Monthly Archives

September 2015

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.

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.


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.


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.


“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


“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


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!


Roger Payne Receives Sierra Club’s 2015 EarthCare Award

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Dr. Roger Payne has received the Sierra Club’s 2015 International EarthCare Award for his unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation. The award was presented in San Francisco on September 12.  The Sierra Club noted Dr. Payne’s many accomplishments over the past 50 years, as well as his ongoing research and advocacy, in its news release on the award:

Payne is perhaps best known for his discovery (with Scott McVay) that humpback whales sing songs. One of his National Geographic magazine articles contained a record of whale sounds for which 10.5 million copies were printed — still the largest single print order in the history of the recording industry.

Payne has led more than 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research, both in America and abroad.

In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, which strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. A major project of Ocean Alliance was the Voyage of the Odyssey, a five-year program designed to gather the first-ever baseline data on levels of synthetic contaminants throughout the world’s oceans, ending in 2005. The crew of the Odyssey collected more than 900 tissue samples from sperm whales in all of the world’s oceans and visited 20 countries to speak with thousands of students, teachers, government officials and members of the general public.

Still fully active in this, his 80th year, Payne has recently written a Declaration of Interdependence, modeled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence which he is asking people to sign. He hopes it will encourage people everywhere to demand that their government recognizes the critical importance of granting rights and values to non-human species.

“We are extremely pleased to honor Dr. Payne for his dedication to whale and ocean conservation. I can recall listening to his recordings of whale songs many years ago, and I know that the songs and his work have inspired many others to recognize the importance of marine mammals and oceans to our efforts to care for the Earth and its wild places,” said Richard Cellarius, Sierra Club International Vice President.

Payne’s many previous honors include a Knighthood in the Netherlands, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Emmy for Best Interview: One on One with Charlie Rose, and a Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). His films have received seven major awards and two Emmy nominations.

In the photo above, Sierra Club International VP Richard Cellarius presents Roger Payne with the EarthCare Award, with Executive Director Michael Brune looking on.

Dispatch from Patagonia: 2015 Southern Right Whale Survey

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We received the following dispatch from John Atkinson on Friday, September 11.  John has been the primary aerial photographer for our annual survey of Southern Right Whales since 1988, and has participated in numerous expeditions and documentaries worldwide.

Hi all, John Atkinson here, writing to you from Peninsula Valdez in Patagonia, Argentina, We have now finished our 2015 annual aerial survey of the southern Right whales that gather in nearby waters to mate and give birth to their calves. This is an ongoing survey that was started by Dr. Roger Payne back in 1970.

Our survey was a tremendous success. This year we flew with a new pilot, Peter Dominguez, and he deserves a big shout out for getting us up and over the whales and back on the ground safely. Also, thanks to everyone in the offices and all of the volunteers in Gloucester at the Ocean Alliance and at the Institute de Conservacion de las Ballenas in Buenos Aires for all of the advance preparations and organization.

In the photo above is a whale that we photographed, and if you look closely, you can see the baby alongside the mother.

In the photo below is our aerial survey team, which includes, from the left, Dr. Mariano Sironi, myself, our pilot Peter and Marcos Ricciardi. Not included here is our other member of this year’s aerial team, Alejandro Fernandez. Thanks again to everyone for keeping us safe and for loving the whales as much as we do.


In closing, I want to say that today, September 11th, is Mariano’s birthday so Feliz Cumpleanos (Happy birthday in Spanish) Mariano!!

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

Spotlight on Interns: Katie Gilbert

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Hosting interns at Ocean Alliance is hugely important to our mission! The work we do simply could not continue if we didn’t nurture a new crop of future scientists, researchers and engineers into the world each year to solve the pressing challenges faced by our oceans.

So in that light, we thought it fitting that each of our interns gets introduced to you and a chance to shine in a spotlight, and as a thanks for all their hard work, with hopefully a bit of a leg-up into their new career. We start off our series with Katie Gilbert.


Name: Katie Gilbert

Studied: Received B.S. in Marine Science Concentration Marine Biology this past May (2015)

Studied at:  University of New England in Biddeford, ME


What brought you to choose to study this subject?

 My family would take trips to the beaches of Cape Cod and southern Maine, where as a kid, I would wade through tide pools exploring the creatures they held. I just loved exploring and spending my time by the water, I was very curious and wanted to know more about it.


Also, around the fifth grade, my family went to Discovery Cove in Florida, where I was given the experience to swim with Bottlenose dolphins.  This is one of my most memorable experiences where I was so moved and amazed by these wonderful creatures.  From then on, I knew I wanted to study the ocean and the life within it, and someday like to find a career in the field of marine biology.


What have you accomplished in your studies thus far?

During my 4 years at the University of New England I got as involved as I could in my major, research, and social activities/clubs on campus. Some major accomplishments include:


I spent the last three years as a research assistant in Dr. Kathryn Ono’s lab, where research focused on pinniped behavior, ecology, and conservation.  I started out helping with a graduate student’s thesis project, by analyzing some of her data and photos of Grey seal pups from Muskeget Island. Then from their I started my own undergraduate research project by conducting a study on the Diet Composition of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in New England from Scat Analysis. Along with the articulation of an Adult Male Grey Seal Skeleton where the completed skeleton is hung for display in the Marine Science Center at UNE. I have also been out in the field on a field research trip to Muskeget Island (Jan. 2014) where I was a participant of research effort to collect Grey seal scat for my research project and help with other research efforts while on the Grey seal breeding island. 


I also spent some time volunteering and gaining experiences in Marine Mammal/Animal Care, where I volunteered at the Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center (MARC) (2013-2014).   I received training for Animal Care volunteer at MARC to aid in the rehabilitation and release of Harbor, Harp, and Grey seals and Loggerhead sea turtles. 

During the school year I volunteered one 4 hour shift a week to help with feeds, food & medicine prep, weighing & recording animal notes/records, restraining, cleaning rooms & pools, basic water quality testing, aiding in sea turtle x-rays, and release of cleared seals at beaches. 

Then I spent time educating the public and school groups about MARC and marine mammals, being a Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center (MARC) Docent (2014) facilitating educational tours to school and other groups of the role and function of the MARC facility.


This last year at UNE, I presented my research on “Diet Composition of Grey Seals (Halichoerus grypus) in New England from Scat Analysis” and the articulation of the Grey Seal skeleton at a few symposiums. The presentations included: the Northeast Undergraduate Research and Development Symposium (NURDS), (March 7 & 8, 2015) and University of New England Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE) Symposium, (Fall 2014) where I did a Poster Presentation for both. I also presented at the University of New England’s College of Arts and Sciences Student Research and Scholarship Symposium on May 1st, 2015 where I did an oral presentation on the same research stated above.



What’s been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?

  • Helping with Proposal/Research for a whale education box for Surprise Ride Organization
  • Painting the wooden Sperm whale cut-out, to have on display at the Kick starter event and to use for future OA events
  • Making/Designing a Robotics Brochure for OA
  • Making the Kickstarter/Snot Bot Flyer to go onto the 7 Seas Whale Watch Boat
  • Helping Andy test pH probes to determine which was best for Ocean Sentinels Project, and to help edit and read over the drafts of documents for this project.


What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?

Meeting and getting to know the staff and other interns, and getting the opportunity to help with all the projects.  It’s great knowing that the help each of us interns provide goes towards a larger cause to help the whales and the health of the oceans.  For example, helping with the Kickstarter is helping to raise money and awareness for the Snot Bot research, which is future and innovative research.



What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?


What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?

There are similarities between the two, when doing research it takes a lot of time/commitment, dedication, patience, and background work to gather an understanding and knowledge on the topic of research and working at a non-profit I feel it is very similar; it takes patience, time/commitment and hard-work, and background work to get to the point where projects and results happen.


What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?

This is a very tough and loaded question, especially since I have spent the last few years researching and taking classes that focused on marine mammals. I find all marine mammals interesting to study and learn more about. All have characteristics and behaviors that amaze me. I have to break this question down by saying my favorite Pinniped is the Grey Seal because I have spent the last few years studying and conducting a research project on Grey Seal diet composition in New England. I also helped at a Marine Animal Rehabilitation and Conservation Center and spent time helping to rehabilitate a few Grey seals which was a wonderful opportunity to help with to heal them and release them back to the wild again.  My favorite Cetacean is the Spinner or Atlantic White-sided dolphin, because I love their morphology, and how dolphins are very social animals, which have many behaviors above or under the surface.  


What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?

I like almost every ocean themed film that I have seen, they all have some element to them that I like whether it is just a fun, cute movie like Finding Nemo, to movies that have a message to show the public awareness on an ocean issue, like Dolphin Tale which shows the side of marine animal rehabilitation. I even enjoy documentary movies where I can learn more about life in the ocean, I have watched many over the years at school. 



What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?

I have finished my undergraduate studies, so this summer I became a 7 Seas Whale Watch Intern and Ocean Alliance Intern to gain more experiences in the marine mammal realm and build my resume. I plan to go back to school to get my graduate degree in Marine Biology next fall (Fall 2016) after this gap year, and then my overall career goals are to get a job in marine sciences preferably with marine mammals whether it is working in a research lab, rehabilitation, in the field, or at an aquarium. 


What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?

Hope to make the future a better place, and to help learn and research more about the ocean to educate all and help to make a difference. To educate others on the ocean and life within it and how we need to protect and cherish what we have in our vast oceans.