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Parley SnotBot Alaska: the view from behind the camera

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In a previous post, Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr recounted the the nail-biting events leading up to National Geographic’s Earth Live segment during which SnotBot collected whale blow from a humpback in Alaska on live TV. Now Alex Tate, producer of the Alaska segment of National Geographic’s Earth Live, gives us a look at the

 

On 9th July 2017, the small island of Kake in South East Alaska hosted a team from National Geographic hoping to make television history. Two years in the making, Earth live was to be an unprecedented wildlife documentary with cameras across six continents – from lions in Africa to bull sharks in Fiji – all filming in a single live two-hour show. National Geographic had chosen Frederick Sound as a location to film humpback whales as part of this live spectacle, and they had clearly done their homework. It’s one of the best places in the world to see these majestic giants, especially during the months of July and August; still the odds of the team completing its mission were stacked against them.

That’s because they weren’t here simply to film humpback whales, they were following a scientific team from Massachusetts-based ocean Alliance, which was using a drone called SnotBot to collect whale exhale, or snot, when these giants come to the surface to breathe. The sample can offer amazing insights into the biology and physiology of the whales, from DNA to hormones, data that in the past scientists could only get invasively by getting close to a whale and taking a biopsy. And National Geographic wanted to broadcast this revolutionary scientific method on TV.

Attempting to film SnotBot capture a live snot sample was to be a real technological challenge, one which included boats drones, and an airplane. In total there were four cameras, the primary drone (SnotBot) taking the sample, a second drone filming SnotBot, a cameraman on the boat filming the SnotBot drone pilot, and a camera on an airplane with a gyro-stabilized gimble to keep the shots steady. The plane also was acting as a relay to get the live images from the boat back to a satellite on land which had been set up at Point Macartney. From there the images were to be beamed up into space and then on to the main studio in New York, where all the other live feeds from around the world were sent.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

Because the feeds from the cameras on the boat (the Glacier Seal) had to get back to the satellite on point Macartney, it meant the range of the filming team was restricted to effectively line-of-sight, so they weren’t able to explore the full length of Frederick Sound on their hunt for whales. In any other year this might not have been a problem, as usually the area is jam-packed full of whales. However, this year the whales were scattered and isolated, with individuals using it as a highway but few staying around to feed. This made the Earth Live mission even harder.

If the lack of whales weren’t enough to worry about, the weather also caused concern. On the morning of the live event on the 9th, the clouds rolled in and the rain began to shower down. Not only was that bad news for the drones (they don’t take kindly to a drenching), but more crucially it meant the plane could not take to the sky. Without the plane, the live feeds from the boat could not be beamed back to the satellite on Point Macartney and then on to the studio in New York. At midday, the team had to do a live rehearsal with New York with no drones, no plane and, to add insult to injury, no whales. It did not look promising.

But they say fortune favors the brave, and at 4 pm (8 pm in New York, the time the live broadcast started), the clouds had cleared, the sun was out, the plane was up in the sky, and drones were on standby, ready to be called into action. At 4:30 pm, the drone was deployed, a whale had surfaced some 300 feet in front of the boat. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance and chief drone pilot, carefully maneuvered SnotBot into position above the whale’s blowhole, and on the third attempt he struck the bullseye. As the whale surfaced and took one last breath, its exhalation covered the petri dishes on SnotBot, complete with all the scientific information the team was hoping for. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as, with a flick of its fluke, the whale dove and vanished from sight. And for national Geographic, they achieved a world first — humpback whale snot captured on live TV!

This was my first visit to SE Alaska and Kake, and I have to say that the community support we received undoubtedly helped to make this expedition successful. People always greeted us warmly and were quick to offer help. I hope my work will bring me back to Kake again one day.

Alex Tate
Producer of Earth Live

Parley SnotBot Alaska – the science

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Dear Friends,

I love these expeditions, but I will admit that when I get back home I am exhausted. There is nothing more exciting that being in the field with a good hypothesis, good equipment and a great team. In the field, you just focus on the work that you are doing. Typically in the remote locations that we go to we have poor to no cell contact so we are cut off from the world around us, living in our work bubble (which is unusual in today’s ever-connected world). We work dawn to dusk, go through the data, back up hard drives at night, and then start it all again the next morning.

When we started the SnotBot program we were fairly confident that the tool would work at some basic level, but we did not realize the myriad experiments, applications and opportunities that these drones would bring to the marine science table. Nor did we realize how lucky we would be with the partners that would come onboard to help us with collection and preservation protocols, analyzing the samples and processing the data. Analysis team leaders to date are Dr. Scott Baker, Dr. Shannon Atkinson, and Dr. Fred Sharpe.

The population studies that Dr. Baker and his team are doing with the DNA are amazing. To learn more about Scott’s work I encourage you to visit his website. Please note that the paper “ ‘Eve’ and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure” came, in part, from data collected during Ocean Alliance’s Voyage of the Odyssey.

We are over the moon to be working with Shannon Atkinson’s Lab. As critical as hormones are to mammals, many people don’t understand how they work, so we are lucky that Kendall Mashburn from Shannon’s lab has written up a piece on hormones that she calls, “So Whales Have Hormones, Too?” In their most simple capacity, hormones are tiny molecules that govern nearly everything every animal does. From sleeping to eating to the transitional changes of puberty or pregnancy, these tiny molecules are potent activators and pretty much run the show in all animals’ bodies. The endocrine system is the group of organs responsible for the production of hormones.

Hormones come in two major varieties, the steroids and the proteins. Steroids are the major settings for the body’s operation, and the proteins fine tune those settings. Some familiar steroids are testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and cortisol. Steroids are synthesized by the body using a cholesterol backbone in the same way as in almost all living organisms.  The term for this is evolutionary conservation. The beauty of evolutionary conservation is that steroid hormones have the same basic structures and functions in a fish as they do in a human. The structural similarities are a boon to people who study wildlife endocrinology, as it means that the tools used by your local hospital or lab to analyze human steroid hormones are not only commercially available, but generally compatible with steroids produced by any other living organism.

What we don’t know about whales, particularly the great whales, is astonishing. How do we know how best to protect them if we don’t know how they function and under what conditions they function best?  How can we tell when something is wrong? Since hormones in whales, as in other mammals, dictate a physical reaction, they are an excellent place to start to understand things like pregnancy and responses to stress, food shortages or other anthropogenic influences. Hormones are potent and evoke a distinct response. After their work is done, they are metabolized and excreted. In some cases, hormones are broken down by the body and the important bits are recycled. In other cases, they are expelled the way you would get rid of any other bodily waste product.  That’s right — urine, feces and breath (snot)! These forms of excrement can be some of the most precious biological samples available to wildlife scientists. SnotBot has the potential to swoop in and collect the respiratory blow from the animal. This gives the wildlife endocrinologist the ability to determine real-time concentrations of hormones of free-ranging animals.

It will take some time to define the baseline physiology of these incredible animals, but each snippet of information is one step closer to helping us better understand them.  More importantly, understanding the physiology allows us to communicate how the whale functions to people responsible for their conservation.  In turn, natural resource managers can make conservation decisions based on the actual health of the animals. And while it is true that being among whales is the experience of a lifetime, a wildlife endocrinologist gets positively hormonal the second they carry those precious samples into the lab!

Thank you, Kendall, Shannon, Scott, Fred and your staffs and interns for bringing such value to the work that we do.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

SnotBot Indian Summer

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Dear Friends,

While I am not sure of the title of this email is politically correct, it is definitely good for us in Alaska. The day we arrived in Juneau, it was bucketing down rain and blowing 30 knots — this is fall in Alaska after all. The last two days (after foggy starts) have been blue skies and sunny, 5 to 10 knots of wind and calm seas.  We have also had good whale interactions, not the big numbers of animals we see in the summer, but that is OK. The Parley SnotBot gods seem to be with us.

It’s great to be working with Ted, Bryn, and Javier from INTEL Labs for a second  time, following our July expedition. This expedition (beyond collecting snot) we are working to further develop their photogrammetry and volumetrics programs as well as train them to fly and collect data over whales. I have often stated that I believe this work, these tools, are replicable, so we are trying to walk the talk; we have now collaborated with biologists in two other countries (Argentina and Mexico) and left them with drones and instruction / data sheets as part of this philosophy. And now INTEL.

Most people don’t realize that the expedition part of our work is just the beginning. In many ways the real work starts when we get home and start analyzing the data. But that can also be the most frustrating time; there is nothing more disappointing than getting home and finding out you did not collect some key data point, or that you saw some unique behavior / data but did not realize it at the time and as a consequence could not act on it. The best analogy I can think of is the difference between the old tech of using a film camera and the current tech of digital cameras. I remember coming home from our whale camp in Argentina with 20 rolls of film, not really knowing what I had captured but hoping for the best. With digital photos you can look at them real time and know if you got the shot. This is the capacity that the team (and the technology) at INTEL is developing with us, and it is a game changer — we are able to make better use of our time and resources, which is good for the whales, good for us, and even good for the funders that are supporting this work.

It is incredible how far we have come since Parley for the Oceans, our founding partner, introduced us to INTEL and brought us together at the United Nations on World Oceans Day 2017 on June 8. Not only have we developed new tech, but we have put that tech to use. I am excited to report that we have already identified whales that we saw on our first Parley SnotBot expedition this summer as a consequence of looking at our data in real time, in the field, and we’ve been able to estimate how the animals are doing healthwise. If you compare the attached photos taken at very different angles you can get an idea of how good this tech is that the INTEL team are developing. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this has not been a productive summer food wise for Alaska’s humpback whales. We saw far fewer whales in Frederick Sound this summer than we did in summer 2016, so this is a great time to be bringing this new technology to bear.

I am sending this email from a sat phone, so apologies for fewer photos and a shorter blog.

Another first for the Parley SnotBot team and another great collaborative effort.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska, Take Two

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Dear Friends,

I am writing this email en route to Alaska. Yes, we are heading back up to Alaska for the second time this year, and it is exciting for many reasons. The first of which being that we are continuing our Parley SnotBot collaboration with INTEL and Ted Willke’s team at the Mind’s Eyes lab.

On the scientific front, to be able to go back and study the same population later in the same year is not something that we get an opportunity to do that often; couple this with the advanced tech the Mind’s Eye lab are bringing to the table, and we have an exciting expedition ahead of us. We are returning to the area we worked this summer in the hope of seeing some familiar whales and documenting how their behavior, interactions, and body condition have changed since we last saw them.

Since the last expedition Ted, Bryn, and Javier have been working like crazy to expand their fluke ID database and further develop their algorithms so that they can better identify individual animals and better estimate size/girth with their volumetrics work (more on that later). The weather is likely to be a challenge, but we have stacked the odds as far as we can in our favor. We are of course working with the Alaska Whale Foundation and Dr. Fred Sharpe, who should keep us pointed in the right direction.

We will be staying on a boat instead of with our good friends at the Kake Kwaan Lodge (sorry Tinker) so Internet is going to be tricky, but my goal is to send you expedition blogs whenever possible. We do have expedition cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller with us, so expect some pretty dramatic photographs – I have attached a few from the summer expedition.

I remain an avid proponent of drones for whale research but also of drones for ocean research. I think that these machines are going to permeate every aspect of ocean research, changing the way we do our work and hopefully resulting in a democratization of science, with more people collecting more data in more locations, more affordably, and more safely. It’s just amazing to me how far this tech has come in just three years and how far it has permeated (and will permeate) so many aspects of our work. Not just the drones and sensor packages but also the support equipment. I was in our robotics lab last weekend 3D printing small mounts to hold petri dishes on the INTEL Falcon 8 drone for this expedition (photos attached) and I realized how I was already taking this amazing affordable tech ($2,500 printer) for granted. Yes, one of the students (Austin, pictured below) had to do the design work for me (10 min?) and then we were printing out custom mounts for two different drones just 30 minutes after coming up with a design concept – crazy.

And don’t even get me started on the Artificial Intelligence and machine learning work that Ted and his team are doing. I bring this up because while I believe that the work we are doing now is innovative and, dare I say, disruptive (in a positive way), I am excited by what we will likely be doing with drones in two years from now. I will admit to finding the challenge of trying to predict where this tech is going and how we will make best use of it very thought-provoking.

As an example, when we are collecting snot we have to have our Parley SnotBot at the right height above the whale, we have to be the right distance behind the whale’s blowhole (varies due to the speed of the whale) and we have to be at the right angle behind the blowhole (depending on crosswind) so that we are in the best position to collect the largest amount of snot that we can. It’s not as easy as you might think. I have thousands of hours of flying time, which most people don’t have – making the current Parley SnotBot tool not as replicable as we hope for. That said, I believe that in a year’s time (two at most) pilots like me will just be overseeing the snot collection flight with the SnotBot auto sensing drone (version 22 🙂 analyzing all of the above parameters in real time and far more accurately and consistently than a human can – consequently bringing in more and better data and bringing this tech into the hands of pilots who have training but perhaps not as much as our pilots have and need now.

From a wet and windy in Alaska.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

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.

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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.

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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.

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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

What We Found on Our Shoreline

By | apr14, Education, Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters | No Comments

Volunteers for Harbor CleanupIt was a beautiful clear sunny day on Saturday when members of the Gloucester community gathered to clean our harbor. Teams were dispersed all around the city thanks to the coordination efforts of the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, Maritime Gloucester, our two Cultural Districts downtown and on Rocky Neck, and our own Rebecca Siswick Graham. After a presentation about ocean trash by the Rozalia Project Friday night, volunteers gathered at their assigned locations Saturday morning for this one-hour effort to collect and record as much trash and recycling as possible. Read More