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Mexico

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

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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

By | Mexico, Whales | No Comments
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.