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?
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.
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.
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!