: “What? You want whale blow? I’ll give you whale blow!” Well, thanks and gesundheit!!! (see blog The whales are Laughing)

JohnReadytowork

The hardest part of being away in such a remote part of the world is the lack of communication that I had with my wife. No cell phone, no texting, no landline, just the occasional emails that we would write to one another and hope the other receives it within a day or so. New technology has spoiled us with a sense of instant gratification, and we’ve lost sense of the importance of patience.

As I sit back and reflect upon my own personal journey, I can feel the warmth in my soul glowing at the memories and friendships made. All in all, I would consider it to be a very successful expedition. I consider myself truly blessed.

In the future, if I am ever asked to think of a “happy place” it will be a toss-up between the high cliffs of Patagonia or the outhouse with the million dollar view.

DroneBarnsunset

Producer of Documentary Film “Jane & Payne” Visits Gloucester

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Argentine filmmaker Dylan Williams recently visited the Paint Factory to share a private screening of his film “Jane & Payne” with our staff.  Back in October 2013, Dylan and fellow filmmaker Boy Olmi arranged an historic meeting between our founder Roger Payne and the noted primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.  The two scientists have admired each other’s work for decades, but had never met in person before.  Both were approaching their 80th birthdays.

The meeting took place at the Whale Camp in Patagonia, Argentina that Roger had established in the 1970s.  The cameras were rolling to capture their meeting and their subsequent conversations, both alone at the camp and in front of an audience in Buenos Aires.  

Up until this week, Ocean Alliance staff had only seen the trailer, which you can watch here.  A free public screening of the complete film will be held at Woods Hole Historical Museum on October 13th.

“Jayne & Payne” is a poignant film that chronicles not only the noted scientists’ historic meeting, their mutual admiration, and their decades of accomplishments, but also their shared passion for using science and advocacy to preserve and improve life on our planet.  It provokes viewers to think about how they can contribute to helping the planet themselves.

Jane-and-Payne-2Coincidentally, our CEO Iain Kerr had just returned from the same Whale Camp in Patagonia, after conducting the first (and very successful) SnotBot field expedition.  Iain shared some of his dramatic footage from the expedition with Dylan.

In the top photo, Dylan presents Iain with a signed book of photographs that he and another photographer shot in the Argentine National Parks.  Dylan was accompanied by his nephew Christofer Schillachi, who is a Fishery Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in New Bedford.   Our staff had a fascinating conversation with Christofer about his work with clams.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Find the drone

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

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

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

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

And that’s how the Snot flies in Patagonia!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Over blow hole

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

Snot Petri

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

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

And that’s how the Snot flies!

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #2

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

Fog at Camp

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

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

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

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #1

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Dear Friends,

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

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

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

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

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

SnotCollector-scaled

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

DroneBarn

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

DroneBarn2

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

 

Filmmaker Robert Nixon Visits the Paint Factory

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

Iain Kerr Attends Dedication of Leonard Aube Way at Port of Los Angeles

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I was recently invited to the dedication of the Leonard Aube Way & AltaSea preview at the Port of Los Angeles, CA. Even though my departure from Boston was a late Sunday night during one of our crazy winter storms, this was an event I could not miss.

I first met Leonard Aube over 17 years ago. At the time, he was the director of the California Science Center where I spoke at the Los Angeles premiere of the IMAX film WHALES. Leonard and I have been friends ever since. For over 20 years, Leonard has been the proverbial Energizer bunny and bright light in the non-profit world. I cannot tell you how many lives Leonard has changed for the positive over the last two decades (it is most likely in the tens of thousands), but I can tell you with great certainty that he changed the future for Ocean Alliance and my life – all for the better. Leonard was the catalyst behind the $2 million donation from the Annenberg Foundation to purchase the Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory, with the goal of turning this space into not only Ocean Alliance’s office headquarters, but also an Oceanographic Research Education and Innovation center on the Gloucester waterfront.

It was close to my heart, then, to see Leonard in LA and be introduced to the AltaSea project. If you replace the name AltaSea with Ocean Alliance you would not have to change much more: AltaSea is a ground-breaking public-private partnership bringing together the world’s leading scientists, educators and business innovators at a unique, state-of-the-art ocean-based campus at the Port of Los Angeles. To quote Wallis Annenberg:

AltaSea will be a dynamic and interactive space dedicated to finding solutions to humanity’s great challenges, while creating an environment that will foster a new generation of scientists, researchers and entrepreneurs dedicated to securing our future and the health of the ocean.

Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg

Annenberg Foundation Chairman of the Board, President and CEO Wallis Annenberg

 

It was very exciting for me to be at this event, and to engage in so many conversations about the value of our oceans and the importance of NGO’s, businesses, educators and innovators all working together for a sustainable future. The principle difference is that the AltaSea project has a 32 acre campus and a $217 million dollar budget, while our Gloucester headquarters is a 1 acre campus and $8 million budget (of which we still have $4 million left to raise). I will admit at one point in time an image of Mike Meyers and Mini Me did cross my mind as I was introduced to this project and thought of our own efforts on the Gloucester waterfront.The day’s agenda included the dedication of a road (Leonard Aube Way) in recognition of all that Leonard has done over the last 20 years and a preview of the vision for AltaSea at the Port of Los Angeles.

Leonard Aube – photographing crowd

Leonard Aube – photographing crowd

I’d like to tell you what I think Leonard Aube Way is: not just a road on the AltaSea campus, but it also represents hard work, humanity, compassion, dedication, and the vision, drive and unrelenting determination to make a real difference in this world. There is no doubt in my mind, nor in the minds of the over 500 people who were at the dedication that, this is the Leonard Aube Way and the world is a far far better place for having Leonard in it.

Leonard – we consider ourselves lucky to be one of the many who have been guided and nurtured by you.

OK Gloucester, back to work – we need to raise another $4 million to finish our Oceanographic Research Education and Innovation center on the Gloucester waterfront and show these people on the West Coast that we to can follow the Leonard Aube Way.

iaindolphin

 Did I mention that Leonard is also an amazing photographer? Here is a photo he took of me while we were filming the Explore video Wild Dolphins

EPA Proposal on Dispersant Use Validates Our Five Years in the Gulf of Mexico

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Sometimes it is hard to measure the direct effects of our work.  As we collect data on marine mammals and our oceans we have two principle goals: the first is to change people’s attitudes as to the importance of our oceans and the second is to collect data that can help policy makers make wise decisions as they relate to sustainable utilization of ocean resources. Read More

New 3-D Printer For Our Robotics Program

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We were visited this week by Dana Seero, the President and CEO of CAPINC–a leading Solidworks and Stratasys re-seller in New England. Dana and Jason Matses brought to our headquarters a new exciting tool, not only for our Robotics Program, but also for our educational initiatives–a MakerBot Replicator Desktop 3-D Printer.

Gloucester High School Robotics Teacher Kurt Lichtenwald, a key member of our Applied Robotics Club at the Paint Factory, has demonstrated the 3-D printers at the high school and offered to print us parts when we need them. As much as we appreciate this offer, it’s great to have a machine of our own that we can use on demand and also use to better understand how this technology can be integrated into our Robotics Program.

MakerBot Replicator DesktopI am an advocate for 3-D printers on many levels. To have the ability to make and modify a small part, rather than have to wait a week to have it custom-made and mailed is very exciting. There is also a better use of materials with most 3-D printers nowadays, having the capacity to recycle the material that is not used. The MakerBot Replicator has a small web-linked camera that allows our team members to monitor the status of a project online.

For those of you who would like to learn more about 3-D printing I suggest Avi Reichental’s TED Talk “What’s Next in 3-D Printing.” He gives a great tour through the possibilities of 3-D printing from customized food to sneakers.

Many thanks to Dana and CAPINC for giving us this tool to will expand our research and educational capacity.

– Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance CEO

[Pictured above: Greg Taylor, Dan Albani, Iain Kerr, Jason Matses]

SnotBot on Discovery Channel’s “Daily Planet”

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

Our drone for whale research affectionately called “SnotBot,” created in collaboration with our partners at Olin College of Engineering, was recently featured on the Discovery Channel series “Daily Planet.” In the segment Iain Kerr and our Robotics Team join Olin College robotics students with Dr. Andrew Bennett at our headquarters in Gloucester, MA to demonstrate how drones can help us understand what human activities cause whales stresses by allowing us to sample mucus containing stress hormones (plus viruses, bacteria and DNA) from their exhalations without disturbing the animal:

Robotics For Kids and Whales

By | FEB15, Ocean Alliance News, Technology | No Comments

One of the initiatives that Ocean Alliance has been pushing hard on over the last year is the development of a robotics program. When our organization was founded in the 1970s most people believed you had to kill whales to learn about them. Our founder, Dr. Roger Payne, was a pioneer in developing benign research tools–techniques that can be used to collect data without killing the animals. Read More

You Can Help Save the Paint Factory

By | Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters | No Comments
Clean up at our headquarters, the former Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory has been a protracted and ongoing process. The birthplace of marine bottom paint, the site was contaminated with large amounts of copper, lead, chromium, arsenic and asbestos. We have invested almost 1 million dollars into clean-up and remediation so far. Currently, a clean utility corridor for the site is in the works–the $200K needed for this project came from the EPA in the form of a brownfields grant.  We expect to have to invest at least another half a million dollars into the site before we can claim that it is fully cleaned up.

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Annenberg Foundation Names Roger Payne & Iain Kerr As Visionary Leaders

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To celebrate their 25th year of philanthropy, the Annenberg Foundation has named twenty-five of their grantees as “Visionary Leaders” in their fields. The individuals recognized range from conservationists of the wild world, such as Jane Goodall, to activists from the inner city, like Geoffrey Canada of Harlem Children’s Zone, and rural China such as Wu Qing, Founder of the Beijing Cultural Development Center for Rural Women. Included in the list are Ocean Alliance President Roger Payne and CEO Iain Kerr. Read More