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Ann Cortissoz

Parley SnotBot goes to Stellwagen Bank: Expedition 8

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Dr. David Wiley is the research coordinator for the Gerry E. Studd’s Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, and an all-round good guy.  I have known Dave for over 25 years, but we have not had an opportunity to work on many projects together. In the fall of 2017, Dave and I talked about changing that by bringing some Ocean Alliance expertise and equipment on a NOAA humpback whale tagging expedition planned for June 2018.

The first week of June Britta Akerley, OA Data & Office Manager, and I went to meet with Dave and Mike Tomson (GIS analyst) at the sanctuary headquarters in Scituate, MA. We had a great meeting. All was looking good for the upcoming collaboration, and that’s when things started to go awry. Boat technical and launching issues, meant that three days after the collaboration was meant to start our boat, the RV Cachalot, was not yet in the water.

Thanks to a herculean effort by all, by midday (Sunday the 24thof June) the RV Cachalot was in the water after seven months on the hard.  The original plan was to do a couple of sea trials before we ran the 70+ nautical miles to Stage Harbor, Chatham, MA, but time was not on our side, and we were in well-traveled waters, so I told the crew (Office and Data manager Britta Akerley, Robotics Program manage Chris Zadra, and summer intern Alicia Pensarosa from Tufts University) that we would run for an hour and stop and check all systems, which we did.

All in all the Cachalot ran very well for the first hour, but when we stopped there was evidence of salt water scattered around the aft engine compartment, with no sign of a leak sitting still we got up to speed and saw that the dripless shaft seal was leaking.  I had experienced this problem before on the Odyssey, and with a couple of tie wraps I was able to stop the leak.  Onwards!! We ran the next 50 miles in uncomfortable seas but in good spirits.  As you are aware, I have run or participated in close to 100 expeditions in my life and since this one was based out of our headquarters in Gloucester, MA, I was feeling good … until I looked ahead and said to the crew “Is that Fog?”  It was, and we had yet to traverse the infamous Chatham Shoals off the southernmost tip of Cape Cod.

As I was trying to get a handle on the situation, a small powerboat appeared out of the fog going at full speed turned 90 degrees and disappeared. So much for my feelings of confidence, everything suddenly seemed to get exponentially harder. The Chatham Shoals are Cape Cod’s ship graveyard. Shifting sands means that a deep-water passage one year is shoals the next.  There are three principal passage routes, the closest to our destination being the most difficult and the furthest away being the easiest. In the fog I chose the compromise, the one in the middle.  Over the shoals, and both physically and mentally exhausted, we picked up a mooring in Stage Harbor at about 9:00 pm Sunday night, six and a half hours after leaving Gloucester, only to find that most of the restaurants in Chatham close at 9:00, so we had left over sandwiches for dinner.

The next day (Monday) the winds picked up to 20 plus knots, so we could not go out onto the whale grounds, but we did leave the harbor and do some drone and photogrammetry trials in what could only be described as less than satisfactory conditions.

Tuesday looked good weather wise but the forecast for the rest of week was not looking good, increasing winds to 25 knots plus on Wednesday afternoon, Thursday and Friday.  To put it mildly I was not happy; it looked like we would only get one good day with Dave and the NOAA team. How much can you cram into one day you ask? If you are Ocean Alliance it turns out a LOT!

We brought with us equipment to conduct three principal experiments: photogrammetry, FLIR and Parley SnotBot. We also hoped to gather some aerial behavioral data. I did not expect to be able to do all of these experiments in one day, but we like to keep our options open. To do this work we had four drones on the Cachalot, two Inspire 2’s, our FLIR Matrice 210 and a Mavic Pro. We mounted a drone rack in the Cachalot’s main cabin to hang our drones while underway – on previous expeditions we have found that this works well and keeps them out of the way.

At 7:00 am Tuesday morning we were on the Cachalot ready to leave Stage Harbor.  A member of the NOAA team, Laura Howes, was going to join us for the day to photo ID the animals that we were working with.  Just before we dropped our mooring, Dave came by the boat and said they were having some generator problems on the main boat and could we take some tracking gear to help find a tag that had done its job and was drifting on the high seas.  They had a location where the tag had been about 4 hours before (which would be a pretty good indication of where the whales might be).  So we had an additional job on top of our already long list, but we were excited to help and see the retrieval process.  An hour and a half NE of Chatham, Laura was on the bow with her magic wand (Yagi Antenna) (Photo 5) trying to locate the tag — I say magic wand because this looked like both science and magic.

An hour later, after precise directional instructions from Mike and Laura, we found the tag no more that 100 feet from the boat — no small feat if you look at the photos.  All you can see when the tag is in the water are two small antennae poking out of the ocean.

Tag recovered, the next job was photogrammetry; the goal was to try and conduct body length measurements of the animals that the NOAA team had previously tagged and Laura had ID’d. We quickly came upon a group of animals that Laura knew, and we put our brand new DJI Inspire 2 (bought for this expedition) into the air.  We had problems right out of the gate: every time we tried to take a photo or video, the FPV video screen would seize up. We brought the drone back in to troubleshoot.  Thankfully, the issue was not with the LiDAR sensor (which allows us to do photogrammetry), but with the new drone.  We were able to transfer the tech to our old faithful Inspire 2 and take off again. It worked great. Getting the photogrammetry images was more of a challenge that I expected; the animals were very active, so rarely were they straight in the water, and with a lot of glare from the water it was hard to see the full body from rostrum to tail.  That said, as you can see from the attached photo, we got the goods!!

I have long been interested in seeing if we could measure the body temperature of a whale by looking down the blowhole, so our next mission was flying our FLIRBot — every part of this was a learning process. While we did get our first set of blowhole temperatures for a humpback whale, we are now talking with David Lee at FLIR about how to best calibrate the data we are receiving from inside the whales blow hole (I’ll be writing a full blog on this later).

We are also interested to see if we can get temperature readings of scars and potentially entangled animals, so we can judge severity of wounds/entanglement. Last but not least we loaned the NOAA team our FLIR Vue Pro for an upcoming bird survey, not knowing if birds could be seen on FLIR, but we saw lots of birds flying through our frame so fingers crossed. Thank you again to FLIR for supporting this work!

The time was now approx 3:00 pm, and Britta said “Let’s collect snot.” So we started up the Parley SnotBot, and on our first flight of the day we got a good sample — I think that the NOAA team were impressed. During a wildlife bonanza over the next two hours (humpback whales surrounding our boat, fin whales, seals, shearwaters and sooty terns) we managed to get four more samples.

At around 5:00 pm we linked up with the NOAA vessel Auk, and Dave asked if we could try to get some aerial footage of the tagging process. This was going to be a challenge, as it can take a while for the tagging team to get into the best position to do the work, and we would have to have a drone in the air at that time.  Once again, the whale (or drone) gods were on our side, and we got a spectacular sequence from beginning to end.  The time now was just after 6:00 pm and the winds had picked up, gusting to 15 knots, so we decided to head back to port — amazed by all that we had achieved in one day:

Found and retrieved a $12,000 tag.

  • Collected photogrammetry data on two species of whales (humpback and fin)
  • Collected FLIR data on humpback whales
  • Collected five snot samples (flying six 4-inch Petri dishes per flight)
  • Shot a video of a data tag being attached to a whale.

And all of that in one day! To say that the OA and NOAA team were happy would be an understatement.

The next morning, we were up early to get back to Gloucester before the bad weather hit, feeling happy not only with the data we collected and the new people we had introduced to our work but also the training that the new Parley SnotBot team received.  Thanks to Parley for continuing to support our work. Well done all!!

As the summer progresses we hope to spend at least another 10 days on Stellwagen Bank.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

 

A packed house for I Am More exhibit

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Ocean Alliance is  committed to supporting arts, culture, and community in Gloucester, and one way we show our support is by hosting art exhibitions at the Paint Factory.   Two weeks ago, we hosted the I Am More exhibit, which was the first public unveiling of the I Am More portraits.

 

The I Am More project consists of portraits by artist Amy Kerr of people facing personal challenges and essay by those people about how they are more than their depression, addiction, grief, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorder, bipolar disorder, dysphoria or obsessive compulsive disorder. They are parents, children, and friends with loves, gifts and dreams. Work by Cape Ann artists and Gloucester High students whose portraits Amy painted were also in the show.

 

Acera School visits our robotics lab

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We had a group of very bright young students from Acera School (a nonprofit K – 8 STEAM school) come to Ocean Alliance yesterday to learn about our Drones For Whale Research program. The visit began with a tour of the Robotics Lab, which included a quick lesson/demo of thermal imaging using our DJI Matrice 210 with Zenmuse XT thermal camera.

The students also got to spend some time on our flight simulator flying various types of multirotor and fixed wing drones. Having worked on mini drones as part of the coursework, they were extremely excited to see Ocean Alliance’s vast collection of drones, old and new, functional and retired, and how the SnotBot drones have developed over the years.

After the Robotics Lab, the tour continued over at our main office in the former Paint Factory to watch some videos of SnotBot in action. The students had also previously learned about microbiomes in their coursework, so we showed them a SnotBot clip from our feature on National Geographic’s TV series One Strange Rock, where astronaut Chris Hadfield explains the importance of microbiomes for all life on Earth.

What’s next for SnotBot?

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The SnotBot program has been validated. We have collected 171 samples from five species of whale, and our analysis partners at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and Oregon State University have successfully detected both DNA and hormones in the samples.

So what comes next? Is the job done?

I think we all know the answer to that. Of course not! Now is the time to take this program to the next level. As we get better and better at collecting snot samples using a drone, we need to work harder and harder: to be more creative and more innovative, to continue improving and evolving our methods.

One aspect of the program we are increasingly focusing on is the analysis end. Ultimately, this is all about the samples. So what exactly do our analysis partners want? How can we help them? To this end, we are having regular discussions with our analysis partners about what they need, about what they want. And the answer we are getting back is simple: they want more snot (larger samples).

We need to find a way to deliver this.

The first way we might go about doing this is to change the way we fly the drone when collecting the sample. For example, where we position the drone above the whale, what direction we approach the whale from, whether we remain static or fly the drone through the cloud of blow, etc. Having collected 171 samples, however, we feel we have our protocol pretty well established.

The remaining option would be to increase the surface area on which we collect the sample, by changing the number and placement of our petri dishes. Of course, the drones we are using were never designed to have a bunch of mad whale scientists stick petri dishes all over them. They are complex machines with many moving parts, including four high-powered propellers. When looking for new places to attach petri dishes, you have to get creative. For this expedition we are trying two new approaches. First, we have switched from round petri dishes to square dishes.  This makes for a more efficient use of space. Second, we have 3D-printed additional legs which attach on to the legs of the drone. On to here, we can place additional petri dishes. There was no space left on the drone for more dishes, so we just made more space.

3D printed petri dish holders

 

 

3D printed petri dish holders mounted on the SnotBot drone, holding a petri dish

 

We can then try and ensure that the quality of the samples we collect is as good as possible. So what do we do with the sample once we have it? Of course this is not only a new program for us, but also for our analysis partners. Not only do we have to work out the most effective way of collecting the samples, but also the most effective ways of processing, storing and analysing the samples. We have tried multiple different solutions and protocols, and are engaged in a continuous dialogue with our analysis partners regarding what has and has not worked.

For each different laboratory/analysis, the samples need to be processed, stored, and analysed in different ways. To further complicate things, for the first time we will also be collecting, processing, and storing samples for toxicological analysis with our long-time partners at the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology. The Wise Lab will be trying to detect pollutants, such as heavy metals, in the samples. We do not know if pollutants will be present in the sample, but it could add yet another component to the SnotBot program.

 

Camouflaged drone

 

Not all improvements relate to the collection/processing of the actual samples. One of the major advantages of the SnotBot program is its non-invasive nature. We have recorded very few reactions from the whales to the drones, but we have recorded some reactions, and there is always room for improvement. For the first time on this expedition, we have actually tried camouflaging the underside of our drones with blue, grey, and white paint (to look like sky), in the hopes of decreasing the possibility of the whales visually detecting the drones. We really have no idea whether this will work. On one level it does seem logical: a sky coloured drone should be more difficult to detect. But we don’t know enough about the eyesight of whales, nor how a whale might detect the drone — whether it is more based on the movement of the drone rather the colour, and so on. Still, it is very much worth a try! Plus, we think the drones look cooler camouflaged.

And so we will keep working to improve!

FLIR thermal imaging gives a new view of robotics club

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Thanks to the generous support of the FLIR corporation, we are using FLIR thermal imaging to get a different window into the lives of whales.  FLIR offers a data analysis software package called Research I.R. This package allows you to interrogate information captured by the FLIR cameras.  Our new friend Chris took some photos during our last robotics club meeting and here is his analysis:

The photo above of kids working on their racing drones was taken at the weekly robotics club meeting. We used FLIR’s Reasearch I.R. software to analyze the photo, which was taken with the Zenmuse XT camera. Look at all the data we get from the photo!

FLIR’s ResearchIR software allows us to get the temperature value for every pixel in a still image taken by the Zenmuse XT camera. That’s 327,680 individual temperature values. The goal is to use this technology to take the body temperature of a whale by imaging the blowhole as the whale surfaces for air. Recording the temperature of a whale is something that has never been done. With new drone and thermal imaging technologies from DJI and FLIR, Ocean Alliance will be able to collect so much more data about a whale’s health than researchers have ever been able to get before.

Robotics Club at Rockport High

By | Education, Ocean Alliance News, Robotics | No Comments

Wednesday night we had a great Paint Factory Fliers flight night in the Rockport High School Cafeteria. Many thanks to Rockport High for allowing us to use the space. It was a lot of fun to be flying again, and the cafeteria had the height and space we needed to make the most of our micro drones.

We flew three principal drones; all had First Person View (FPV) cameras so you fly wearing a headset (Fatshark or similar) so you feel as if you are in the drone. Our main drones were:

Tiny Whoops
Baby Hawk
Nano QF
As a bit of fun I also flew (but only in hover mode) the E Flite X-Vert VTOL airplane
Alex also had a foamy quad but I cant remember its name.

The first curve ball of the evening was that when I looked at the cafeteria as a potential flying space it was just an open room, last night it was full of tables with turned over chairs sitting on them. On the up side, our maneuvering skills got a real workout. The High School custodian, Peter, could not have been more helpful, and soon we had tables covered with drone controllers, batteries, FPV headsets, and spare parts.

Alex Monell created a number of foam hoops for us to fly through; they sat on their own mounting poles in the middle of the tables, and we soon had a counterclockwise race circuit flying through these hoops (for those who wanted it). After a few runs, Alex reminded us that the hoops had lights in them, so we turned off most of the room lights and continued flying / racing in the dark. My old eyes struggled but the PF Fliers did not seem to have any problems.

I imagine if you just walked into this darkened room hearing the sounds of crazy mosquitos with flashlights flying around you would wonder what was going on. What was going on was a good time being had by all. Thank you again to Rockport High and Peter.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Expedition 7: FLIRbot

By | Gulf of Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, SnotBot | No Comments

Dear Friends,

As I stood in front of six U.S. Customs officers at LAX airport with whale poop in one hand, whale snot in the other, and permits all over the table, I thought, “What a long, strange trip this has been.”  When you first speak to officials either entering or leaving a country and explain the work (collecting whale snot with drones) they either think that you are joking or insane.  LAX was a classic case, with one Customs officer thinking this was the coolest thing he had ever heard of, two wanting to see the pinkish whale poo, and one convinced I had to be breaking some law.

Considering that these blogs are just highlights of our work, they probably make our work seem more exciting than it is. Sometimes it is just plain shitty. Right after doing an interview for Vice News I went out onto a public deck at our hotel and jumped over the railing onto the roof. I wanted to dry some blue whale poop in the sun under tissue paper to keep away the flies (photo 1).

Drying blue whale poop

Drying blue whale poop

I went onto the roof because I did not want someone finding and throwing away our poop. It turned out to be harder to get the poop bag open for good drying than I thought, so I ended up with whale poop all over my hands. As I turned to go back into the hotel room the wind blew the door shut. I did have a key in my pocket but my hands were now covered in stinky poo, and we were on the 5th floor (you can’t make this stuff up). Christian finally heard my plaintive knocking and let me in. On hearing my story I caused Christina pain because her hysterical laughing hurt her sunburnt lips.

Blue whale poop (it’s pink!)

The lack of animals on this trip pushed us to our limits. At the time it was frustrating, but since 50 percent of our goal is developing and testing the data collection tool that is the Parley SnotBot, pushing us to our limits resulted in great data. For example, 4:00 pm on the afternoon of the last day, eager to get more samples, I had my drone up at about 280 feet, a proverbial eye in the sky looking for any sign of whales. I thought that I saw something it the distance so I flew toward it. It was not a whale, but something else further out caught my eye so I flew towards that. Yes, a whale in the distance! I flew at full speed to the animal. I have no idea how many blows the whale had done before I got there but I managed to get a really good sample on the last blow and I watched the whale dive. After I have collected a sample I always fly the drone up to about 50 feet and take stock of the situation. Looking at my instrumentation I was stunned to see that the drone was over a mile (almost 2 km) away from our location. Immediately I checked my battery but I was in good shape to get back to the boat. It was not until later in the day that I realized how remarkable an event this was. I had collected biological samples and photo ID from an animal that was over a mile away from our location – this has to be the epitome of a non-invasive tool. I advise caution to any of you who might want to mimic this effort because in the USA you are not allowed to fly Beyond Line of Site (BLOS). We had to work in a very remote location and register our drones with the Mexican military to do so.

Some people still don’t understand why we are using drones to study whales. I don’t think that they realize how difficult whales are to study compared to most terrestrial animals. I say to people, imagine sitting on the Serengeti studying elephants.  Your life would be immeasurably harder if every 20 minutes the elephants blew salt water all over you and then disappeared under the Serengeti for 6 to 17 minutes (up to 90 minutes with sperm whales), coming up sometimes over a mile or more away in a random direction. It’s just not easy to study whales, even with all of our tech, but the equipment we are using has given me and my peers views and information on whales that we could only dream of a few years ago. One struggle we are now facing is that we are seeing so may unique things, we have too many opportunities in to explore. To meet this need we will be expanding the Parley SnotBot program into a larger Drones for Whale Research Program this year.

And then we come to studying whales at night. Acoustic evidence suggests that many species of whales are more active at night (you hear a lot more echolocation of different species at night). This is likely both social and feeding behaviors. To the best of my knowledge, no one is studying whales at night. The few studies I did find online with night vison and infrared cameras was with equipment that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars – which is not replicable. I did hear a talk by Scott Kraus from the NE Aquarium on night vision tech he tested so there is clearly an interest and future here.

We are lucky in New England to have a number of great tech companies that have offices in the area, one of them is FLIR,  a leader in night vision technology for the military, rescue, recreation and scientific use.  I was greeted with open arms when I suggested that we use FLIR tech for studying whales at night. My focus evolved when I was thinking about human health and the one thing they do whenever you go to the doctor ….. take your temperature. It’s amazing to think that no one (to the best of my knowledge) has taken the body temperature of a free-ranging whale. I have flown a FLIR camera over whales in Alaska and did photo a blowhole, but considering that the water acts like a mirror to FLIR, it is hard to decipher what you see when you look down at the water and consequently track the whales and get the drone in the right position for the shot.

Photo of whale blow hole taken with a FLIR camera

Right before this trip, FLIR donated to Ocean Alliance a Matrice 210. The Matrice 210 (P4) is a real workhorse, as against a recreational drone. It is water resistant, has a 35-minute flight time, expansion ports inculding power so you can add your own sensors  and a dual camera boom that lets me fly with paired cameras (you can also mount a camera on the top of the M210), so I could track the whale with the regular camera and know that the FLIR camera was seeing and recording everything that I saw. The goal was to look down the blowhole of a whale with a radiometric FLIR to determine the body temperature.

Matrice 210

Expansion ports on the Matrice 2

As with any new tech there is a learning curve, and I did not get the money shot on this expedition, but we did get the M210 above whales, and we know how and what to do for the next expedition.

The Matrice 210 also proved its value in San Ignacio Lagoon when we helped out whale biologist Lars Bejder from the University of Hawaii (Lars Bejder). Lars’s research includes the use of innovative technology to quantify fine‐scale habitat use, movements, communication, calf suckling rates and body condition of marine mammals. Alas, they had lost one of their suction cup tags. Lars told me that if we could get his tracking antenna up to approximately 100 meters in height we could extend the range of his antenna to approximately 20 miles and hopefully find his tag. We did not find the tag but the M210 Frankendrone performed flawlessly and Lars and Aude were grateful that we gave it a go.

Even with the lack of whales and bad weather we had a very productive trip data-wise.  Typically, we want samples from a lot of different whales; on this trip our goal was to spend more time with individual animals.  We collected multiple blows from the same animals to see if there is consistency in the data we are getting from the whale blows; for all we know the hormone levels are different in the first blow from second or third blows. The fact that there were so few whales would have been more disappointing scientifically had we not had this goal.

You have to be a cup-half-full type of person if you are going to be in the environmental preservation business. Thirty years of work, and whales face more and diverse threats than ever before, and our oceans are showing abuse at every level. That said, I believe that a change is coming powered by tools like SnotBot and our partnership with Parley for the Oceans.

It seems only appropriate to close this blog with another beautiful Christian Miller Blue whale mother calf photo.

Thank you for being a part of this journey, coming up next is a blog from Andy Rogan.

As part of the expanded Drones for Whale Research Program we have some exciting locations and equipment already planned for Parley SnotBot 2018.  I look forward to introducing you to new tools/techniques/protocols and reporting back on the results of the data we have collected. Watch this page!

The sea is just drops of water that have come together. – Desmond Tutu

Best Fishes.

Iain

 

 

Parley SnotBot Expedition 7 — Loreto, days 1,2, and 3

By | Mexico, Ocean Alliance News, SnotBot | No Comments

Dear Friends,

The Sea of Cortez has put us through our paces — over the last three days, we have had to work harder than ever before to collect blow samples.  In short, the blue whales are just not here and the ones we have come upon are typically surrounded by whale watch boats. As in the USA, we are not allowed to collect samples when the whale watch boats are present. But even with many challenges, there have been great rewards.

Yesterday on the way out to the whale(less) grounds, we saw two plastic bottles moving in the water. We went to investigate and found an extremely distressed green Sea turtle entangled in nylon ropes tied to plastic bottles keeping the contraption and the turtle afloat, restricting her from diving and exposing her to predation.  Our expedition Director of Photography, Christian Miller, also runs the Cairns Turtle Rehabilitation Center in Australia, so it was this turtle’s lucky day. In no time Christian had the turtle out of the water, and I cut through over 30 nylon coils wrapped around a flipper.

 

It looks like it was a recent entanglement because the lines had not cut deeply into the flesh, although Christian said it was quite badly bruised.  It put a huge smile on all of our faces to see the turtle swim free and head out to sea.

 

Good job, too, because the next 5 hours were not as exciting, in fact they were as frustrating as hell!! We must have covered over 40 miles, and we did not see a single blow, even though seven crew members were staring intently at the water and using whatever incantations they could think of to attract the whales (I might even have mimicked some whale songs to try and call in the whales).

The absence of whales is of great concern to us because last year we saw over 30. Loreto is meant to be a high-density breeding ground. I am going out of my area of expertise here, but it seems to me that we are seeing more and more of these abnormal wildlife situations, from Humboldt squid off Los Angeles to unusually large blooms of jelly fish off Asia and Europe.  The one thing that everyone here seems to agree on is that the krill are just not in Loreto, so no whale food, no whales.

So, how do we find the whales on Parley SnotBot expeditions? We work from a 25-foot boat, studying 75-foot whales.

We try to cover as much territory as we can in our boat (typically running at 20 Knots) and the team is on constant watch until we see something of interest; each person covers a specific sector of ocean looking for clues, whale blows (of course), but often the clues are more subtle, a big group of birds, a brief mirror-like flash of light on the surface, other boats that have stopped in the water.  If we see anything out of place, we stop the boat for 10 minutes and drift and look with binoculars.

Because of the lack of whale’s we have been pushing ourselves and our equipment. The first blow is always the biggest and therefore ideal for a robust sample, but we rarely have an opportunity to get a first blow. Typically, we see the first blow and fly the SnotBot over to the whale to catch the second, third and or fourth blows. On day one, flying at 100 feet, I was just able to track a whale that was swimming underneath the water (even though sometimes all I could see was a slight discoloration of the water), here was a potential opportunity to get a first blow. With reporter Dexter Thomas from Vice News looking over my shoulder, I was determined to make it happen, but after over 20 minutes in the air, 16 minutes of which was tracking this whale (now quite a distance from our boat), my drone said “low battery return home.” I had to override the return home feature (typically not a good idea) to keep flying, and the whale gods rewarded us; one more minute of flight gave us a spectacular sample and I got the drone back to the boat before it ran out of battery and dropped into the water.  Screenshot of this blow en route to our petri dishes.

 

 

One sample that we have desperately wanted was whale poo. But with little whale food the chances of getting poo were looking bleak. Considering that Snot collection is a fairly new science we are looking for ways to put what we find in the blow (i.e. hormone levels) into context.  Whale poo is quite well studied so being able to compare hormone levels in the poo with the hormone levels in the blow will validate that data.

Whale poo

After finding whale poo, the pressure was on for me to get a blow from the same animal which I did on the second attempt. Just as an aside blue whale poo STINKS and we are trying to find a way to dry it (to bring home) at our hotel without getting kicked out of the hotel!!!!!

While the number of encounters we have had (to date) have been small they have been productive. We came across a mother and calf on day two, and along with the spectacular photos from Christian (below) he caught video of the calf playing.

 

This calf probably weighs about 10 tons so imagine 8 SUV’s all welded together in your back yard playing – it was quite a sight. We also think that we may have captured the calf nursing, I have attached another of Christians photos and you can decide for yourself.

 

Logistics for these types of trips are always a challenge, there is no Home Depot just down the road or drone store nearby so we bring a lot of gear, and that gear is of no use if you leave it in your hotel room, so we don’t travel light.  This year we have been very lucky to have Gloucester neighbors Peter and Laurie Hayden aboard the (now) research vessel Tanglewood acting as a support vessel, of course we would not be rude and put a too much stuff on their boat.

Peter and Laurie really saved the last two days when our inverter battery charging system could not keep up with the number of flights we were making, they came to the rescue and RV Tanglewood was soon a floating drone battery charger, keeping the Parley SnotBot on mission!

Last but not least we did find time to do a short flight with our amazing new drone the Matrice 210 – FLIRBot (Thank You FLIR) we successfully captured some thermal images of whales but this was at the end of a very long day so we have more trials planned.

From a happy, tired and sunburnt Parley SnotBot team – with 21 Snot and 1 Poo sample.

Best Fishes from Mexico.

Iain

FlightWave Edge — Parley SnotBot Expedition 7

By | Mexico, SnotBot, Whales | No Comments

Dear Friends,

We are now in Loreto, Mexico after three amazing nights sleeping in tents on the shores of San Ignacio Lagoon. Our thanks go out to the University of La Paz and their gray whale program for their incredibly generous hospitality. San Ignacio lagoon is one of those places I urge all of you to visit. It’s a bumpy road to get there (literally) and accommodations are basic, but it is one of those special places where land and sea meet, and wildlife abounds.

We were there to test the newest addition to our Drones for Whale Research program, the FlightWave Edge. To date all of our drones have been multicopters: drones that hover on engine power alone and do not use any of their surfaces (like a wing) for lift in flight. Alternatively, the FlightWave Edge is an innovative vertical take-off and landing fixed-wing drone (looks like an airplane) that transitions into regular flight after take-off and, as a consequence, can stay aloft far longer and cover more ground.

FlightWave Edge

Photography has been the mainstay of whale research for over two decades. Rarely will you find a whale research program that does not include Photo-ID (photo-identification) as part of its research. With the introduction of drones into this formula, the use of video and still footage from drones has been a real game changer (i.e. INTEL collaboration), and I think that we are just touching upon the real potential of these machines. With the Parley SnotBot we have been comprehensively sampling individual animals in a population; the question we have always had when we are analyzing the data is: what percentage of the group did we sample? To date we have not had enough data to answer that question.

Distribution/abundance surveys (when we survey an area and count how many whales there are in an area and how they are spread across this area) are highly valuable data sets. Researchers can gain an accurate snapshot of how many animals are in a specific location, how they are spread across this area, and, crucially, how this distribution changes over time across multiple time scales: hours, days, weeks, seasons and even years. Currently this work is done with people with cameras on boats (which is arduous, time consuming, and expensive) or from airplanes (which are expensive, dangerous, and noisy).

After Parley SnotBot, we think that one of the most significant applications of drone technology in marine mammal science/conservation will be the use of cameras on affordable unmanned fixed-wing drones to conduct distribution and abundance surveys. Our oceans are vast, and to understand them we need data sets that reflect vast areas. In general, marine mammal scientists are only able to study the animals around them, i.e. within visual range. What about the animals beyond this range?

So, our mission on a remote peninsula in Baja was to put a fixed-wing drone, in this case the FlightWave Edge, through its paces. We ran approximately 14 missions, all with different goals and expectations. Some were long range tests, sometimes we were testing different flight configurations, practicing transitions between hovering and fixed-wing flying, and using the sophisticated mission planning software. We demonstrated the Edge to other researchers at the camp, and all were impressed. We were very grateful to Dr. Steven Swartz, who kindly coordinated a boat-based lagoon survey with our Edge survey, giving us context to the data we collected. We did not run the full 30K survey route, but we did fly over his boat (whilst on survey) and we did see a lot of whales. There is too much to report on here on what we learnt (and future plans!!), but I am happy to say that the Edge passed with flying colors. Our only limitations seemed to be the transmitter range and current BLOS (Beyond Line of Sight) restrictions, both of which are solveable.

The photo above is an image taken from the Edge during the survey. Below is a photo of our shore-based launch site with cinematographer Christian Miller and Dan Levy.

Dan works for FlightWave, and his participation was essential to our success – so thank you FlightWave and thank you Dan. Below Dan and I are putting the Edge through its paces.

This next photo was meant as a calibration photo for the polarizing filter on the Edge camera but of course Christian made this into art.

One of the shots that we really wanted to get was a shot of the Edge over whales. On the afternoon of day two, whilst sitting on the beach we realized this was near to impossible. The whales were over 2 kilometers offshore, and the Edge flies at 50 kilometers per hour. A remarkable team effort then ensued with Andy on the binoculars and Christian, Dan, and me trying to get a DJI Inspire 2 and the Edge in the same place over the whales at the same time. The flight capacity of the Edge really came into play here, we launched both drones at the same time, and after 25 minutes Christian flew his drone back to the beach, changed batteries and flew back out (2K each way) whilst the Edge waited in loiter mode. Loiter mode is when the Edge is on autopilot and flies in circles. We kept moving the loiter position until we hit the ball out of the ball park, and Christian, who had the Inspire 2 hovering over whales, saw the Edge fly through the screen – amazing!!! We expect the impossible from Christian Miller and once again he delivered.

My life was made so much easier by having Dan with us in the field, as it turned out I think that Dan found the experience to be just as beneficial for his work:

When Iain invited me to go on this expedition I could not have been more excited about the opportunity to test the Edge under the real work challenges that the Parley SnotBot work represented. I don’t think that I realized how inspirational it would be for me to go from the factory to the field. I have spent years as part of the design and development team of the Edge, dealing with theoretical problems and potential pitfalls. This is the first time that I have been in the field and seen our ideas and our hard work put to the test. It added a whole new perspective to my thinking to see the Edge deployed so successfully and I am looking forward to getting back to work, to take what I have learnt to the Edge team so that we can support Iain’s work and many others out there like him.

Tomorrow we are out on the water with blue whales and a news team from HBO’s Vice News Tonight.

Best Fishes from Loreto in the Sea of Cortez.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Expedition #7

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Dear Friends,
Parley SnotBot Expedition #7, the first for 2018, is now underway. Our enthusiasm remains high as we are returning to two of our favorite locations: San Ignacio Lagoon and Loreto. We have a slightly expanded team, expanded mission goals, and two new drones to test.
Our first location and mission will be on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, at San Ignacio Lagoon. Here we will be counting gray whales from the air using our FlightWave Edge vertical take-off and landing fixed-wing drone. Dr. Steven Swartz has been doing abundance surveys from small boats here for over 30 years, and as many of you know we have been conducting aerial surveys of the Southern right whales in Argentina for over 46 years.  Along with the SnotBot themes of easier, cheaper, safer, and field-friendly we are exploring the use of fixed-wing UAS for these surveys/population counts. We do not plan on doing a full lagoon survey this year, but we will deploy our FlightWave Edge and test different flight patterns, different cameras/camera angles and different speeds.  Our goal is to cover part of Dr. Swartz’s survey line (from the air) to see how the UAS whale counts compare with his vessel-based counts.  We are very lucky to have Dan Levy from FlightWave with us this year to help us put the Edge thought its paces. We will be writing a full blog on the Edge and our results but it is an exciting machine!
The second location will be a more familiar Parley SnotBot expedition with blue whales off Loreto. Our goals for this expedition are:
•+40 blow samples – volume, volume, volume!!
•Validate all deployment, storage and collection protocols.
•Test different configurations & size of petri dishes with the goal of more robust samples.
•Conduct day long focal follows of one animal, collecting multiple blows over the day along with opportunistic feces collection.
•Compare snot collection from 3 different aerial platforms. Inspire 2, Mavic Pro, Matrice 210 (thank You FLIR)!
•Fly for visual data streams – photo-ID & volumetrics work (build on our Intel database and protocols) – also spot for Faeces.
•Sample other species opportunistically: fin whales, sperm whales, orca?
•Ensure full video data feeds and corresponding meta & live data is collected (i.e. wet or dry blows).
•Take the body temperature of a whale by looking down its blowhole with a FLIR Zenmuse XT camera – another first we believe for the Parley SnotBot program.
Matrice 210

Matrice 210

 

We are very grateful to FLIR for donating a Matrice 210 and a Zenmuse XT thermal camera to this expedition. The ruggedized nature of the DJI Matrice 210 seems well suited to this work and adding the Radiometric FLIR capacity to our drone sensor package is a very exciting addition. To the best of my knowledge no one has ever taken the body temperature of free ranging whales before (certainly not from a drone) so as we continue to develop the Airborne Whale Health assessment package that is Parley SnotBot – a big thank you goes out to FLIR for giving us this capacity. Hopefully there will be a full FLIR blog reporting on our success later on during this expedition. I have attached a photo of the FLIR Matrice 210, note that we added the camouflage paint job.
This year’s team is:
Iain Kerr – Expedition leader, primary pilot
Andy Rogan – Science manager,  pilot
Christian Miller – Videographer and cameraman extraordinaire, pilot
Bryn Keller, INTEL – Visual data streams, pilot
Dan Levy, FlightWave – pilot.
One of the many goals of the Parley SnotBot program is to develop systems and protocols to facilitate the best use of these tools by others: with us now embarking on our 7th expedition you might have thought that we would have everything pretty much sorted out by now – that is not the case – we are always learning more and working to improve our protocols.  First of all, we are testing new drones: this year thanks to the generosity of the FLIR corporation we are taking one of the most advanced industrial drones on the market down to the Sea of Cortez, the Matrice 210.  The Matrice line of drones are built for industrial / commercial use (not recreation purposes), they are more flexible (can carry multiple payloads either simultaneously or independently), and they are ruggedized, including being water resistant.
We are taking our old faithful drone the Inspire 2 and we will have the Mavic Pro to work with orca, should we be lucky enough to find them. We are trying new petri dishes, they are square (no not old fashioned like me but square) – we even have teflon liners for some of our dishes (hormones tend to stick to plastic).
Christian, Andy and I had a total of eight checked bags and six carry-ons – so only 14 bags this year (photo). Bryn has two checked and two carry-ons (including and Inspire 2) and Dan checked in two FightWave Edge drones and had two carry ons.  Right now, I am not sure how five guys and a total of 22 bags are going to get into our rented minivan – but we will keep you posted.
For the first three days in San Ignacio Lagoon we will be staying in tents and will not have internet or phone access, but once are back in Loreto, expect to hear more from the Parley SnotBot team!  I have attached a couple of Christian Miller’s extraordinary photos from 2017 to hold you over until we have more to report on from the field.
Gray whale

Gray whale

 

Blue whale

Blue whale

Last but not least, our work is going to be covered by VICE News (HBO), which  will be joining us in Loreto for three  days along with our good friend Christina Caputo from Parley.
Big thanks go to Parley, Intel and all of you for supporting this work. 2017 was a truly remarkable year for the Parley SnotBot, tand we hope for an even more successful year this year.
From the Sea of Cortez, we wish you fair winds (coincidentally that is what we want, along with lots of whales!!).
Onwards Upwards.

Gulls That Eat Whales Alive

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By Roger Payne

The photo above by Judith Scott of WhaleWatchSA.com shows a cape gull biting into the skin of on a South African, Southern Right Whale’s back—a behavior not previously reported in South African waters, though southern right whales are well studied in South African waters.

It is the same behavior we first observed in 1980 from kelp gulls in the waters of Argentina’s Península Valdés. Scott’s photo demonstrates that it has recently appeared on the opposite side of the South Atlantic.

Kelp gull, Cape gull and Dominican gull are different names for the same species (Larus dominicanus). It is the southern hemisphere equivalent of the northern hemisphere’s black-backed gull (Larus fuscus) the world‘s largest gull. Kelp gulls are so similar to black-backed gulls they have sometimes been considered a subspecies of black-backs.

Feeding on live whales doesn’t seem to be a matter of one-trial learning for these gulls. Perhaps it takes them a long time to build up enough courage to feed on the skin of a live right whale. Such caution is a good idea; a killer whale has been seen, on the outer coast of Península Valdés, striking with its tail at a gull that pecked it, and though that gull narrowly escaped, the stomach contents of killer whales often include the toenails of several gulls. It seems right that even though biting pieces out of live right whales has been going on in the Península Valdés population since the 1980s the behavior took months and years to reach its current frequency. So where did the South African kelp gulls learn this behavior? One possibility could be by watching western, South Atlantic kelp gulls in an area where western and eastern populations overlap.

The excellent map by T.D. Smith, et al of the distribution of the whales that were seen and killed during the days of sail, between 1780 and 1920, shows a band of right whale captures and sightings running roughly from east to west across the South Atlantic between Península Valdés and South Africa. It strongly suggests that southern right whales once occupied the waters of those latitudes all the way from South America to South Africa and beyond. But in modern times although both Península Valdés and South Africa host large populations of southern right whales, no one has reported a known South African right whale in Valdés, or a known Valdés right whale in South Africa.

The islands of Tristan da Cunha and Gough lie about halfway between South Africa and Valdés, and South African right whales have occasionally been seen there, as have Valdés right whales.

Is the same pattern true of kelp gulls?  It would be interesting to know the home ranges of kelp gulls, and how far from their nesting colonies they venture. The Avibase bird checklist classifies the present status of kelp gulls in Tristan da Cunha as “Rare/Accidental.” This suggests that it is probably not a place where western and eastern kelp gulls learn new behaviors from each other if all gulls must see this behavior several times before daring to feed on live right whales. (Orcas are omnipresent and it seems likely that South African gulls are aware that it is not safe to feed on them.)  Adoption of the behavior would require gulls from both sides of the Atlantic to be present on the same days, during the same period that right whales are present, and in several days of good weather (on rough days waves breaking over the backs of whales reduces the frequency of gull attacks). These requirements suggest that the behavior photographed by Scott may constitute an independent discovery by an eastern south Atlantic kelp gull. If I am wrong and the behavior was an import from Península Valdés it suggests that once a new behavior has gained wide acceptance in a population, it can jump even to distant populations.

 At Valdés, mussels are the preferred food of kelp gulls (there are fewer attacks on whales at low tide, when mussels are available to gulls, than at high tide when they are not). At present the population of kelp gulls around Península Valdés is abnormally high, and it is likely that feeding on right whale skin constitutes a significant proportion of the Valdés kelp gull diet.

When this behavior began, most gull attacks were on adult whales but the adults have since learned how to raise just their heads to breathe and their heads are covered with callosities which are probably too fibrous and tough for a gull to be able to carve off a piece with its bill. However newborn calves have to breathe on average once every 20 seconds and it takes them much of their first season to learn how to catch breaths in a way that avoids being attacked. As a result, it is the calves that are the principle focus of gull attacks (calf skin is also presumably tenderer then the skin of adults).

Right whales are accessible to gulls around Península Valdés because the waters there are so shallow that when swimming underwater a Right Whale can usually be seen from above by a flying gull. So the gulls just follow them from one surfacing to the next. If the whales swam deeper, the gulls would be unable to see them well enough to follow. However, in the areas of the Valdés bays much frequented by Right Whales, the water is too shallow and often too clear for a Right Whale to get deep enough to be invisible from above. They also have a preference for staying in shallow water most of the time with other mothers nearby as a protection and herding mechanism.

Gulls are seldom seen very far from shore so another way right whales could avoid them is to take up residence further offshore than kelp gulls are found. That might even explain, in part, why western, North Atlantic right whale mothers don’t keep their newborn young near shore even though we know from watching southern right whales that hugging the coast offers right whale mothers a major advantage if their calves are attacked by killer whales. Valdés right whale mothers keep their calf as close as possible to the shore, and when orcas attack a mother/calf duo, the mother interposes her body between her calf and the approaching orca. This pushes the calf into water too shallow for the orca to attack it from below. Also, orcas can’t maneuver as freely in very shallow water. If a group of orcas press the attack the mother cocks her tail sideways—a threat that is clearly understood by the orcas, for they leave immediately.  Right whales are tail fighters. Their tails are deadly weapons when slashed laterally (a behavior that the long-tailed, vegetarian dinosaurs are believed to have practiced).

From these observations, one begins to suspect that gulls may have a much larger effect in shaping the lives of whales than that for which they have hitherto been given credit. It seems likely that over the years, gulls, and perhaps other seabird species too, must have learned to feed from more than one species of baleen whale. The most vulnerable would be those that spend the longest times at the surface. Besides right whales, this includes, at least, bowheads, gray whales, humpbacks, and sperm whales. (The rorquals are largely out of the running as they usually spend very little time at the surface—not enough to give a gull long enough to approach, descend, land, and bite out a piece of flesh.)

Sperm whales aren’t attacked because they dive for periods of an hour or more, are seldom seen near shore, and usually dive so deep they can‘t be followed from above, even when in the clearest, mid-ocean water. However, because gulls seldom fly more than a few miles off shore,  all whale species are safe from their attacks if they stay beyond that distance. However, when farther offshore, right whales face a problem from orcas, because offshore almost always means deep water wherein any whale species is more vulnerable to orca attacks.

It is possible that bird attacks may explain the former absence of humpback whales around Hawaii. Currently, Hawaiian waters are one of the main winter destinations of North Pacific humpback whales. Yet humpback whales were almost never reported by the crews of the Arctic bowhead whaling fleet that overwintered in Hawaii in the 19th century, even though they anchored in what is now an area off Maui where you can hardly look out to sea in winter and early spring without seeing humpback whale blows. This suggests that humpback whales may appear and disappear from particular coasts over the years, just as right whales are known to do. But what is the cause? Back in the time of the Arctic bowhead hunt, humpbacks were not yet the main quarry of whalers, and it is unlikely that hunting was responsible for causing populations of Pacific humpbacks to move around. Their baleen is of little value, they swim too fast to catch easily, and killing them is particularly dangerous (as a Norwegian whaler famously put it when whaling was done from small boats: “I do not like to kill the humpback; No. No. No. No. No.”).

It seems much more likely that bowhead whales would attract gull attacks, because bowheads spend most of the year near shore and black-backed gulls have a circumpolar distribution. I have always been impressed by how similar to right whale behavior bowhead whale behavior is. It is possible that one of the advantages bowheads gain from never taking more than short sorties out of pack ice into pack ice-free waters is that the pack ice offers protection from above against bird attacks. The ice could enable them to stay in water that provides abundant nutrition without the gulls driving them into more marginal, lower latitude habitats where they would have to compete with right whales.

In pack ice bowheads can follow each other underwater (by some as yet unknown, non-visual technique) from one breathing hole to the next, but presumably an above-water observer like a gull would find if all but impossible to follow them in pack ice. To a gull that is looking for signs of life in moving ice, bowheads will appear in an unpredictable spot, take a few breaths and vanish. The gulls cannot follow the whale to the next breathing place, the way they can in Valdés where they just laze in the water next to a whale or make brief flights above a submerged right whale waiting for it to surface for a breath and then attack. Gulls might watch and learn where a breathing gap is in pack ice by seeing blows there from a bowhead, but the bowheads can easily avoid gulls by using different breathing holes for the next breath. The holes are much less visible from above than from below, because from below they are the best illuminated features, whereas from above breathing holes are just another one of thousands of dark spots that may or may not be deep enough to go all the way through the surface ice to below it.

 One imagines that right whales endure gull attacks as long as they can and then set out in search of a gull-free area, or an area where no living gulls have seen other gulls bite pieces out of living right whales. Once again, I am not implying that these are concepts that would guide the behavior of a right whale or a gull, I mean only that during future travels, having left an area where they are attacked, right whales might linger in a new area if they found it suitable and did not experience gull attacks there.

Of course, a good place for whales to find inexperienced gulls would be tropical waters, because gulls don’t live in the tropics. (I remember being shocked to discover that gulls are absent from Hawaii, Sri Lanka, and the Seychelles and that it is crows, and to a lesser extent tropic birds, that occupy traditional gull niches in the tropics.)

The question we have yet to answer is why right whales abandon areas they may have occupied for many years, even sometimes returning to that same areas after several decades of absence. Something is causing them to leave one area to occupy another. Whatever the cause, the timing of its appearance and disappearance has a lot to say about what the cause of this behavior may be. It does not take centuries, geological ages or epochs for right whales to abandon one area and move to another; it doesn’t happen in a few weeks or months either; Times between moves seem to be years and decades.

A behavior like avoiding gulls that learn to attack them fits such a schedule. Kelp gulls have an average life span of 30 years, so any right whales that successfully reoccupy an area where the gulls once molested them would have to wait at least thirty years before returning if they were to avoid any gulls still alive that have the knowledge that it is safe to attack a right whale.

Regardless of whether feeding on right whales by South African gulls was an independent invention or was imported from Valdés, I believe the only hope right whales have for survival anywhere is for all populations that live near shores to find satisfactory, near-shore locations where the local human population welcomes their presence and doesn’t start killing them or even unintentionally creating obstacles that reduce their chances of survival.

As mentioned above, it seems reasonable to assume that when gulls start biting pieces out of surfacing whales (something that other seabirds may also learn to do someday), it eventually causes the whales to abandon that area and move to where gulls have not yet learned the behavior. It seems clear that back in 1789 something caused right whales not to be in the Península Valdés bays in the numbers they are now. 1789 was the year that Spain built a fort at the back of the same sandy beach in Península Valdés’, Golfo San José, off which one of the world’s greatest concentrations of right whales is now found. The fort was abandoned following a massacre by the local Tehuelche tribe in 1810, and was not reoccupied.  The fort’s history has been well documented but there is no indication that its Spanish occupants saw whales there.  Had there been a large population of right whales present as there is now, one can expect that the Spanish would probably have exploited it or at least reported its presence. The baleen of right whales was very valuable back then and Spanish Basques had been whaling from the coast of the Bay of Biscay since the 10th century—making them the earliest European whalers. But so far there is no evidence to indicate that while the fort was occupied there was any whaling for right whales, or even reports of their presence in Golfo San José. A few years later, when the American right whaling fleet moved into the South Atlantic, some of its boats found so many right whales in Golfo San José that it took that fleet five years to destroy the population.

This history demonstrates that even at peak population right whales were absent from an area they later occupied in force. It shows that something is responsible for them moving from one area to another. I believe that a likely cause is bird attacks, from which I conclude that because whale watching has become a major industry there, if right whales are eventually driven out of Península Valdés it will have a serious impact on the region’s economy.

However, that is really a secondary effect; the people of Chubut are resourceful and have recovered from other serious economic blows before. As for the whales, surely there are many kilometers of beaches elsewhere in South America that they could occupy. However, the same people who would suffer most if the whales abandon Valdés have a quality that is unique in my experience: when it comes to protecting and understanding what these whales require, and to making sure that that information is part of their children’s education, the people of Chubut are the best informed, most active population of advocates for whales that I know, anywhere in the world–and I am well calibrated in this respect.

For this reason, I conclude that it is very unlikely there are other unoccupied coasts anywhere in the western South Atlantic that the Argentine population of endangered southern right whales might occupy in which they would have as good a chance for survival as the one they currently have along the Chubut coast.

Another characteristic of an area satisfactory to Right Whales is shown by their preference for shallow water with a sandy or muddy bottom that is free of rocks. Such areas are uncommon along the South American coasts in latitudes the Right Whales prefer; there it is rocky bottoms that are most common. The same is true of the South African latitudes that are frequented by Right Whales.

In summary: I believe that the loss of right whales in the waters of Península Valdés would be a disaster not just for the people but for the whales. For all of these reasons it is my reluctant opinion that the only way to prevent an otherwise inevitable loss for both people and right whales is to reduce the population of Kelp Gulls.

I fully realize that making such a suggestion can only damage my reputation, for I have spent 50 years focused on trying to conserve many forms of ocean life—not just whales. However, the fact that I nevertheless suggest that the kelp gull population be reduced at Valdés is indicative of how serious I believe the problem is that the gulls are causing right whales.

Kelp gull populations recover quickly. Their close relative, the Northern Hemisphere, black-backed gull—a species, as I have noted, that some consider to be the same as the kelp gull—was brought to near extinction when its feathers were used to decorate hats. However, it recovered fully and the IUCN Red Book now gives Dominican gulls the status of: “Least Concern.”

 Recently lots of southern right whale calves died. We don’t yet know for sure what is killing them. It appears not to be infections of the wounds the gulls make. But most calves have many. Once a gull has opened a lesion, it and other gulls repeatedly aim at the lesions, enlarging them over time so that some calves have no skin left in the region of their backs that are exposed to air when the calf surfaces to breathe as the result of hundreds, even thousands, of bites. To put it differently; they are great, open sores, many of which are the size of scatter rugs.

This means they must cause calves serious grief. Simple loss of water and other bodily fluids is one consideration. They must, at the least, be painful, particularly when brushed against by the mother—for right whale mothers frequently stroke their calves with their flippers.

Lest one get the impression that calf loss at Valdes has not been a serious problem: In the seven seasons between 2007 and 2013 a total of 563 right whales were found dead, 97 percent of which were calves. This means that anything that weakened calves in that time period is, at the very least, a cause for concern, even though we still don’t know what the principle cause for this period of high calf mortality.

It seems safe to assume that calves are weakened by the wounds the Kelp Gulls create in their backs and any stress this causes them may increase their vulnerability to a variety of other factors. There is a chance that whatever caused the massive calf die-off mentioned above has stopped, because even though the attacks by gulls have not stopped, the rate of high calf mortality has. Nevertheless, about 30 dead calves are seen each year but that is the expected loss rate for a population this size.

If the attacks are allowed to continue and the whales leave the waters around Península Valdés but after an interval of decades, a remnant population returns from some distant elsewhere, the local Chubut citizens will have lost their knowledge about these whales and of how to ensure their wellbeing. Furthermore, during the whales’ absence from Chubut structures may have gotten put in the bays that make the whales’ lives more difficult. Local peoples will also have to be re-motivated regarding what the needs of this rare species are. This will require the organization of groups that promote the welfare of right whales—a task that takes years and that can be derailed even by minor political missteps. The behavior of the current Chubut administration must be praised for having wisely responded so positively to the local Chubut citizens keen interest in the wellbeing of their whales. It is for this reason, and with emphasis on the fact that the stress caused by constant gull attacks (of the gull wounds) must weaken the whales, that I believe it is critical to reduce the gull population, and that if it is not done the whales are likely to abandon the area. The 563 right whales that died between 2007 and 2013 was, of course a minimum count of the mortalities—we could only count corpses that we were able to find. Any that were carried out of the bays by wind and tides or were whales that were killed and eaten by sharks or killer whales before they stranded on some beach would increase that mortality.

The fact that kelp gulls have now initiated the same behavior in South Africa should also, I believe, be treated as an emergency, and as soon as possible the gulls there should be reduced in number—hopefully, soon enough to prevent the spread of this behavior along the entire South African coast.  Though a dire recommendation, I believe that reducing the gull population, is better than doing nothing—something that seems bound to result in a much worse future.

If the idea of culling gulls is as repugnant to you as it is to me, it may help to know about another recent behavior that South African kelp gulls have invented. It takes place in Dorob National Park, which lies along the coast of Namibia and includes a colony of several thousand Cape “fur seals,” (the sea lion, Arctocephalus pusillus). The gulls have learned to attack newborn Cape fur seal pups by pecking out and eating their eyes. Once the pup is blind the gulls attack and eat such soft tissues as the genitals, the anus and the underbelly—a ghastly trauma to which the blinded pup eventually succumbs. It is not a rare activity; over 15 years of study, scientists working in the area have seen kelp gulls attack newborn Cape fur seal pups over 500 times. About half the attacks were successful enough that the gull got to eat the pup’s eyes. Whatever else can be said about culling kelp gulls, if the population is temporarily reduced, it will at least benefit right whale calves and newborn Cape fur seal pups.

 

Consumer Electronics Show — what a way to start the year!

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Dear Friends,

2017 was an extremely productive year for Ocean Alliance, and I am happy to report that there has been no slowing down for 2018. In early January, I was invited to speak at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas for both Intel and FLIR. Speaking on these two stages was an amazing experience. Bryn Keller and I spoke together on the Intel stage with me talking about biology and drones and Bryn talking about data and drones — we might not be Penn and Teller, but I think that we did a good job!

Bryn and Iain on the Intel stage at CES

Intel also had an augmented reality tower/exhibit featuring SnotBot; while this is hard to explain, in short when you approached the tower with your phone or pad you could see whales swimming around the tower and you could even click on a whale and get information on it.  Very Cool.

The FLIR stage was different for me because I gave  an interactive talk, we had SnotBot-FLIR “See Life” T-shirts and some other FLIR products to give away, so we had a lot of audience interaction, which was a lot of fun. At both the Intel and FLIR booths I felt like family and was treated very well.

Iain on the FLIR stage at CES

I did get time to tour the CES show, but I am sure that I saw less than 50 percent of it – CES is one of the largest shows in America, covering 2.6 million square feet. Just under 200,000 people visited the show in its five-day run.  I am used to being on a boat in the middle of nowhere, so I will admit that I found the show and the masses of people to be a bit overwhelming. That said, the technology that I was exposed to from Intel to FLIR and beyond was quite amazing.

I found two products that I think fit into my environmental bent: We all need an electric car, right? And the SnotBot program could do with a slightly larger drone? (Volocopter).

When SnotBot team member John Graham saw the Volocopter drone photo he said: “I see lots of places to attach Petri Dishes but I am not hand-catching that!” Copy that, John!  The Volocopter was announced as part of the opening ceremony by Intel CEO Brian Krzanich.

We only had a short time together at CES but I got to make a new friend in Patrick Sherman or Lucidity from the Roswell Flight Test Crew. Beyond our obsession for drones Patrick and I had a lot in common, so I can see us working together on a number of projects in the future.

Back home it was up to Cape Ann TV to record a voice over for the SnotBot segment in the upcoming National Geographic series One Strange Rock hosted by Will Smith.  Thank You Cape Ann TV!!

Just 10 days later I was back on the West Coast for the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop. You may ask why an East Coaster is at a Southern California Marine Mammal workshop: it turns out that the humpback populations we are working with off Alaska and the blue whales off Loreto either pass by or can be found off the West Coast, so it was a great time to meet with collaborators and policy makers.  I presented a posted that Ted Willke and Bryn Keller put together for the Society of Marine Mammalogy conference: “Machine Learning and Unmanned Aerial Systems for Real Time Analysis of Whale Health and Identity.”

Iain with the Ocean Alliance and Intel poster at the Southern California Marine Mammal Conference.

It was a real surprise to see Eva Hidlago Plah at the conference. Eva was a core crewmember for the Operation Toxic Gulf expeditions, so it was great to see her and find out that she is just finishing her Master’s degree at John Hildebrand’s lab.

Iain and Eva

At the end of the week we are off on our first Parley SnotBot expedition of 2018. First we go to San Ignacio Lagoon for a fixed-wing drone gray whale photo ID study and then we are over to the Sea of Cortez off Loreto to work with blue whales.  So there should be a flurry of blogs coming your way in the next three weeks.

Onwards Upwards,

Iain

A Southern right whale’s family tree

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For 47 years, Ocean Alliance has studied a population of right whales that uses the bays of Península Valdés in Patagonia as a nursery ground; for the past almost two decades we have been doing the research with our sister organization, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), in Argentina. It is the longest continuous study of any great whale based on known individuals. In that time, our researchers have gotten to know the whales very well.

Take Docksider, for instance. Researchers know four generations of this whale’s family. Docksider’s grandmother was identified in 1971; her mother, Antonia, was born in 1975, and our researchers have known Docksider since her birth in 1987.

Researchers discovered Docksider was a female when she appeared with her first calf (a male named Espuma) in 1994. In the photograph above, Docksider is with her 2006 calf, Luna.

Every whale is unique, and every whale has something to teach us. Only by learning about the lives of these animals can we begin to understand how to protect them. Providing funding for researchers and equipment for this kind of long-term research does not come cheap.

 

Researchers approach a Southern right whale off the coast of Argentina.

You can support our Southern Right Whale Program by adopting one of the right whales here.

You can also support our SnotBot and Drones for Whale Research programs by donating to Ocean Alliance or by adopting one of the humpback whales that spend their summer in the waters off our headquarters in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

The Embodiment of Beauty

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By Roger Payne

What is the wild animal that is so prized for its meat that single specimens sell every day for enough to buy not just one, but two new cars, or even a small house?

Surprisingly enough, it is a fish: the bluefin tuna. I was 25 when I first encountered this magnificent, high-speed, migratory, predatory, archetypical creature. I fell in love with bluefin tunas, and they retain a firm hold on my heart. It’s not because I want to catch one—I’m not a fisher—it’s because bluefin tuna are such spectacularly beautiful creatures: the color of deep ocean water—a kind of blue you only experience if you swim in the open sea, hundreds of miles from shore; a color that has no equal in any terrestrial elsewhere; an inexpressible blue that makes these magnificent creatures one-with-the-sea, not just ocean occupants, ocean enhancements.

Bluefin tuna have a worldwide distribution in temperate and tropical waters. They can dive to depths of 1,000 (or more) meters (3,280 feet). Three species are known: Atlantic, Pacific, and Southern bluefins. Each is a top predator in its waters. The Atlantic bluefin is the largest of the group. The biggest ever caught was 4.58 meters (15 feet) long and weighed 684 kilos (1,505 pounds). They can live 40 or more years but require seven or more years to reach sexual maturity. Although bluefins pose no danger to humans, to small fish of every species I suspect they represent predatory “shock and awe.” Bluefin tuna sprints have been clocked at 70km/hour (over 43 mph). They generate and consume exceptional amounts of energy. Such production and consumption of energy produces heat, and that enables them, unlike the vast majority of fish species, to keep their brains, eyes and core muscles warm. Presto… a warm-blooded fish. A fish that can keep its brain warm has a great advantage when chasing smaller, cold-brained fish, because warm brains can think, calculate, and respond a lot faster than cold brains can.

We usually think of fish as being more primitive than us mammals. But every species of every kind, from bacteria on up (and sideways) is the pinnacle of its own 4.5 billion years of evolution, just as we are of ours, just as bluefin tunas are of theirs, just as earthworms are of theirs. Every living species is the very latest version—the very most up-to-date response to trying to fulfill the requirements of the niche it occupies. (Just as we are.) Every species, whether a gnat or a bluefin tuna, has been tested thousands of times in the course of its evolution, and those of its forebears that survived have made an adequate choice every time.

If you prefer to think of progress as a march towards species diversity, then as Jonathan Balcombe puts it in his enthralling book, What a Fish Knows:

“About half of the species of fishes we see on the planet today… underwent an orgy of speciation just 50 million years ago, and reached a peak of diversity around 15 million years ago, when the ape family, Hominoidea, to which we belong, was also evolving.

So about half of fish species are no more ‘’primitive” than we are. But the descendants of the early fishes have been evolving eons longer than their terrestrial counterparts, and on these terms fishes are the most highly evolved of all vertebrates…

We tend to think of the last 65 million years as the Age of Mammals, but teleost fishes have been diversifying much more during that time… The largest terrestrial mammals died out thousands or millions of years ago when mammalian diversity flourished. The true age of mammals is over. The Age of Teleosts may not sound quite as sexy, but it’s more accurate.”

There are fisheries for bluefin tuna in shallow waters, mid waters, and deep ocean, and they are caught with pole and line as well as with traps, purse seines, longlines, and driftnets. They migrate vast distances between feeding and spawning areas, though little beyond the barest facts is known about their behaviors.

The spawning grounds of the Atlantic bluefins are more well-known than their feeding grounds. One spawning area is in the Gulf of Mexico. The two other, best-known areas are in the Mediterranean. The larger of those is in the western Mediterranean, and it produces far more bluefins than either of the other two grounds. When migrating between their feeding and spawning grounds Bluefin Tuna are the ultimate travelers. They swim across the entire Atlantic Ocean and back each year. There are claims that an individual that was caught, tagged and released on the west side of the Atlantic, was re-caught on the east side just nine days later. The terrestrial equivalent would be to see a lion on a New Jersey beach (though even the biggest lions are only slightly more than half the weight of the biggest bluefins) and nine days later to receive an email from a friend in West Africa with a picture she just took of the same lion walking through her backyard.

When I was an undergraduate in biology there was a graduate student in the Harvard Biology Lab named Frank Carey. We became friends, and later, while I studied owls at Cornell, moths at Tufts University, and whales at Rockefeller University, Frank was studying large mid-ocean fish. He soon learned that Bluefin Tuna can keep the temperature of their brains and body-cores several degrees higher than the temperature of the seawater through which they swim. Fishing wasn’t Frank’s forte but he needed big, mid-ocean fish for his research. He befriended some Portuguese fishermen who were skilled at catching tuna. It was a great bunch of guys, and they loved Frank’s company as much as everyone did who ever met the guy. One day he invited me to help him empty a fish trap of Bluefin Tuna. His his friends had built it. He told me they had been catching bluefins that weighed as much as cattle. That seemed to me like a bit of an exaggeration, until we arrived at the trap and found eight, gigantic bluefin 
tuna in it. It took three of the strongest men in our group to pull each fish into the boat. One of them had checked the trap ten hours earlier and found it empty. But in the interim, those eight bluefins had wandered into it and had, as Frank explained, soon exhausted the oxygen in the water and drowned. He had also studied how much oxygen tuna require and had deduced that when they are stationery there’s not enough water moving across their gills to keep their blood sufficiently oxygenated. So they have to swim forward constantly just to stay alive.

The fishermen’s trap was a circle of tall stakes driven into the ocean floor, with netting stretched around its circumference. The trap’s entrance faced the shore towards which another net made a bee line from just inside the entrance to the trap. Bluefins following the coast would encounter that net, turn seawards to get around it and the leader net would guide them into the trap. The water volume embraced by the trap was about four meters deep by 15 meters across. But even though the tidal currents freely filled and emptied it frequently, the trap’s volume was too small to support eight large Bluefin tunas.

With the massive fish in the boat I could look at them closely, and, could touch them. There are no words… They were simply the most stunning animals in whose close presence I had ever been and have ever been. Their extravagant beauty, massive size and perfection of line left me in awe. Every time I have seen that species since, those same qualities have triggered the same reaction. Their color, body shape, solidity, texture, sheen, curves and cambers still have no equal in my experience. They are built for speed—cheetahs of the sea, many have called them. They are propulsion made manifest—high-performance, underwater, ultra-athletes. Before I saw those bluefin tunas I had no particular interest in fish, but ever since I have been captivated by bluefins as well as by the other species of giant, mid-ocean fish. Probably because most of them live in what I think of as the world’s most compelling environment—deep ocean.

However, the ultimate feature of bluefins that newly amazes me each time I see it is but a tiny detail of their anatomy. It is the perfect little slots that bluefin tuna have in their bodies into which they can fold their fins, thereby entirely removing fin drag. Once settled in its slot a fin becomes so flawlessly flush with the fish’s body surface that you have to look closely to see even the smallest evidence of its presence. This is also true of the little trim-tab-like finlets that adorn the top and bottom of bluefins’ bodies, between the tail and the tallest, dorsal and ventral fins. Unlike the larger fins, the finlets aren’t aligned with the Bluefin’s long axis, they lie at an angle to it—an angle that the fish can adjust. Yet those finlets can also be folded out of sight. It is clear that when a bluefin tuna wants the best streamlining and lowest drag in order to achieve maximum speed, it can pull in its door handles, mirrors and hood ornament, until they are flush with its body, and take off like a meteor. Pure magnificence, “Brute beauty, and valour and act… the achieve of; the mastery of the thing!”

And there was also that eye. We humans are drawn to eyes—moved by them, prepared always to empathize with an eye. They command attention—speak a wordless language. What had the eye of that tuna seen? What events had drawn its gaze? In how little light had it perceived images of a companion or of some delicious delicacy it could swim down (for bluefins can swim down every small fish in the sea)? Did it thrill to sunsets? To dawns? To storms? Did the owner of that eye linger in, or make side-trips to coral reefs just for the sheer pleasure of being immersed in all that beauty? And if it did, did it snack while there on some of the unspeakably colorful hors d’oeuvres that we so unimaginatively call reef fish? And how did it respond when it looked up through clear, mid-ocean water from 100 meters down and saw that circle of light into which the whole sky is always compressed? How had its vision shaped the bluefin’s worldview? And how had the bluefin’s’ worldview shaped its vision?

The bodies of the bluefins in our boat were so smooth and glistening I could see my reflection in their flanks. But as we drove back to port their skin dried off. But nevertheless, it retained an almost optical finish in which I could still see a blurry/shadowy kind of half-reflection of my head.

I asked the fishermen what they planned to do with this stunning catch? They replied; “No one around here eats bluefin tuna; there’s no market for them. But we’ll probably cut one up and give it to some of the local families that don’t get to eat meat very often. We’ll sell the rest to the pet food buyer in Boston, or maybe we’ll just barrel them up and keep them for lobster bait.”

How all-too-human; what do we humans do when we encounter such perfection (whether it’s a whale or the most magnificent fish in the sea—or as I would argue, the most beautiful denizen of the planet’s loveliest habitat)? We sell it for pet food or use it for bait. Is it a failure of imagination? A lack of vision? A dimness of wit? All three?

But this story about bluefins took place more than 57 years ago. I am now in my 80s and alas, Frank Carey died years ago. But Oh, how things have changed in the interim! Pacific bluefin tuna are now considered to be the best sushi in the world. They have become, pound-for-pound, the most valuable fish in the sea. In 2016 a single Pacific bluefin tuna sold for $1.76 million (yes, that’s not a misprint). However, the buyer was the owner of a chain of sushi restaurants in Japan and he intentionally overpaid. It was a stunt to create the perception that his sushi must be the best in the world because it cost so much (although price doesn’t equate with flavor). He knew that overpaying would give him plenty of free advertising for his sushi chain. And it did; it went viral internationally, in all media.

But even without such advertising tricks, the true cost of Pacific bluefin tuna is now so high that large, prime, individual fish do, indeed, sell for $60,000 to $80,000 apiece. And what does the news that someone just paid such a price for a single fish trigger in Homo sapiens (“the hominid capable of discerning”)? Well, the hominid capable of discerning succumbs to a frenzy of greed, and overfishes every super expensive species to near extinction, and at warp speed. Explosive exploitation of any living resource invariably destroys it and with it the prosperity it could otherwise have brought had it been exploited sustainably. The disaster occurs because what is being gained gets paid for by what is being lost. And what is being lost is the future.

Every fishery needs a plan, and laws which can ensure that it’s fished sustainably. Until such a plan is agreed and subscribed to, killing bluefin tuna or any fish unsustainably will always result in the species becoming economically extinct, or worse—biologically extinct.

It used to be that humans fished every fish species that had an ocean-wide distribution sustainably. But that was simply because our ancestors were too few and their technologies too unsophisticated to enable them to exhaust a worldwide species. But now we are so numerous and our gismos so crafty that as soon as any fishery catches fish that command a premium price, it triggers an insatiable global demand that is inevitably satisfied at the expense of the quality of life of future generations—both of fish and of people. And as for honoring and respecting the millions of years of evolution it takes to create a species of such incomparable value and stunning beauty… forget it. My long life has taught me that our species can be relied upon to use every excuse it can invent to keep on squandering the chances to fish sustainably, thereby sending one incalculably valuable species after another to the trash heap of history. It is a sure bet that because of their price, Bluefin Tuna will be fished down so close to extinction that even a minor natural disaster may be enough to push them over eternity’s cliff into oblivion. In fact, they’re already teetering on that brink.

Meanwhile, we will continue to ignore the value of a healthy ocean teeming with such splendid creatures—although if we let bluefins recover they would offer rewards so vast it beggars the imagination. We can no longer even imagine what the world was like before our forebears’ unenlightened reflex to overexploit erased the oceans’ incalculable fecundity.

And we will continue to ignore the need for saving the planet’s most magnificent creatures, just as we ignore the need to save the land, the water—even the air we breathe. But we won’t stop there; in order to make our reckless behavior seem more right, more acceptable, we will continue to throw our greatest efforts into defending the indefensible and justifying the unjustifiable.

If you think that I am being unfair about humanity’s collective, universal, time-tested myopathy, let us take a moment to check on where things stand for the three uniquely beautiful and bountiful species of bluefins. Here are the facts:

— All three species are overfished.

— In all three species, the population trends are downward.

— The IUCN Red Book lists the most recent status of the three species as follows:

— The Pacific bluefin tuna is listed as “Vulnerable,” which is defined as: “facing a high risk of extinction.”

— The Atlantic bluefin tuna is listed as “Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing a very high risk of extinction.”

— The southern bluefin tuna is listed as “Critically Endangered,” which is defined as: “facing an extremely high risk of extinction.”

So, there you have it: the three species of bluefin tunas face a high risk, a very high risk, and an extremely high risk of extinction. Yet all three continue to be fished at a rate that makes it unrealistic to hope their populations will recover until annual catches are reduced substantially.

The only ray of light falling on the wreckage of our actions is that some of the Pacific rim tuna-fishing countries (including obdurate Japan) have finally accepted a management strategy for Southern bluefin tuna. But before doing so, the Southern bluefin population had already fallen to only 3% of its original numbers, and the claim that it has now risen to 15% of its unexploited size remains to be seen. (Let the air with joy be laden! Southern bluefins are now only 85% depleted!!) However, the other two species (the Atlantic and Pacific bluefins) are still under intense pressure. Not even the smallest whiff of rationality has yet interfered with the mismanagement of those species, and both are still being overfished at rates that guarantee they cannot recover their former productivity for decades, and then only if there are no surprises. Just this year western North Atlantic bluefin tuna have unexpectedly produced a bumper crop. But instead of trying to augment that good news by allowing the species recovery to continue, many tuna fishermen are pushing for larger quotas for next year—thereby risking their chances of seeing a more prosperous future.

It’s like someone who has lost all but 3% of a million-dollar nest egg (i.e., $30,000). But when the value of his stocks unexpectedly tripled in 2017, and his savings went up to $90,000, he wondered what to do? Should he keep investing in his future or buy that groovy, $90,000 Maserati that he’s always wanted? The smart money says that if he buys that nifty car, the future he will face in 5-10 years’ time will be no better than what he faced the day he discovered that he’d lost 97% of his savings. But if he lets his investments grow for 5-10 years there’s a good chance they may build up in value—perhjaps even to the million dollars they were worth before—plus… he can also buy that Maserati.

By pushing for higher tuna quotas after one good year, Bluefin fishermen are all but guaranteeing that they won’t live long enough to experience the prosperity they could achieve from a recovered Bluefin stock. And let me be clear: when I say recovery, I mean the level of maximum sustainable yield, not the pre-exploitation level. And because maximum sustainable yield is only about 50% of the pre-exploitation population it will be reached much sooner if we will only let that happen. However, as I learned from studying whales, every percentage point by which you lower an overexploited population requires exponentially more time for the population to recover.

Japan’s insatiable desire for Bluefin Tuna sushi is creating a whole new taxonomy of shortsightedness. Even Mitsubishi has entered the fray. They were recently accused of stockpiling frozen bluefin tuna because they saw that if the species became economically extinct their stockpile would be worth a fortune. Of course, it would be worth even more—would be a mega jackpot—if overfishing could just go on long enough to drive bluefins to biological extinction. Hell’s bells, that would be a goddam BONANZA!

Here’s another example of how tragically unenlightened the human response has been to this crisis. It concerns the Trump administration’s response to learning that the status of the three Bluefin Tuna species are: “high risk, very high risk and extremely highly risk of extinction:”

Back on October 7, of 2016 (just one month before Trump was elected) the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) announced that in response to a petition from conservationists requesting that Pacific Bluefin Tuna be protected under the Endangered Species Act, that NMFS had decided to conduct an in-depth status review of the species to see if increased protection was warranted.

Of greatest concern was that the Pacific bluefin tuna population had been reduced to only 3% of its pre-fished numbers. There were also other concerns that motivated the group’s request. One was a recent study showing that large fish are particularly susceptible to mass extinctions and that the loss of such species can disrupt ocean food webs in catastrophic ways. Another concern was that most of the fish in the current Pacific bluefin catch are juveniles that haven’t yet spawned. This leaves low numbers of fish in the age classes that can reproduce. The result is that as the older spawning fish die of old age there are fewer sexually mature individuals left to perpetuate the species. Thus, it was very good news that the National Marine Fisheries Service was promising to review the case for giving Pacific bluefins more protection under the Endangered Species Act.

Let us now fast-forward to August, 2017. We find the Trump administration announcing that NMFS has recommended more protection for bluefins and that it has ruled on the aforementioned petition. And how has it ruled? It has rejected the petition, claiming that the protections that were requested are not warranted, even though both NMFS and the petitioners included biologists with years of experience in studying the status of Pacific 
bluefin tuna populations.

So, there you have it; apparently it is only the Trump administration that understands why it is better to maintain maximum fishing pressure on a species that has suffered a 97% reduction. That’s the kind of scientifically savvy understanding that Trump and Co. can offer the world.

Is there nothing, no matter how important, on which we can agree? Can we not set aside our lesser human concerns enough to ensure that we don’t risk destroying one of the most stunning achievements of evolution (or of Creation, if you prefer that interpretation)? Can we not bury our differences long enough to avoid making such an error? Can you or I think of any cause more enduring to which we might devote a bit of our time and treasure than trying to save this stunning and iconic species? Because if you share my belief that beauty really matters, then nothing actually matters more than saving the bluefin tuna.

2017, what a year!

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Dear Friends,

2017 really was a banner year for Ocean Alliance. Just two short years ago (summer 2015) we presented SnotBot to the world, and to be blunt, it was not received with open arms.

In just two years we took this concept forward to the point that drones are now considered a critical tool not just for whale research and conservation but for the wider wildlife conservation field.

Even though I’ve sent you periodic updates, I think it’s worth giving you a timeline of all we’ve achieved this year. Our accomplishments are even more impressive when you see them all together!

January 2017
Science magazine Biosphere published an article about SnotBot as the primary story in their January 2017 magazine.

SnotBot photographer/cameraman Christian Miller produced a video on our 2016 SnotBot expedition to Alaska. The video won the Jury’s Choice Award at the Ocean Geographic competition, and is currently in the finals of Nature’s Best Photography Award. Watch it here.

Dr. Iain Kerr gave a keynote speech at the Southern California Marine Mammal Workshop in San Diego. Whilst there, he began a dialogue with scientists from NOAA regarding a project analysing our sperm whale samples from the Voyage of the Odyssey to conduct some ground-breaking hormone analyses.

Science Manager Andy Rogan began teaching an ecology lab as an adjunct professor at local university Endicott College.

February
Iain visited Hawaii to discuss some exciting collaborations with various groups, including the University of Hawaii & Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology, pictured below.

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

The Hawai‘i Institute of Marine Biology at Coconut Island

 

March
2017 was a particularly good year in utilizing the data collected during the ground-breaking 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey program. In March we collaborated with Wilma Mavea and Isabel Beasley from James Cook University in Australia. Wilma is completing her thesis on marine mammals in the waters of Papua New Guinea, and we are one of the only groups to have conducted comprehensive marine mammal surveys in many areas around the island.

We continued working closely with scientist Eric Ramos. Eric is another marine mammal biologist using drones in his research, and both Eric’s research and our SnotBot program have benefited from our discussions.

We conducted the fourth SnotBot expedition to Loreto in the Sea of Cortez. Here, we were working with the largest of them all, blue whales. The expedition started fantastically: we spotted a blue whale within 17 minutes of leaving the dock on the first day! (You can see our boat near a blue whale in the photo below.) We were also joined by a National Geographic film crew, filming SnotBot for the wildlife series One Strange Rock, due to air in February 2018. And we greatly improved our protocols for processing and storing our samples for hormone analysis, with specialist researcher Kendall Mashburn joining us from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks.

April
We consulted with authors and illustrators from National Geographic who are working on a new book that includes SnotBot!

During an international webinar, infra-red imaging group FLIR Systems spoke about Ocean Alliance’s research studying whale with FLIR cameras to illustrate some of the potential applications of their technology.

May
We hired Matt Duggan, a NOAA employee who used to intern with Ocean Alliance, to help us catalogue and organise our data stores from the Voyage of the Odyssey program. This is a part of a push to conduct new analyses on some of the priceless information that we have collected from all over the world over the past few decades.

As a part of this push, we sent out over 150 Voyage of the Odyssey reports to partners and governments that we worked with during the program from all over the world.

June
On World Ocean’s Day, Iain spoke to the General Assembly at the United Nations about SnotBot and how emerging technologies can help us protect the planet. Iain was part of a group that included Sylvia Earle, Sir Richard Branson, Leonardo DiCaprio and James Cameron (the latter two via livelink).

Iain at UN 2017

On the same day, in an entirely separate event, Science Manager Andy Rogan also spoke at the UN as part of an oceans panel discussing SnotBot and other environmental programs.

Ocean Alliance hosted the ‘Our Planet: Preservation and Sustainable Use of Our Oceans International Visitor Leadership Program’. This is the U.S. Department of State’s premier professional exchange program. Through short-term visits to the United States, current and emerging foreign leaders in a variety of fields experience the United States first hand and cultivate lasting relationships with American counterparts. It was a privilege to host so many esteemed colleagues from around the world.

A SnotBot film produced by our friends at Sound Off Films was selected for the Patagonia Film Festival.

An Ocean Alliance volunteer, Amy Prime, helped organise a large donation of office equipment. This included 26 large filing cabinets to help us organise the enormous amounts of priceless data we have, and a giant 70’’ screen which now sits proudly in our office.

Students from Goldsmiths University in London requested to use some of our original whale recordings in their film about a whale that got beached in the River Thames in 2006.

July
We ran what was logistically the most complex SnotBot program yet, and the fifth expedition in total. Beginning the week, we were joined by another National Geographic film crew. SnotBot was filmed as a major story for Earth Live, the first ever live wildlife documentary with locations all around the world, and labelled one of the most ambitious nature shows ever created.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

During the SnotBot expedition we were joined by software giant Intel, in what represented the beginning of what we hope will be a tremendously exciting partnership. Intel are helping us with two data collection programs: 1) an advanced photogrammetry study and 2) a program using A.I. analytics to identify individual whales.

We were also joined by a team from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks, including the head of the lab, Dr. Shannon Atkinson. As the SnotBot program progresses it is imperative that we partner with the best groups in the world in their relevant areas of expertise. Dr.  Atkinson’s lab specialises in studying hormones.

We sent samples from the expedition to our genetics analysis partners at Oregon State University. Late that month, the head of the lab, Dr.  Scott Baker, informed us that our orca samples had been analysed successfully, and that they had determined the orca we sampled was a transient type orca based on its haplotypes. This is a tremendous validation of the SnotBot program.

Science magazine Science and Society featured a major article on the SnotBot program.

August
Dr. Atkinson’s team at the University of Alaska informed us that they had so far detected progesterone (a pregnancy hormone), testosterone (the primary male sex hormone), and cortisol and aldosterone (both steroid hormones) in our SnotBot samples. This is a second tremendous validation of the SnotBot program.

Iain spoke at the prestigious Singularity Conference, a meeting of world leaders and global thinkers working to change the world.

After our successful collaboration in Alaska, a team from Intel came to our headquarters in Gloucester. Alongside the Intel team we went out to Stellwagen Bank with our research vessel Cachalot, conducting more SnotBot tests and collecting data.

Dr. Scott Baker’s genetics lab recovered sufficient DNA in all three species represented in the group of samples we gave to them: humpback whales, blue whales and orca. This further validated the SnotBot program.

We discussed future collaborations with the regional NOAA research team regarding the possibility of conducting some drone work on Stellwagen Bank. This is an enormous testament to our program and how well regarded we are by the scientific community.

We started a dialogue with Brazilian non-profit institution Fundaçao Renova. This group are dedicated to restoring marine and freshwater environments and are interested in collaborating with Ocean Alliance regarding our drone expertise.

A major government funded research program representing almost all the coastal South American countries reached out to us regarding our expertise in marine mammal toxicology (before the SnotBot program, Ocean Alliance specialised in toxicology).

We worked with fellow drone specialists Dr. Lars Bejder and Fredrik Christiansen at Murdoch University in Australia, providing them with images from our SnotBot expedition to Patagonia to be used for photogrammetry analysis.

September
The Southern Right Whale Program entered its 47th year! This is the longest continually running whale research program in the world. From it, many important discoveries have been made that have shaped not only the research of right whales, but of all large whales.

We continued our support of the local arts community by hosting an art show and gala event called “Edge” at our headquarters in collaboration with local Gloucester art gallery Trident Gallery. The successful gala included an interpretive dance routine set to an original music score by a local composer, based on the tragedy of the Essex: the infamous whaling vessel that was stove in by a sperm whale in 1820 and inspired Hermann Melville to write Moby Dick.

We also made a push towards digitizing and analysing some of our old humpback whale recordings. We have humpback whale recordings dating back to the 1950’s, an utterly priceless data set, and are currently looking to raise the funds necessary to digitize and ultimately analyse these acoustic recordings. Because of their age (and their reel-to-reel format), this is a difficult and expensive process, but it is exciting to be moving ahead with this priceless data, particularly data which is such testament to Dr. Roger Payne’s extraordinary legacy.

 

October
We conducted a SnotBot expedition to Alaska with the INTEL corporation. We are slowly building this partnership which has enormous potential.  You can see a cool video here: https://tinyurl.com/intelParleySnotBot

And a great story in the NY Times here: https://paidpost.nytimes.com/intel/can-whale-snot-and-artificial-intelligence-save-our-oceans.html

 

The Society for Marine Mammalogy Conference is held every two years and is the most important scientific conference in the whale/marine mammal calendar. In 2017 this conference took place in Halifax, Canada; and was attended by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr and Science Manager Andy Rogan.

The previous conference, held in 2015 in San Francisco, marked Ocean Alliance’s  shift towards SnotBot and our Drones for Whale Research program. At this conference, the SnotBot program was fully fledged and our activities and presentations reflected this. It was a very exciting week as it demonstrated to us just how well known the SnotBot program is to the global marine mammal community and how widely it is recognized as a program at the forefront of the burgeoning new field of drones in marine mammal science.

A number of abstracts were presented at the conference using our work.

  • Science Manager Andy Rogan and CEO Dr. Iain Kerr gave a well-received talk on the SnotBot program, which was attended by some of the top biologists in the marine mammal world.
  • The head of our Southern right whale program, Dr. Vicky Rowntree, gave a talk ‘Isotopically inferred maternal foraging ranges and calf mortality in right whales (Eubalaena glacialis) at Peninsula Valdes, Argentina’.
  • Kerr and Andy Rogan also presented a poster entitled, ‘SnotBot: Documented reactions of cetaceans to drones’,
  • Ted Willke and Bryn Keller of Intel presented a poster, ‘Machine Learning and Unmanned Aerial Systems for Analysis of Whale Health and Identity in the Field’ based on our collaboration with Intel,
  • Eris Ramos from City University of New York used our data in his poster, ‘Behavioral Reactions of Marine Mammals to Drones.’

Pretty good representation for such a small group!

The conference was an immense success, as we had the opportunity to discuss exciting future collaborations and shared protocols/methodologies with marine mammal scientists/conservationists from across the globe.

Our work was featured in 7 papers at the biannual Marine Mammal Conference held in Halifax, Canada; Ocean Alliance staff submitted three abstracts on the SnotBot program: one talk and two posters. This is the most important gathering of marine mammal scientists and it is vital that we communicate our work at these events. They are also incredibly important for discussing potential collaborations with groups all round the world. This was an incredibly exciting event and the first major conference since the SnotBot program really got off the ground.

Dr. Scott Baker, one of our partners in the SnotBot program, gave a SnotBot presentation at the Pew Fellows meeting in Chile that was very well received. It was entitled: It’snot what you might think – DNA profiling from SnotBot samples of whale blows.

Considering that our honorary board chair is Sir Patrick Stewart, who played Ahab in the Hallmark film version of Moby Dick, we like the opening slide to Dr. Baker’s talk:

“But why pester one with all this reasoning on the subject? Speak out! You have seen him spout; then declare what the spout is; can you not tell water from air? My dear sir, in this world it is not so easy to settle these plain things.”         Ishmael in Moby Dick by Herman Melville (Chapter 85)

 

November/December
November and December were two tough months, primarily working on organizational development and planning for 2018.

We went through our annual audit (with flying colors) wrote reports, summarized achievements, sorted through data, contacted partners (new and old), conducted grant research and submitted three grants.

We were advised in December that we were successful with a Gloucester Community Preservation Act Grant in the amount of $18,000 that will be used as part of a $60,000 project to repair and restore the Paint Factory Sea wall.

We could not have done it without all of your support, so we thank you again.

If you are reading this before December 31 you still have time to make a tax deductible donation for 2017.

Never before has the work of small organizations like Ocean Alliance been so important. All of us here thank you again for giving us the opportunity to be a voice for the wild world.

Watch this space for more ground-breaking research, education and conservation activities: www.whale.org

 

 

 

 

Thanks to the Waitt Foundation

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Ocean Alliance’s Drones for Whale Research program has been generously supported by the Waitt Foundation, receiving one of their Rapid Ocean Conservation ROC grants earlier on this year. The funds they gave us were instrumental in ensuring our drone work has so successful. To read this great article on our research on their website, follow this link: http://waittfoundation.org/rocspotlight/ocean-alliance-snotbot/ To see what other kind of important groups and projects the Waitt Foundation are funding through their ROC program, follow this link: http://waittfoundation.org/roc-grant-highlights/

Thanks again to the Waitt Foundation for their generous support!

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

From Patagonia to Alaska

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In 1987, I met Dr. Roger Payne on a windswept beach in Patagonia, Argentina. I was with John Atkinson and Jean Paul Gouin. It was a fateful meeting for John and me, our lives were forever changed. I have made my life’s work Ocean Alliance’s mission, and as well as being my closest friend, John has been the aerial photographer for our annual Southern Right Whale Program (with ICB) since 1990. Risking his life every year to hang out of a small airplane and photograph these animals for an aerial census.

 

Iain Kerr and John Atkinson

John worked with us on our most recent trip to Alaska, here is his blog:

Having just returned from the September 2017 Parley SnotBot expedition to Alaska, many people have asked me, what was it like up there in Alaska? Not a simple question because Alaska is a vast, empty and incredibly beautiful place where Mother Nature still lives mostly un-tethered by the hand of man.

Andy Rogan and John Graham, two of the usual SnotBot team members were not available for this expedition, so Iain asked me to help. My job was to manage the drone systems, remotes, batteries etc, launch and then catch the drone when returning from a flight, along with keeping all the gear clean, dry and organized.

After flying from Toronto to Edmonton and then on to Seattle on two separate airplanes, I boarded a third airplane that flew north alongside the rugged British Columbia coastline and on into southeast Alaska. Finally, after picking up a few passengers in the village of Ketchikan, in the midst of a torrential downpour we landed in Juneau.

Iain arrived the next morning with the Intel and the Parley for the Oceans team. After a get-acquainted dinner at a local restaurant, Iain and I were up early to catch the eight-thirty Alaska Seaplanes flight on a Cessna Caravan floatplane that flew us and our nine cases of equipment over the snow-capped mountains and down the foggy Chatham Strait. I figured the cell phone service in Alaska would be terrible but in the midst of that flight, much to my surprise, my cell phone rang. My brother was calling and I was able to share the spectacular scenery with him as we flew on down the windswept coast.

Forty minutes after departing Juneau, we landed on calm waters by the isolated village of Angoon, population 400 and dwindling, located on Admiralty Island, a ninety mile stretch of tall trees and rocky coastlines that the pilot told us contained the highest density of brown bears in the world. Much to our disappointment, during that whole week, we never saw one bear. Maybe just as well.

Waiting for us dockside was the Glacier Seal, a sixty foot custom built tour boat that would be our home for the next week. Onboard was Captain Marc, first mate Nate, and chef Collette who made sure we ate like kings and queens for the entire week. As we stepped on board, thermoses of steaming hot coffee, fresh baked bread, assorted fruits and cheeses awaited us. There was ample table space for our equipment and eating area, below deck were the sleeping quarters, and upstairs there was a huge open platform from which we would search for the whales, and fly the drones over them.

Two hours after Iain and I arrived, a second airplane landed with the Intel and Parley group. Last to arrive in his thirty foot research boat was Dr. Fred Sharpe, founder and lead scientist for the Alaska Whale Foundation. I first met Fred back in 1994 when we were up in Alaska making the Imax film Whales. Between then and now, I had only seen him once, for five minutes at a marine mammal conference. He is a really gentle soul with lots of great stories and it was really nice to reconnect with him.

After everyone’s gear was loaded onboard, we cast off all lines and for the next week we motored up and down vast fiords, all the while looking for whales, and when we found them, everyone cheered as Iain flew the drone over the whale and through the exhaling breath.

There is no better way to speak of the caliber of the people you’ll find in Alaska other then telling you this. On our last day, the majority of our team departed on the completely full morning flight back to Juneau. Because of incoming stormy weather, the captain of our charter boat was anxious to begin his twelve hour journey back home. This left Iain, Fred and me standing on the dock in the rain with all of our gear and four hours to wait for the next seaplane. We stored the gear in Fred’s boat and walked over to the fishing boat fueling office at the end of the dock. Inside was a grey-haired gentleman who greeted us kindly and offered us a cup of hot coffee.

We accepted the coffee and asked. “We have four hours to kill and thought we might take a tour around the village. Is there a taxi we can call?”

The man replied, “There are no taxis here in Angoon. But you can use my pickup truck.”

Our jaws dropped.

“You don’t even know us.”

The man smiled kindly and said, “The winters are long up here in north country. You learn real quick about who you can trust and who you can’t.”
We took it as a real compliment when he handed us the keys to his truck and said, “Welcome to Alaska boys.”

Thank you John, for your part in making this trip the success that it was – on that front I need to borrow a Tesla for a quick drive down to Florida – offers?

All the best.

Iain

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

A day at work with the whales in Patagonia

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At the Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas in Argentina we have a new boat to study the southern right whales in Patagonia with, and we want to share the good news with you!

We do much research observing the whales from shore, and even from the air, but some studies require that we approach the whales from a boat. To have a safe, reliable boat is essential for the safety of the researchers and to ensure that we can do the job in the best way possible.

With the support we received from each whale adoption and donor in Argentina, and with a generous donation from Ocean Alliance and from Vicky Rowntree, we bought a new boat to do our scientific research in Península Valdés. Its name is El Gris (“the grey one”, for obvious reasons!) and it’s a beautiful rigid bottom inflatable BIM boat in great condition. After some improvements and customization to fit the needs of whale research, and after lots of paperwork to have it properly registered with the Argentine Coast Guard, we launched it on a perfect day – September 21, the first day of Spring in the southern hemisphere!

DCIM100GOPRO

El Gris, coupled with the expertise of our captain and whale guide Marcos Ricciardi, proved to be an excellent platform to collect right whale biopsies that we will use for nutritional and genetic studies. In one day we collected 20 biopsies — an all-time record for a day of work since we began to biopsy these whales in 2003!

To introduce the new boat, we prepared this short video that shows “A day at work with the southern right whales of Península Valdés.

We especially thank all those who adopted a whale through our Right Whale Adoption Program at ICB. Our work to conserve the whales and protect the oceans would not be possible without your help and contributions. THANK YOU!

A record number of southern right whales counted in Península Valdés

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(Translation of an article published in Spanish in the newsletter of our partners in the southern right whale program, Instituto de Conservation de Ballenas.)

On September 9 and 10, in collaboration with Ocean Alliance, ICB undertook the annual aerial photographic survey of southern right whales in Peninsula Valdés. We cataloged 788 whales, the most recorded since we began surveying this population in 1971. The Southern Right Whale Program has been continuously studying and advocating for the conservation of this population of right whales and their habitat in Patagonia for 47 years.

The ICB/Ocean Alliance catalog has images and information about more than 3,200 known individual right whales in Peninsula Valdés. Professor Vicky Rowntree, the program director, explains that “With a good photograph of the head of every whale, we can know who is who in the population study the life history of every individual love the decades.” (Each right whale has a unique  pattern of callosities on its head, and these patterns allow researchers to identify each individual whale.)

“We’re very happy with this year’s results,” says Dr. Mariano Sironi, scientific director of ICB. “We counted 788 whales, including 302 offspring, in Golfo Nuevo and Golfo San Jose. The entire coast between Puerto Madryn and Puerto Pirámides is an almost continuous line of animals. Never in my life have I seen so many whales together in one single day.”

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

A Gala Time Was Had by All

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About 70 guest enjoyed a string quintet’s performance of Robert J. Bradshaw’s composition Down to the Sea in Ships during Ocean Alliance’s gala fundraiser on Saturday, September 2.

Robert J. Bradshaw conducts his composition, “Down to the Sea in Ships.”

The musicians, conducted by Bradshaw, played in one of the almost-renovated brick buildings that are part of Ocean Alliance’s headquarters at the historic Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory site on the edge of Gloucester Harbor. The building was also the scene of an ocean-themed art show (EDGE) curated by Trident Gallery (you can see some of the art in the photos of the musicians).

Scott Hufford

The guests weren’t the only ones who enjoyed the performance; apparently the acoustics in the old brick building were so amazing that the musicians are hoping to record there at some point!

Bruno Raberg

The gala was a fundraiser for our continuing efforts to renovate the Paint Factory buildings. Ocean Alliance’s aim is not only to make our headquarters a center for ocean research and innovation, but also to make the Paint Factory site a center of community engagement, so it seems fitting that the guests and musicians were gathered to view art, hear a musical composition, and enjoy the quintessential Gloucester experience of the Schooner Festival Parade of Lights and fireworks.

Labor Day weekend art show and gala fundraiser!

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The Second Annual Ocean Alliance Labor Day weekend art exhibition and fundraiser gala in partnership with Trident Gallery and the Trident Live Art Series celebrates contemporary viewpoints of the sea and maritime history at the Ocean Alliance Headquarters, the historic Tarr & Wonson Paint Factory.

Trident Gallery Director Matthew Swift is curating the art installation Edge for Ocean Alliance, which will be on view, free and open to the public, Saturday, Sunday, and Monday. Hours to be announced.

Trident Live Art Series Director Sarah Slifer Swift has invited Composer Robert J. Bradshaw and the Beauport Chamber Players, lighting designer Michael Friedman, and dancer Nina Brindamour to create a site-specific staging of Bradshaw’s musical work “Down to the Sea in Ships” for the Paint Factory.

“Down to the Sea in Ships” is a piece for strings and narrator about ill-fated whaling captain George Pollard Jr., whose story inspired Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick.

In addition to this unique inter-media staging of “Down to the Sea in Ships,” the Gala event includes delicious food and drink, the art exhibition, and the Parade of Lights and fireworks of the Gloucester Schooner Festival.

Tickets are $100/person, a contribution toward the continuing restoration of the paint factory complex, one of the last standing icons of Gloucester’s maritime history. More information at Gloucester.Center. Tickets at shop.whale.org.

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: A team effort

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Dear Friends,

With all the different players involved in this Parley SnotBot expedition, it was truly a team effort that made it the success that it was.

Here are a couple of short blogs from two of the Parley SnotBot Alaska team:

John Graham has been on every SnotBot expedition to date; he is our MacGyver, keeping the machines running, charging batteries and cleaning the drone’s after every flight (DNA contamination). He also catches and launches the drones. Catching a drone does come with some risk, particularly when a machine does not want to respond to the controls. After over 500 drone launch and recoveries, I thought that we had our safety protocols pretty well established. John caught a drone that was not responding to the radio controller; when he did, the situation fell apart as the drone throttled up on its own and became a risk to the whole crew. John threw it to the ground, but not before some serious cuts on his hands. John was wearing a helmet, safety glasses and gloves, but these new drones are powerful machines. Quick thinking on John’s part definitely prevented a more serious accident, and we now have protocols in place in case this type of situation comes up again.


Second opinions count.
 My first instinct [after the drone mishap] was to stay back on shore while the crew headed out for our daily research collection. I had arrived at this decision by taking into account a couple of factors. First, there is the fact that my altered physical abilities, due to an incident earlier in the expedition that resulted in 17 sutures, had changed my role on the team, preventing me from being a 100% contributor. Secondly, the boat we are using is jam-packed with nine crew members, drones, tech gear, batteries, laptops, camera gear, and a makeshift research lab station. All this makes getting around a real challenge.
 
The subtraction of one warm body, mine in this case, would give a little needed extra room for others to move about freely.

My second opinion on this matter was given by Iain, our team leader, who highly encouraged me to stay on board, contribute in whatever capacity I could, and we would all just make the best of the limited space we have available.

Well, I went with the second opinion, and boy, was that the right move.


 
In previous days, the whale population in our research area was a bit on the sparse side. Not so on this day! Large pods/ groups of humpbacks were bubble net feeding. There was breaching, pec slapping, lob tailing, and of course, lots of exhaled breath condensate! Oh, did I mention orca, too. But not just orca, breaching orca!! What an amazing sight.

Of course, all the activity did make it a challenge to collect samples, but Iain was up to the task, running his countless flight time experience through its paces.

All in all, a very good day. Sometimes a second opinion gets you to listen to your gut and not the logical part of your brain. I am very thankful that I did not let this amazing life experience pass me by.

Many thanks to Iain, my gut, and the incredible marine life that occupy this world with us, for giving me a story worth blogging about.
 
Thank you, John.

 

Kelly Cates is new to our team; she is a PhD student in Dr. Atkinson’s lab who will be involved in the data analysis. She is also keen to adopt SnotBot for her own research interests. She has collected snot from blue whales in the past using a long pole reaching out from a small boat:


Southeast Alaska is arguably one of the most beautiful places in the world, yet her secrets are often cloaked in fog, low laying clouds and cloying rain. This is the day we started out with, misting rain that hugged your every curve, a sunless multi-gray hued sky and not a critter on the horizon. This is not the day we ended up with. Between a pod of orcas, voracious bubble net feeders and a sunset that rendered words useless, we had a pretty alright day. That is, we were full on until we had to head home for fear of running out of fuel. As a newcomer to the Ocean Alliance team, I was quietly impressed with the speed and ease with which samples were collected. Vocally quiet. Inside my head I was berating myself for ever having tried to use a 21-foot pole to collect blow spray — how barbaric.

 

Drones provide access to animals previously only dreamed of. The speed with which a drone can approach animals, collect a sample, return to boat and then be out sampling again was mind boggling. We collected five samples in the time it would have taken a boat carefully maneuvering to a whale to collect one sample. The trouble with boat approaches is that the whale absolutely knows you are there and are notorious for Houdinii-ng their way out of sampling range. Research with free ranging cetaceans is a lot like Southeast Alaska. You spend a lot of time looking at nothing, but when the sun comes out there is no place else you would want to be. Cetacean research conducted with drones is going to lead to a lot more sunnier days. 
 
Thank you, Kelly.

No blog would be complete without Christian Miller’s photographs, so I have added a few that I hope are appropriate to the above stories.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Hard work, but we learned a lot!

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Dear Friends,

It’s not the best of times for science funding. So, there is enormous pressure when you are planning an expedition to set project goals too high and possibly try to collect too much data.

Would we do that?  Of course.  The goals of this expedition (in no order of priority) were to:

  •  Collect snot from a whale with our Parley SnotBot on live TV.
  •  Work with INTEL to develop an “in the wild” animal identification system and a volumetric’s system that can help us determine the health of a whale in real time.
  •  Further refine the protocols and tools for collecting snot with a drone.
  •  Test two new drones for collecting snot, the DJI Inspire 2 and the DJI Mavic Pro.
  •  Test a new snot collection system we call the Kendall/Graham Funnelator.
  •  Test EarBot with a new acoustic transmission system and amplifier.
  •  Test a Zenmuse FLIR camera over whales and try to record blow/body temperature.
  •  Collect at least 30 robust snot samples to be shared with our collaborators.
  •  Work with Dr. Baker and Dr. Atkinson’s labs to develop the appropriate collation and preservation protocols so that a variety of analysis can be conducted on the snot.
  •  Expand the number of species that we have collected snot from to further validate this technique.
  • In our case, we had nine and a half days to do this, three of which were with National Geographic, leaving us with six and a half days unencumbered on the water. Of course, we are in Alaska, so you have to count on at least two bad weather days. No pressure! (The next grant I write I am going include a budget for post expedition psychiatric counseling.) Looking back, we probably set the bar too high on this one, but that is another lesson learned.

Considering the above, how did we do? In the best of British understatements, I’d say, “Not bad at all.”

·         We collected snot from a humpback whale with the Parley SnotBot on a Live TV show broadcast nationally and internationally – A FIRST.

·         Thanks to our collaboration with INTEL, we identified an individual whale from a drone before the drone even made it back to the boat. We also set the stage for real time photogrammetry and volumetrics – A FIRST.

·         We collected snot from an orca; we had thought that orca blows would be too small and the drones too big, but we did it (with a small drone) – A FIRST.

·         We flew the DJI Zenmuse FLIR camera and attempted (we have to review this data) to record the blow and consequent body temperature of a whale – A FIRST.

·         We worked with four different organizations including marine mammal, oceanographic and technology institutions.

·         We successfully flew and collected snot using two new (for us) drones the DJI Inspire 2 and a Mavic Pro over whales – A FIRST.

·         We flew the EarBot (a drone that lands in the water near the whales and records their vocalizations) for Earth Live but they did not use the segment.

·         We tested / flew a new Snot Collection system – we call the Kendall/Graham funnelator

·         To date we have used plastic petri dishes to collect Snot. Dr. Atkinson’s lab suggested that there might be an issue with hormones sticking to the plastic, so we flew with glass petri dishes as well as plastic – A FIRST.

·         We trained staff and collaborators in over water and over whales, flight launch recovery and operations.

The weather seemed to be fighting us more on this trip than any we have done so far, but we realized that this was actually a benefit to the program, giving us a broader operations perspective. For example; what are the maximum wind conditions to collect snot in, and what is the best way to collect snot in windy conditions? Can we collect snot in the rain (we think so but it was hard to tell because the dishes were always wet). We will have to wait for lab analysis to answer these questions?

Last but not least, Kendall Mashburn from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks informed us that she positively identified hormones in the blue whale blows from our last expedition. She validated progestogen and cortisol and now she is looking to validate the existence of testosterone and aldosterone.  These hormones are primary reproductive and stress hormones, so this is great news.

At the end of the day it’s been a really hard-fought data expedition but it has also been one of the most productive, because of this we have learned a lot about our limitations and have realized how much more we still have to understand about this remarkable game-changing technology for whale research.

We are leaving with a long list of upgrades and problems to solve that will make this technology more effective and easier to use.  So much credit goes to the incredible Parley SnotBot Alaska team — Andy Rogan, John Graham and  Christian Miller; Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo from the Alaska Whale Foundation; Ted Willke, Bryn Keller and Javier Turek from INTEL; Scott Baker, Shannon Atkinson, Kendall Mashburn and Kelly Cates form the University of Alaska, Fairbanks; and all of the Ocean Alliance home team. Thanks are also due to Alex Tate and all of the Plimsoll Nat Geo production team and the crew of the Glacial Seal. I am very grateful to Amy and Dylan for putting up with a mad man for at least the last two months (maybe longer). Last but not least I want to thank our amazing hosts, Tinker and Gary at the Keex Kwaan Lodge – You guys are the BEST.  Thanks also to Patti for the great food. More blogs and incredible Christina Miller photographs to come!

Best Fishes from foggy Alaska.

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Alaska expedition: Parley x INTEL

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Dear Friends,

As you are all aware, these trips by the nature of what we hope to achieve are always an adventure. This trip has been about the most challenging that I have ever done, a live TV show, partnering with INTEL, and testing four new drone setups and two new drones in Alaska!?!

The whale gods have been on our side, and we had another first yesterday: we collected Snot from orca whales using a DJI Mavic Pro – just amazing.  Even I had doubts that we could do this, but there was Snot in the dish so another first for the Parley SnotBot.

Our little boat was certainly full with the Parley SnotBot team, Alaska Whale Foundation, and the INTEL team on board, but what a great group of people.

Following is a blog from our newest friend Ted Willke, Senior Principal Engineer and Director of the Mind’s Eye Lab INTEL.  Our thanks go out to Bryn Keller and Javier Turek.

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

Ted Willke, center, and Fred Sharpe, right, photobombed by Iain Kerr

 

Coming into a new collaboration is never easy, especially when it involves subjects as diverse as marine biology, drones, and artificial intelligence.  But it’s a necessary dance if you want the kind of innovation we’re after — the kind that happens when diverse scientific fields collide.
 
This is the dance our Intel Labs team found itself in with Parley and Ocean Alliance this past month.  Javier Turek, Bryn Keller, and I were introduced to Iain Kerr and his team by Parley for the Oceans at the World Oceans Day conference at the UN.  The question posed to us was: How can artificial intelligence (AI) advance Ocean Alliance’s mission and whale biology … in the next 30 days??!!  We soon realized that we had a lot to learn about whales and Parley SnotBots, and fast!  But it was also immediately clear that our research team had a lot to offer.
 
Simply put, AI technology aspires to imbue machines with cognitive skills, like visual recognition.  AI equipped Parley SnotBots would clearly be a game changer for OA, even given OA’s existing game-changing techniques.  Today’s Parley SnotBots have cameras that are used for piloting and video capture.  But there’s a strong desire to do more with this data.  As Fred Sharpe put it, “In the age of modern sensors, we’re in a data maelstrom.   The real action is in the downstream processing.” And we knew that the right AI could take it on.
 
The stage was set, and we had two seriously ambitious goals: 1) finding a way to identify whales using images transmitted by Parley SnotBots, and 2) calculating a whale’s relative body composite index, a measure of its energy reserves and condition, from streaming video.  Our team, with its background in computing and machine learning techniques, felt up to the task.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

Ted Willke preps drones for the National Geographic Earth Live shoot.

 

But you’ve got to understand: these are tough tasks for AI even with ideal data and carefully groomed algorithms running on machines back in our lab.  So trying to solve such problems in a completely uncontrolled environment (weather, water, whales, drones) on a small ship out on the rough sea is nuts. Trying to get something together in four weeks for the National Geographic Earth Live broadcast — TOTALLY BANANAS!
 
There were other difficulties that we didn’t completely understand until we got to Kake, Alaska.  Ships like the Alaska Whale Foundation’s Paula T are like drone aircraft carriers.  The pace is fast and the space is cramped.  Any new technology has to be unintrusive, field-friendly and fuss-free.  Otherwise, it’s going overboard!
 
To complicate things further, we were still hacking code as we arrived in Kake.  We had never run the whale ID algorithm on images taken by a drone or fully validated the volumetrics analysis.  We really didn’t know if this stuff worked.  And we had never integrated our systems with Iain’s.

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

Ted Willke and Javier Turek crunching code

 

We figured out how to set up what amounted to a small computer lab on a ship we’d never seen.  The Earth Live dress rehearsal on July 8 came and went.  We continued to sweat it out.  With the Nat Geo team breathing down our necks, we hacked and hacked.
 
Then it was show time.  I won’t recap the gut-wrenching Earth Live affair since Iain described it in his recent post.  But I will say that it was one of the most harrowing adventures I’ve ever experienced.  We wrapped up our development as the show began.  By the end, Iain’s team had pulled off a Parley SnotBot collection miracle and our algorithms had made a positive ID on the same whale before the drone landed — a scientific first! (See photo at beginning of post)

Fred Sharpe, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, Ted Willke.

Bryn Keller, Iain Kerr, Javier Turek, and Ted Willke

 

You’d think things would’ve let up after the Nat Geo team said goodbye, but they haven’t.  With the show out of the way, we immediately returned to the primary research mission and our associated computer science research.  With just a few days to collect the data needed to power the research for the next few months (and before the next expedition!), it has not been easy.  As Bryn put it, “Writing code while tracking whales around at 35 knots (on occasion) over rough waters (a lot) is really interesting.”
 
Even though it’s been a grind and major adrenaline dump, our enthusiasm remains unhampered.  How could it be otherwise, with whales breaching, lunge feeding, and checking out our boat?  Quoting Javier as he watched a humpback lunge feed in Keku Strait just a hundred feet from our boat on the morning of our last day, “This is FREAKING AWESOME!!!”
 
We’ll be back and we’ll be packing more AI when we do.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

 

Best Fishes from Alaska.

Iain

Art installation with a conservation message grows at Ocean Alliance

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Ocean Alliance continues its support of the arts and the intersection of art and science by hosting the work of the first recipient of the Goetemann Artist Residency, Nathan Wilson Thomas. Nathan is constructing an installation onsite at Ocean Alliance. The photo above shows the installation soon after Nathan started construction.

Here is his statement about the project:

As a guest of The Goetemann Artist Residency and its first Fellowship Award recipient, I will be construction my installation, The Great Auk, from materials found on the grounds of Ocean Alliance and along the beaches of Cape Ann. Using this “trash” in my project will serve a number of purposes: I hope that it brings greater awareness of the vast amounts of trash and pollutants in our ocean that go un seen by most people; that it encourages people to consider reusing their waste products in both creative and utilitarian ways; that it motivates people to collect and properly dispose of trash whenever they see it; and, ideally, that it spurs political protections that will only come from pressure exerted by a vocal and informed population.

The Great Auk is a case study in the extinction of a species that humans saw coming for a very long time. The story of the Auk exemplifies the shortcomings of environmental protections that failed to go far enough to effectively alter the tide of human destruction.

This is still true of many of our environmental protection laws. It is for this reason that I have chosen the Great Auk as the subject of my installation on the grounds of Ocean Alliance. The mission of Ocean Alliance is to preserve the ocean environment, monitor threats to marine species, and to educate the public on these findings. Today’s threat to our aquatic species, our oceans, and the entire planet is pollution.

Parley SnotBot, Alaska expedition powered by Intel: Stunned in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

I hope that you got a chance to see us on Nat Geo’s Earth Live; for us it was a crazy emotional rollercoaster but not an experience we would have wanted to miss. Here is a YouTube link to a segment: We were featured in four segments during the show, but to us at least this was the most exciting.

It’s now about 30 hours later, we had a regular SnotBot data collection day today, but I have to say that I am still ABSOLUTELY STUNNED by all that happened yesterday. I still cannot process how it all came together so successfully! So here is the back story.

Per Sleepless in SE Alaska, when Alex Tate, the director, and I said “Let’s do this,” it was with an abundance of whales in mind and on my part a total ignorance as to what a live show entailed.

Just the amount of people and equipment involved was massive (see photo below of some of equipment cases, not personal bags, on the docks).

The Plimsoll Nat Geo team consisted of:

An airplane with a Cineflex camera.
A satellite truck at the end of a dirt road alongside a fully extended crane with an antenna on top.
A full satellite transmission team & equipment on the boat.
A director, cameraman, rigger, and assistant on the boat.
And of course Fred Sharpe and Andy Szabo, from the Alaska Whale Foundation.

The idea was that there would be four cameras running consecutively during our live portion of the show:
1. Live feed from SnotBot
2. Live feed of SnotBot. Christians drone (filming Iain’s drone) and what a bloody amazing job he did!  I just took off after the whale with no consideration of how hard it might be to follow and film me by drone, and he kept me in frame!
3. A cameraman filming us
4. Aerial shot of boat and drones from the Cineflex camera.

The process was also pretty complicated. We were plugged into live feed cables and microphones, the live feeds were then transmitted from the boat up to the airplane and then down to the satellite truck and then back up via satellite to NYC. And it all had to work seamlessly or else we would not be featured in the show (think lots of electrical connectors in the rain).

While I was blown away by the professionalism of the whole team, we had some issues :-}. Basically, the area in which we could look for whales was limited by the audio and satellite transmission capacity, the height of the ceiling of the plane, etc.  My estimate is that we were given a 5-square-mile area (or less) in which to find a whale.  When I got this information I really, REALLY began to panic; up until then we could not find a whale in 20 square miles let alone 5 miles, and by the way we had to do it at 4:30 pm!! INSANE. We did have one whale that we followed for over an hour, and each time it came up it only did one blow. Basically impossible to collect from.

Of course the weather was miserable, and it was predicted to get worse for the afternoon’s live event. We even discussed not doing a dress rehearsal earlier in the day in case the drones got waterlogged and crashed – resulting again in not being featured in the show (we did have one spare).

By 1 pm I was in full-on desperation mode, we had seen and approached a couple of whales, but they swam out of the coverage zone. The whales were just not there. So, the director said to me, “We will go live to you at 4:30 and you can launch SnotBot and then we will go back to NYC and then you have an hour and a half to collect Snot.  Maybe we will cut back to you live as you do this collection or maybe they will say ‘This just happened.’”

So we are all prepped on the top deck, I had a microphone on me (I was reminded not to swear) and they said “3,2,1 we are live……”
I said “There’s a whale. Lets launch the drone” (no whale…sorry). As I hope you saw, I gave the drone to Andy and he prepped it. I flew the drone out of Andy’s hands and I will remember this moment for the rest of my life………A BLOOMING WHALE SURFACED 500 FEET AWAY RIGHT IN FRONT OF ME – WHHHAAAAATTTTTTTT!  IMPOSSIBLE!!!!!

As they say, the rest is history, on the third try (the last blow) I got the sample. But how?

What the heck just happened?  A whale surfaced at the right time (almost to the second) at the right place (so I could see it while flying) and the crew in NYC who were going to cut away stayed with the shot to the bitter end through three blows. Millions of people were snotted!!!!

Again, HOW IS THIS POSSIBLE??? If there was a lottery in Kake, I’d be out buying tickets right now. This has to have been a million to one shot.

We have a remarkable SnotBot field team (in the photo above, the SnotBot field team from left: Andy Rogan, John Graham, Iain Kerr, and Christian Miller, with cameraman Scott Tibbles and the director of our segment, Alex Tate.). The staff at our headquarters and our Founder/President Roger Payne all worked hard to make this happen – so yes we worked hard and were well prepared, but I still don’t understand – HOW DID THIS HAPPEN?  And who/where is that whale, so can we thank him or her????

As my wife, Amy, watched the snot collection she thought that it was a prerecorded segment. How could you go directly from a commercial break to collecting snot from a whale LIVE???? I truly don’t know, but we did it!! (Do NOT ask me to do it again live).

And I forgot to mention, right before the shoot the rain stopped and the sun came out; 30 minutes after the shoot we were trying to film a segment for the edited evergreen copy of the show that will come out at a later date and the rain came down again in buckets and we had to scramble to get all of the equipment under cover – look for that in the evergreen copy.

We will be back out on the water the rest of this week, further developing the SnotBot protocols and collecting samples for our partners at Scott Baker’s lab at Oregon State and Shannon Atkinson’s lab at the University of Alaska. We are grateful beyond measure for this opportunity and for our collaboration with Parley, but I guess the reason we are all here is that we are grateful beyond measure for the whales.

The team may not take out the boat tomorrow to collect snot – we are going to experiment with walking on water!!

Next blog will be talking more about the amazing work that our INTEL team are doing.

STUNNED in SE Alaska.

Iain

Parley SnotBot x Intel Alaska expedition: Sleepless in SE Alaska

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Dear Friends,

While we always metaphorically expect the unexpected on an expedition like this, you really hope that it won’t happen to you.  Especially when you are working with a live television production.

The last few days have been incredibly tough, in 2 and a half days on the water we have probably seen less than twenty whales and a lot of those we only saw their far away blows.  Last year we had literally hundreds of whales around us, we even joked that we could have done the SnotBot work from the shore because there we so many whales. Of course, you expect to have good and bad years with more or less whales but hundreds one year and less than 30 the next? The whales are in Alaska of course……just not here.

Luckily we have a remarkable team, or else the situation could be even worse.
14 people from the Nat Geo / Plimsoll production team.
4 core SnotBot team.
2 from the Alaska Whale Foundation
3 from INTEL.

By end of day yesterday we had not collected a single snot sample.  Today the live rehearsal started at 4:00 and at about 5:30 pm NYC was going to cut to us to join a drone live over a whale (WHAAAT?).  We had a successful snot collection earlier in the day but the whale swam out of our satellite coverage area.  For the next five hours we did not see a blow.  Then we saw a solitary whale that we followed for over an hour that would surface and blow once, yes once – I was losing my mind (as I think was the director Alex).

The Inspire 2 drones have about a 30 min flight time so about 10 min before we were to go live Christian and I launched our drones with little hope of getting more than nice water and Alaska shots from the air.  Two minutes before we were to go live I managed to get over our single blow whale (too high to collect snot) but I could see it though the water and it was not diving deep so… I was able to stay with it as it swam just under the water, we went live and it surfaced and we got the blow.  Unblooming believable!!!!!! the only scary thing now is we have to do better than this tomorrow for the real live show (8:00 Eastern Time Nat Geo channel).

The spectacularly good news is that the INTEL team hit it out of the ball park with regards to the volumetric’s and real time photo ID data project that they have been working on.  I have attached two images, both of which represent (to the best of my knowledge) firsts in the field of whale biology.  The first image shows the automatic volumentics measurement that was conducted in flight over a whale, in real time (note the drone just above and to the left).  The second shows a whale whose identity was confirmed before the drone made it back to the boat. Just amazing, I am so tired right now I cannot give this Ted, Bryn & Javier the appropriate credit for what they have pulled off in such a short time but we will do a longer blog on this after the live TV show.

 

Alaska has tried to make up for the lack of whales with other animal abundances, Christian Miller has of course caught many of these with his amazing camera skills, alas the internet here is so slow I can only attach very low res files.

Thank you again to our friends at Parley for the Oceans for working with us to make this the incredible project that it is. Thank you also to the  23 people in the one of a kind Alaska SnotBot team.

I ask all of you to pray to the whale gods for us, we pulled off what I think is a million to one shot today and we don’t want to work to these odds tomorrow.

Hoping to get some sleep tomorrow night after successful Snot collection on live TV!!!!!

Snotless in Alaska (for one more day).

Iain

We keep our robotics intern busy!

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There’s a lot happening at Ocean Alliance right now.  The SnotBot team is about to leave for a research expedition to Alaska, so they are testing drones and various other pieces of equipment to make sure everything is working properly. Our robotics intern, Lydia Zuehsow, is right in the middle of the action.  Check out the list of everything she did last week!

Objectives completed this week:
Drone flotation
◦ Confirmed waterbuoy PFDs were in stock at Perth Scuba
◦ Researched ways of cutting and patching lifejackets, or otherwise reducing overall bulk
◦ Continued researching compact PFDs: See life jacket alternatives here and here

Rotor wash Slo-mo testing
◦ Obtained fog machine and figured out how to use it with Sam and Austin

◦ Finished setting up aerodynamics test rig and captured some video of rotor wash with Adam, Sam, and Austin.

Microplastics
◦ Researched detection of microplastics and determined computer vision is infeasible.
◦ Researched alternative ways to detect microplastics and arrived at ultrasonic sensors.

Tech support
◦ Registered the new Inspire 1 V2 with the FAA as “Kirk”
◦ Ordered CPL lens for the X4S (This should have arrived by now.)
◦ Compared screen size of potential new iPad with current FPV setup
◦ Determined that the CineSSD error was caused by hardware incompatibility
◦ Restored the center screen target marker in the DJI app
◦ Fixed the Inspire yaw drift

Falcon 8+
◦ Typed up manual for the INTEL Falcon 8+ drone
◦ Attended basic pilot training conference call for Falcon 8+

The Robotics Laboratory and Club was made possible by the generous support of the Applied Materials Foundation.

CEO Iain Kerr joins Parley for the Oceans and Corona to protect islands from plastic

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So often when I give a talk, it is in a darkened theater or laboratory, so to be standing on a beach in Tulum, Mexico, with the Caribbean Sea behind me, giving an ocean conservation talk to people from the global beer brand Corona, representatives of Parley for the Oceans and about 25 members of the Mexican press was a powerful opportunity to stress the importance of healthy oceans.

The overriding theme of the talks was the unacceptable levels of plastic polluting our oceans. It may seem like an overwhelming problem, but the conversations were positive, and about solutions and a can-do attitude. I encourage all of you to look at the Parley for the Oceans AIR strategy for dealing with Ocean Plastic.

During my presentation, I talked about my work around the world over the last 30 years, documenting ocean pollution and the health of whales (& ocean ecosystems), and of course I talked about new innovations and technologies (like SnotBot) that I believe can act as a catalyst for change in ocean conservation.

The occasion of the meeting was the announcement from Corona and Parley of their partnership in the movement to end marine plastic pollution, one of the biggest threats to human health and the survival of the planet’s largest and most important ecosystem – the world’s oceans. The long-term partnership launches with a plan to protect 100 Islands by 2020, starting in six key regions in different parts of the world – Mexico, Maldives, Australia, Chile, Italy and Dominican Republic.

 

Ocean Alliance CEO DR. Iain Kerr (left) with Parley for the Oceans founder Cyrill Gutsch

Corona has committed to Parley’s creative, multidisciplinary approach and signature formula for reducing ocean plastics, the Parley AIR Strategy (Avoid, Intercept, Redesign), and will adopt a plastic-free philosophy across al aspects of its brands.

Read more about the Parley x Corona partnership here.

As much as I like SnotBot, I always remember the words of our president and founder, Dr. Roger Payne; “Saving the world is not a job that requires some highly developed technology, or some arcane new science, or some hitherto undeveloped social system.  It just requires us to change our minds, as to the value of our oceans and the power of the individual”

Two out of every three breaths we take come from our oceans – if that’s not important enough to change your mind to act, I’m not sure what is.
I hope that I was able to inspire and engage those listening with the idea that at the end of the day the job of saving the world is in our individual laps. It isn’t someone else’s responsibility!

Please commit to supporting ocean conservation and don’t buy products that can pollute our oceans.

Ocean Alliance hosts Selfie art show at Paint Factory

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From May 5 through May 7, Ocean Alliance continued its advocacy for the arts by hosting the art show Selfie at the Paint Factory. The show celebrated the creativity of teens from around Massachusetts through portraits by artist Amy Kerr based on their selfies. There were 12 pieces in the show in pastel, colored pencil and charcoal.

 

 

You can follow Amy Kerr’s current project, I Am More, a public outreach project about mental health, at her blog:  https://amykerrdrawsportraits.wordpress.com

SnotBot ready to help disentangle whales!

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A lot of people don’t realize that our Drones for Whale Research program is a lot more than SnotBot; we have a number of iterations of our drones to meet different whale research goals. SnotBot has already been helping researchers understand more about long term whale health by collecting exhaled Breath Condensate (snot) that contains, DNA, hormones, ketones, and micro biomes. Now SnotBot is helping whales in a much more immediate way. The SnotBot team is ready and standing by to use our drones to help the Centre for Coastal Studies and NOAA disentangle whales that are caught in lines or nets!

To meet this goal in 2017 we put in a new 30-foot dock at our headquarters in Gloucester Harbor, we’ve acquired a 30-foot Bertram Mopie, we have 2 modified Inspire 1V2 SnotBot drones and we’ve got what might be the first NGO permit to fly drones over entangled whales. We are ready to go!

When a whale is entangled it is clearly stressed, to disentangle the whales the highly experienced CCS team can spend up to 2 hours trying to understand how the animal is entangled.  This is where we will help SnotBot will be able to get aerial images of the configuration of the ropes or nets entangling the whale and send the images back live to the disentanglement team, who can be a distance from the whale. This gives the people doing the physical cutting of ropes and lines a much better idea of what tools they will need and what strategy they should use. This should make disentangling a whale safer for everyone involved.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Lights, cameras, action

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Dear Friends,

Roger Payne set the stage at Ocean Alliance many years ago, insisting that there should always be a strong education component of every scientific endeavor we are involved in. More than ever before it is vitally important for scientists to effectively communicate to the general public what they are doing, how they are doing it, and most importantly, why they are doing it.  We are very lucky to have a Nutopia documentary team with us in the Sea of Cortez filming the first SnotBot expedition of 2017. Nutopia is a British production company that is making a series of environmental shows for a major US TV network (more on that as we are closer to the release date).

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

Truth be said it is almost impossible to do science and shoot a documentary at the same time; both efforts take a lot of focus and involve a lot of equipment, so we have had to compromise on our scientific goals somewhat. Luckily for us the Nutopia folks have been a real pleasure to work with. They have told us that this production will be more stylized, and that has meant that more effort has gone into every shot so that they can tell a powerful visual story. We have seen that with the mass of camera gear they brought down and the many different angles from which they have shot every activity.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

The Nutopia crew brought lots of gear, including this gyro-stabilized camera.

We have been working out of two small boats (approx. 26 feet) one for the science team and one for the documentary team, although people seem to be constantly changing between boats during the day. Nutopia has a team of six people (plus the local boat captain), and the SnotBot team is five plus Michael Fishbach from the Great Whale Conservancy and our amazing boat captain Alberto, so 14 people in all.

Clearly each team is determined to have their project succeed: we want the data and they want the shot. On top of this there never seems to be enough time – when you balance our potentially optimistic goals against weather delays, uncooperative, or even absent animals and the constant logistical challenges, it means that we are lucky if the day only runs from dawn to dusk (and when we get back to our accommodation we have to process samples and back up our images and flight data).

Certainly, we will get less physical blow samples on this trip because we have had to dedicate time to our documentary team, but we believe that this is a worthwhile investment.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot's petri dish.

A blue whale blow sample on SnotBot’s petri dish.

Nutopia has engaged our superstar SnotBot cameraman Christian Miller; you have seen some of his photos from Alaska (and my last two posts). Apologies that some of todays photos are not as exciting as Christian’s but I thought you might like to see the other side of this expedition.

The two unexpected requirements of documentary-making are that we had to wear the same clothes all week (in the hot sun every day working on a small boat!) so that they could have continuity with the final edit, AND we were set up every morning with wireless microphones, so we had to be a lot more circumspect about our comments and conversations during the day :-).

From SnotBot 2017 in the Sea of Cortez, I wish you fair winds and a flowing sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

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

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: How big are blue whales?

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To describe the size of different objects, we often make comparisons to various everyday items such as school buses or an Olympic sized swimming pool. When the objects we refer to reach a certain size, it can be difficult for us to truly comprehend just how large they are, and we switch off, no longer able to visualize them effectively.

Animals, for the most part, our well within our boundaries of comprehension. An elephant is an enormous animal, yet it is not so different from our own size that we cannot process and understand it.

When we get to the large whales, we begin to cross this boundary. The largest whales of all are difficult to visualize and the comparisons we use become extreme. Blue whales are animals made for superlatives. They are the largest animals ever to have existed on our planet; 99% of species which have ever lived on our planet have gone extinct. How fortunate we are to live at the same time as these great leviathans.

This latest SnotBot expedition has focused upon these enormous animals. I am fortunate enough to have seen most of the great whales, yet this expedition is my first time seeing blue whales, and they truly dwarf any other whales in both length and sheer size/weight. I’m going to throw out a few size comparisons; try to visualize, try to comprehend, the scale of these animals.

 

A blue whale’s tongue can weigh as much as an adult elephant. ITS TONGUE. Try to picture a tongue the size of an elephant.

Adult blue whales need to eat around 8,000 pounds of food per day. That is the weight equivalent of 60 average-sized humans. Every day… They are of course not eating humans, but tiny shrimp-like organisms called krill; 8,000 pounds of krill = 40 million individual krill.

They can grow to 100 feet in length. I still struggle to comprehend this, but it really struck home with me on our first day out on the water with the whales. A blue whale lunged out of the water. It lunged directly away from us, yet its head was only 25 feet away from us. This means that some of its body must have been UNDERNEATH our boat. We estimated the whale was 80 feet long. If it surfaced 25 feet from our boat, and our boat was about 10 feet long, this means that the whale’s tail/fluke would have been about 45 feet on the other side of our boat.

Here is another fact: The global population of blue whales, decimated by 20th century whaling, is currently estimated to be roughly around 7% of its pre-whaling population, around 15,000 animals. Try and comprehend that; 15,000 animals representing an entire species. The largest species which has ever existed on planet earth. Many modern sports stadiums can hold 4 or 5 times this number of people. My university had more students than the entire global population of blue whales.

SnotBot is a tool which can help us understand these animals, and other endangered whales, in order that we can better protect them — and they desperately need our protection. There are many species or sub-populations of whale on the verge of extinction: The Baiji or Chinese river dolphin has already gone extinct. The Vaquita porpoise of the Sea of Cortez looks set to follow (sorry to be blunt, but it’s true). Maui’s dolphin is not far behind. The North Pacific right whale population is estimated to be around 30 individuals, Western Pacific gray whales under 150, Okhotsk Sea bowhead whales and Arabian Sea humpback whales under 100, Gulf of Mexico Bryde’s whale under 40. The largest pre-whaling blue whale population, in the Southern Ocean, is around 1% of its pre-whaling levels. This is a depressing fact: over 30 years after the cessation of commercial whaling, this population has shown few signs of recovery.

SnotBot is a tool which can collect a wide array of data. Thus far we have used SnotBot to collect blow samples, photo-ID, photogrammetry, bio-acoustics, lowlight/night-time studies, behavioural data and bio-kinetics data. Undoubtedly there are many applications of this technology we have not thought of. A tool which can simultaneously collect so many forms of data is rare. But one which can do so economically (our favoured drone, the DJI Mavic PRO, costs under $1,000) is revolutionary. The cheaper the tool, the more groups around the world can use it in their own research/conservation programs to collect all this different data. And with these streams of data being collected all around the world, scientists and conservationists can begin to take great steps forward in our ability to understand and ultimately protect, these animals.

— Andy Rogan

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017, in collaboration with Parley: We’re underway!

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Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

Our field site is Loreto, Baja Sur, Mexico. Our principle study species is the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet (yes, bigger than dinosaurs) – blue whales. A fully grown blue whale can weight over 150 tons and can grow up to 100 ft in length.

Yesterday, (Sunday, March 13) we got out on the water, after a pretty stressful two days getting down to Loreto with a total of 27 bags (including carry-ons). We joined our host for the week —  Michael Fishbach of the Great Whale Conservancy — yesterday morning.  After a couple of hours of unpacking, we were out on the water by 1:30. Even though we like to be on the water by 8:00 am at the latest, our feeling was that we might as well get a few hours on the water to test our protocols, fly the drones and get the team back in synch.

The team this expedition remains principally the same: Iain Kerr, expedition leader; Andrew Rogan, scientist;  Christian Miller, cinematography; and John Graham, engineer (MacGyver). New to the team this year is Kendall Mashburn from the University of Fairbanks, Alaska.  Kendall is working with Andy and me to review our data collection protocols and onboard sample processing based on Kendall’s expertise with hormones.

Kendall will take our samples back to Dr. Shannon Atkinson’s lab in Alaska. She will be looking at levels of glucocorticoids (stress hormones), testosterone, progesterone and estrogen (reproductive hormones), and triiodothyronine and thyroxin (metabolic hormones). As if that were not enough, we have a Nutopia film crew with us, filming SnotBot as part of an upcoming documentary special called One Strange Rock.

I am happy and a bit stunned to report that within the first 15 minutes of leaving the dock we had collected our first sample from a blue whale (!) and the day just got better.

As you can see from the photos (thank you Christian and Michael), we had stunning interactions with blue whales right up until it got too dark for us to keep working.

I have to head out onto the water now – who knows what adventures today will bring!
From Mexico wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Iain

 

This work was made possible by generous support of the Waitt Foundation through a Rapid Ocean Conservation grant. It is a privilege to be supported by such a prestigious foundation, whose mission is to Restore Our Oceans to Full Productivity.

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

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After months of planning, countless phone calls made, funds raised, and supplies procured, the Ocean Alliance crew find themselves in a very familiar place. As I am writing this, we are squeezed into a relatively small metal tube, flying 34,000 feet above the earth at a rate of 418 mph, looking to follow up on last year’s highly successful kick-off of the SnotBot program. Our journey takes us back to the Sea of Cortez, but this time to the town of Loreto for what is sure to be an amazing encounter with the largest animal on the planet, the blue whale. The SnotBot team of Iain Kerr, Andy Rogan, Christian Miller, and me (John Graham) is excited to have along with us on this expedition Kendall Mashburn, a wildlife endocrinologist from the University of Alaska. Kendall brings with her years of experience studying and processing wildlife data.

As the tech guy on these expeditions, I am very excited to not only be in close proximity to these huge beautiful creatures, but also to put our new drones and their collection devices through their paces in our relentless search to improve upon the system in which we obtain the data-rich exhaled breath condensate of nature’s ocean dwelling leviathans. I’m not going to give it away, but we do have some intriguing tricks up our sleeves that will hopefully aid us in our research.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Science manager Andy Rogan is surrounded by all the Ocean Alliance SnotBot gear.

Day 1: Jet lagged after our travels from our home base in Gloucester, Massachusetts, we have finally arrived at our destination, the small town of Loreto. We were briefed by our host, guide, and local expert on blue whales, president of the Great Whale Conservancy Michael Fishbach, who used words that make oceanographic researchers salivate, like abundant, feeding, unorthodox behavior, and poop. He than backed up his lofty words with jaw-dropping video footage. Needless to say, we were all very eager to get out on the water and do what we do best: collect whale snot.

After sorting out our gear, we headed down to the docks where we were met by the Nutopia crew filming us for the documentary One Strange Rock, who will be with us this week to document our unique data-collecting process. So, not to leave you in suspense, but stay tuned for the next blog describing how our first day went. I promise, it will be worth the wait!

— John

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). A massive Thank You also to the Applied Materials Foundation, whose generous support allows us to run the Robotics Club and special events such as these.

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

OA science manager reflects on adventures with SnotBot

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Ocean Alliance Science Manager and SnotBot scientist Andy Rogan wrote this article for the January edition of Biosphere, a digital magazine specializing in the most exciting research from the zoological sciences and the latest wildlife news

YOU HAD ME AT SNOTBOT,” an homage to Jerry Maguire I’ve heard on more than one occasion during my role within this programme, and on one occasion, I might add, from an editor at Biosphere.

My experience with the programme kicked off in fairly spectacular fashion on a surprisingly cold morning in Baja California’s San Ignacio Lagoon. Months of build up had led us to this boat, filled with our team and a mix of veteran Mexican and American cetacean scientists, all as curious as I to see how SnotBot would work. SnotBot is an Ocean Alliance programme in which we are using relatively inexpensive consumer drones to collect respiratory samples — called blow, snot or exhaled breath condensate (EBC) — from whales.

A SnotBot drone with a petri dish attached to collect whale blow. (Photo by Christian Miller)

(Photo by Christian Miller)

The Ocean Alliance, a Massachusetts-based whale research and education non-profit, launched a successful crowdfunding campaign in the summer of 2015 and since then SnotBot has gone from strength to strength, albeit with a few bumps in the road, or should I say airpockets in the airspace? Out in front of our small panga – a local wooden fishing boat, came the call of “ballenas!” (Spanish for whales) and an outstretched arm pointing toward a puff of white air on the horizon. Here we go! Anticipation could be felt in the air as everyone prepared. The drone went up, hovered and… began to shake… began to rattle. Seconds later we were speeding towards the drone which was plummeting – and never has my use of this word been so appropriate – toward the water where it would begin disappearing into the heavily protected waters of San Ignacio Lagoon. Later that month neither my boss nor the drone pilot were particularly happy when I drew up the official flight statistics of the expedition and listed 13 seconds as the shortest flight duration.

Six months later, almost to the day, SnotBot posed a different kind of challenge. I found myself in a large exhibition hall in the U.S. State Department HQ, obsessively fidgeting with my tie. A crowd of about 50 people were bustling toward me armed with a dazzling array of cameras, microphones and voice recorders. Printed on a large pillar behind me were the words “SnotBot: Drones for Whale Research,” and a short description of the programme. A few seconds later I was discussing the programme with Secretary of State John Kerry, whose total and utter attention is held by a giant TV screen looping whale footage from our most recent Alaska expedition, and not by my incessant promotion of the programme. So what is it about SnotBot that makes it unique? Is there a reason, other than its name, that it has received so much attention? If not, does that make it a gimmick, a distasteful degradation of the scientific process?

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

The rise of drones in many areas of society over the past five years has been well documented. When our programme was initiated back in 2012, many saw it as a manifestation of our CEO’s passion for flying remote-controlled vehicles, not the foresight of a hobbyist in recognising the extraordinary potential of an emerging technology.

But, as time goes on, it is becoming increasingly apparent just how powerful these tools are, and, especially to us, just how revolutionary they will be in marine mammal science. The fire they will ignite under conventional research methodologies could be huge. Not least because whales are, in many respects, difficult animals to study. They spend much of their time beneath the surface of the water, conducting much of their activity out of view from human research eyes. They often live far from land and in remote areas, they can travel vast distances, quickly moving through their environment in unpredictable directions. Unlike many terrestrial animals, they do not leave easily detectable tracks or signs of their presence. When we do catch glimpses of them in order to aid our studies, we are often restricted in our perspective, stuck on a vessel a few metres above the surface of the water. In response to these challenges marine mammal scientists have developed a variety of innovative techniques ranging from the simple to the complex, such as photo-ID, skin/blubber biopsy analysis, bioacoustics and so on. But owing to the logistical complexities of studying these animals these methods are often inefficient and expensive.

The data we are able to collect with a $2,000 consumer drone is simply extraordinary. The most important part of this is that, at this cost, this is a tool that many researchers around the world will be able to afford. No longer will collecting large, varied datasets be the exclusive realm of the wealthiest academic institutions and research groups. Our oceans are vast, the ecosystems they support invariably complex. If we are to understand them, we need big data sets. This is what these tools can provide, their use of course extending far beyond marine mammal science.

Collecting robust biological samples from large whales in a non-invasive and non-disruptive manner has been a major hurdle that has previously limited our knowledge of these magnificent and ecologically important species. SnotBot is changing this, delivering a diverse range of biological data from large whales without the animals even knowing we are there. Whilst most tools have a single purpose/function, in addition to respiratory samples SnotBot collects a broad spectrum of data forms, including photogrammetry, photo-ID, behavior, bio-acoustics, low-light/nighttime studies and so on that can be used in other valuable analyses. It is truly remarkable to have a single, affordable, safe, scalable tool that can simultaneously collect such a variety of data — a capability which has led our CEO to suggest that drones could be to marine mammal research what the invention of the microscope was to cellular biology.

At a time when whales face a rapidly growing list of man-made threats, we need consistent biological and supporting meta-data to determine how these threats are impacting these animals and what we can do to minimise or remove them. Considering that whales also play a role as a bio-indicator species – the proverbial ocean “canaries in the coal mine,” the data we collect would also have important consequences for our wider oceans and subsequently for humanity.

Our primary objective has been to encourage and facilitate the widespread adoption of these tools. Our experience with this programme has led us to the conclusion that drones will be game-changers, ushering in a new research paradigm for marine mammal science. So far we have flown 258 EBC specific flights over four species: Southern right whales (Eubalaena australis) in Patagonia, Argentina; gray whales (Eschrichtius robustus) in San Ignacio Lagoon, Mexico; blue (Balaenoptera musculus) and humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in Bahia La Paz, Mexico; and humpback whales in Frederick Sound, Alaska.

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

It has certainly been an interesting ride, and I am happy to say that most stories, unlike that fateful first flight in San Ignacio Lagoon, are positive; though certainly we’ve learnt to expect the unexpected, and our predictions have proven somewhat wide of the mark! We chose Patagonia as the location of our first expedition as the whales are using the bay as a calving/mating ground so are fasting, placing a priority on conserving energy. To us, this relative inactivity suggested an animal that was easy to sample. We were wrong. We expected that inactivity would result in less frequent and less forceful exhalations, but we underestimated the degree to which this would be true. Furthermore, after hours of preparation and planning, when we finally had the drone in the air, we had steered it over a rising whale ready to capture the valuable data it would blow, when the whale rolled nonchalantly to one side, blowing a few inches to the right of the drone, before sinking back down. Unbeknownst to us, this rolling from side to side would be quite frequent in these calving and mating whales – it wasn’t going to be an easy group.

When we began to fly the SnotBot, we had been collecting the blow by attaching a long pole to the bottom of the drone on which we would attach four petri dishes. We began noticing a considerable amount of blow on the top of the drones, and decided to place petri dishes on top to take advantage of this. The first time we tried this we collected our largest sample yet. Our unsubstantiated theory is that the propellers actually suck the material in the blow back on to the top of the drone. One might think the drone had always been destined to be a blow collector…

With the dawn of such a new technology, there is a total lack of data, so permitting authorities have no evidence on which to base their rules about flying the drones. In one location, our drone was counted as an airplane and thus we had to treat it as such when flying over whales. This meant that our vessel could approach a whale up to 300 feet and we would not have to record it as a ‘take’. But if we were 1000 feet from the whale, as soon as the drone took off that would be a take. Thus we could be in our 30-foot research vessel 300 feet from a whale and not record it as a take, but if the drone, weighing 3 kilograms, was 999 feet from a whale that would be a take. This is of course expected, and we are working with permitting authorities providing them our data to help them create their rules.

SnotBot has been quite a ride so far. We’ve introduced it to John Kerry, been the feature of well over 300 press articles worldwide, a Youtube video with over 130,000 views, two facebook videos with over 2,000,000 views combined, we’ve been labelled one of the Top 8 breakthrough innovations saving our oceans by the manager of the XPRIZE Oceans Initiative, we’ve won the Innovative Drone Exploration and Application competition at Drone World Expo and even been the feature of a pre-K through Grade 6 children’s book. This attention is allowing us to reach and educate enormous numbers of people, educating them on the science of whales, the number of very real threats they face and how they can help.

The name might be unappealing to some, and just funny to others, but this is no gimmick. SnotBot, and the tool that it is built upon, is powerful, cost-effective and revolutionary. With the help of these new technologies we will take huge strides forward in understanding whales, how they are being impacted by natural and anthropogenic stressors, their physiology and behaviour and how best to protect them in a changing ocean.