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Mariano Sironi Archives | Ocean Alliance

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!

Scientists Employ Satellite Tags To Solve Whale-Sized Mystery

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For the first time, scientists working in the waters of Patagonia are using satellite tags to remotely track southern right whales from their breeding/calving grounds in the sheltered bays of Península Valdés, Argentina, to unknown feeding grounds somewhere in the western South Atlantic. This could eventually provide clues to the cause of one of the largest great whale die-off ever recorded.

The international effort for answers includes members from the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS), the Aqualie Institute of Brazil, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and Cascadia Research Collective, working in cooperation with Fundación Patagonia Natural, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas / Ocean Alliance, the University of California, Davis, the Dirección de Flora y Fauna (Wildlife Service), la Secretaría de Turismo, el Ministerio de Ambiente (Ministry of the Environment) of Argentina’s Chubut Province.

The announcement was made as conservationists are holding the 2014 IUCN World Parks Congress in Sydney, Australia – a once-in-a-decade global forum on protected areas.

Said Dr. Graham Harris, Director of WCS’s Argentina Program: “A provincial protected area and a key area with a long history of work by WCS, Peninsula Valdés was declared a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve in June of 2014 due to its importance to protect both terrestrial wildlife and marine species along its waters. As the World Parks Congress in Sydney is underway, it is imperative to highlight the importance of protected areas like Peninsula Valdes to safeguard unique wildlife and habitats.”

satellite tagging southern right whalesOver the past month, the team succeeded in affixing satellite transmitters to five southern right whales, a difficult task conducted during varying weather conditions in Golfo Nuevo, one of the two protected gulfs of Península Valdés and an important breeding ground for the southern right whale.

Vicky Rowntree, director of Ocean Alliance’s Right Whale Program comments: “It’s incredibly exciting to follow the daily movements of individual whales which we usually see only one day a year, at most, when we conduct our annual photo-identification surveys. The tagged whale that traveled southwest for a bit and then retraced its path was fascinating–why did it change its direction, what was it looking for and what did it find? By matching photographs of right whales taken in places far from the Peninsula Valdes, we’ve known for years that some PV mothers calve off Brazil in alternate years and that three PV whales traveled to feed in the krill-rich waters in the western South Atlantic off the island of South Georgia. These snapshots in time have been extremely important in delineating the population’s habitat but satellite tracking is allowing us to follow day-to-day movements and understand they make, the paths they follow and if the tags keep transmitting, hopefully, their feeding destinations. I can’t wait to search for the tagged whales in our PV catalogue of 3,000 individuals that have been photographed at PV over the past 44 years and attach life histories to their journeys.”

Over the past decade, southern right whale calves have died in unprecedented numbers (more than 400 between 2003-2011) for reasons still unclear to scientists. Different hypotheses for this mortality have been considered, including disease, certain types of contaminant, and harassment and wounding by kelp gulls, a frequent occurrence in Península Valdés.

southern right whale callositiesThis new research will help assess where the whales are feeding, namely if there could be any threats to the whales along their migration route or on their feeding grounds and if the research team can conduct additional tagging and studies to determine any issues associated with food or nutritional stress causing calf loss by some mothers.

Said Mariano Sironi, Scientific Director of the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina: “This project follows the recommendations made by the International Whaling Commission when it analyzed the recent increase in right whale calf mortality in Península Valdés. It is the result of the cooperation between non-governmental organizations, universities and government agencies. The scientific data resulting from this project will provide a new scale to our understanding of southern right whale behavior. Differences in movement patterns among the tagged individuals will certainly be fascinating.”

The deployed tags will transmit the geographical position and behavioral information of the animals up to Earth-orbiting satellites multiple times a day, allowing researchers to follow whales remotely. The researchers selected calving females and solitary juveniles for satellite tagging in order to glean insights into habitat use and migratory movements for different sex and age groups.

satellite tagging southern right whalesData accumulated thus far reveal unprecedented information for southern right whales: real-time information on long-range movements across marine regions. Two of the five whales have remained in the waters of Golfo Nuevo, while the other three have already left the bay. One of the animals is currently in deep waters of the South Atlantic, one has been spending its time over the continental shelf, and another has moved into deep offshore waters, but has returned to the continental shelf break. Movements from all whales have lead researchers to some areas where the tagged animals are likely feeding, and further discoveries of feeding grounds for this population may be revealed as the team tracks the movements of tagged animals.

Growing up to 55 feet in length and weighing up to 60 tons, the southern right whale is the most abundant species of the world’s three species of right whale. Unlike the North Atlantic and North Pacific right whales (both Endangered), southern rights have managed to rebound from centuries of commercial whaling, with populations that have grown by as much as approximately seven percent annually since 1970. Of the estimated total population of southern right whales found throughout the entire Southern Hemisphere, around one third use the protected bays of Península Valdés as a breeding and calving habitat between the months of June and December.

Source: http://www.wcs.org/press/press-releases/scientists-working-on-whale-sized-mystery.aspx

 

Southern Right Whale Aerial Survey Results

By | oct14, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

BLOG 3 – 17 September 2014

The Right Whale Program Research Update from the Field in Patagonia

The research season with the southern right whales at Península Valdés is progressing with good news. John Atkinson and I completed the 44th annual right whale photo-identification survey with a record number of whales seen: 757, most of which were mothers with their newborn calves. The first day we completed the survey of the northern bay, Golfo San José, and the second day we did Golfo Nuevo, the southern bay. This year there is a suprisingly large difference in the number of whales in each gulf, with nearly three times more whales in Golfo Nuevo than in San José. Read More

Returning to Whale Camp

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BLOG 1 – 3 September 2014

Greetings from Patagonia! We are just starting the 44th field research season of the Right Whale Program at Península Valdés, Argentina. Diego Taboada, José Carracedo and I drove from Buenos Aires down to Patagonia. The 17-hour drive took us from the great city to the isolated beauty of Whale Camp, the research station on the shores of Golfo San José. Not only were the whales waiting for us… an amazing group of young guanacos also greeted us at night! A very beautiful sight. Read More

Our Right Whale Team to Present at IWC Meeting on Increased Calf Mortality

By | aug14, Ocean Alliance News, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Researchers from our Southern Right Whale Program, our partners at Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and the Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program will be presenting five abstracts (listed below) at an International Whaling Commission meeting that will be held on Aug 5-6, 2014 in Puerto Madryn, Argentina. Read More

One Voice, a Thousand Voices of Justice for the Whales

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Guest Post by Dr. Mariano Sironi–Scientific Director of Ocean Alliance Southern Right Whale Program partner Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas 

9 May 2014

 Centuries of centuries and only in the present

do things happen;

countless men in the air,

on the face of the earth and the sea,

and all that really is happening is happening to me.”

From The garden of forking paths, Jorge Luis Borges

On March 31st, 2014 the International Court of Justice at The Hague instructed the government of Japan to end its “scientific” whaling operations in Antarctica, in response to a demand by the government of Australia. The Court evaluated Japan’s Research Whaling Program in the Antarctic (JARPA II) and concluded that “the special permits granted by Japan in connection with JARPA II do not fall within the provisions of scientific research of the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling” and thus, is not science. Read More

A Comprehensive New Look at the Threats Facing Southern Right Whales

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Roger Payne in Patagonia - Photo by Flip NicklinSince Roger Payne began studying the southern right whales of Península Valdés, Argentina with Vicky Rowntree in the early seventies, threats to the whales have changed with the times, and a recent uptick in calf mortalities is raising new questions. Originally targeted by whalers as the “right whale to kill” because of its slow speed and tendency to float, this most endangered of the great whales faces challenges from diseases to the latest — kelp gull attacks.

With these new challenges have come new cooperation between organizations studying the southern right whale. Jasjeet Dhanota has put together a comprehensive look at the threats facing the southern right whales of Península Valdés in the latest issue of Evotis, the quarterly publication of UC Davis One Health Institute. She has interviewed many of the researchers on the ground about their work, including Vicky Rowntree, and Mariano Sironi of Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas.

Gull attacks - Photo by Mariano Sironi -The article also includes a video about the kelp gull attacks by former Voyage of the Odyssey team members Chris and Genevieve Johnson, who now run Whale Trackers — a series of online documentary programs about cetaceans.

Read the full article here.

The Southern Right Whale Health Monitoring Program is run by the Wildlife Conservation Society, Whale Conservation Institute/Ocean Alliance, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas and Fundación Patagonia Natural; and by universities including the University of California, Davis and the University of Utah. The US National Marine Fisheries Service and the US Marine Mammal Commission helped establish the program, and it is supported today by donations from foundations, private donors, and NGOs

SHARING DAYS WITH JANE GOODALL AND ROGER PAYNE IN PATAGONIA

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

Roger Payne and Jane Goodall on beachTo wake up in the morning and find a lovely woman in the kitchen preparing a cup of hot coffee for breakfast.

To walk out the door and see a tall man on the porch, reading a book or writing some notes in his computer.

To cook and look out the window and see this woman and this man walking along the beach in front of the house and having a lively conversation.

These and other moments wouldn’t have been so special (in fact, so amazingly special!) for us if this woman and this man weren’t Jane Goodall and Roger Payne. But they are. And they are special (amazingly special!) people. Read More

OCEAN ALLIANCE’S PARTNER ORGANIZATION IN ARGENTINA, INSTITUTO DE CONSERVACION DE BALLENAS (ICB), WINS PRESTIGIOUS ENVIRONMENTAL AWARD

By | Ocean Alliance News, Roger Payne, Southern Right Whale Program | No Comments

On September 27, 2013 Diego Alejandro Taboada, President of ICB, received a phone call.  According to the caller, ICB had received the BBVA Foundation’s Award for Biodiversity Conservation in Latin America for “its extraordinary contribution over more than forty years to the understanding and conservation of the southern right whale.” Read More

ALARMING NUMBER OF SOUTHERN RIGHT WHALE CALF FATALITIES

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BLOG 6 – September 2013 – Research Station in Península Valdés

Dead Right Whale Calf 2008 - Photo by Iain KerrI make “focal animal follows” of mothers and their calves to determine the amount of time they spend in high and low energy behaviors. The Península Valdés right whales have a big problem.  An unusually high number of calves have died on this calving ground since 2005. Read More

YET ANOTHER THREAT TO WHALES – GULL ATTACKS

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BLOG 4 – 1 September 2013 – at the Research Station in Península Valdés

Gull Attack on Right Whale We spent the day recording behavioral data from the cliffs. Vicky records the behavior of right whale mothers and calves, and their respiration rate as a way to estimate their body condition. I began our annual monitoring of the frequency of gull attacks on the whales. Kelp gulls have learned to feed on the skin and blubber of live whales at Península Valdés. The gulls land and peck on the back of the whales, opening lesions and affecting the whales’ behavior. Read More

THE FINGERPRINTS OF THE RIGHT WHALE – CALLOSITIES

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BLOG 3 – 30 August 2013 – from Península Valdés

Guanacos in Patagonia - Photo by Iain KerrWe spent a good part of this week at technical meetings and running errands in Puerto Madryn, the city nearest to Península Valdés. It is now 6:30 PM on a calm afternoon. As I write this, I am sitting in the truck in the middle of nowhere, looking at the endless shrubland around me, while a family of guanacos (the South American camels) walks slowly among the thorny bushes. We drove to this particular spot because it is one of the few “high” places where we can get cell phone signal to connect to the outside world, send and receive messages, make phone calls… and wait for a friend. Read More

INTRODUCING MARIANO SIRONI – RIGHT WHALE PROGRAM SCIENTIFIC DIRECTOR

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Mariano and tail - Aug 2010I was born and raised in Córdoba, in central Argentina, several hundred kilometers away from the sea. Although I was only six years old, I vividly remember the first time I saw the ocean. It was on a summer vacation with my family in the coast of Uruguay, close to the Brazilian border. We camped for two weeks in a beautiful national park with long beaches in the western South Atlantic. Read More