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SnotBot

Listening to whales

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By Chris Zadra, robotics manager

Six months ago I was sitting in a hotel room in Des Moines, Iowa, with a very unglamorous field test engineering job, when I got a message on LinkedIn about an interesting new job opportunity. Never before then would I have imagined I would now be sitting at a desk looking out over the ocean in Gloucester, MA, writing about my first SnotBot expedition to Gabon.

I didn’t quite know what to expect, but at least I wasn’t the only one feeling that way, since the team was headed to a brand new SnotBot location. It was certainly a trip of extremes. Every day presented us with a new challenge to overcome, be it wind, rain, equipment failures, wet boat, lack of cash or speaking French. Yet no matter the challenge we tackled every obstacle that came our way and ended with the most successful SnotBot sample collection size to date. I think that says a lot about the quality of our team at Ocean Alliance. And to note, that team is much larger than the four of us that went to Gabon. No trip would be successful without all the logistics, preparation and support that goes on at Ocean Alliance HQ by Britta, Mark, Ann, and of course none of it would be possible without our amazing donors. As Gordon Buchanan of the BBC said, we’re “a team of consummate professionals.” His words not ours. I’m honored to now be a part of this team and excited for the future.

One of my favorite experiences while in Gabon was listening to whales singing live using our hydrophone and a pair of headphones. I even was at one point flying a drone over our boat while simultaneously listening to the most incredible whale sounds. (The whales were in fact so close that you could feel their sounds echoing through our boat.) It was a pretty surreal moment to be looking down at this muddy water from 400 feet up where I could see nothing but our little boat floating on top – and Andy swimming around at the surface – but at the same time I was listening to the sounds of the majestic and mysterious life underwater. It just makes you realize how attached many of us are to land and how much we take our ocean for granted. As Iain has said before, it’s easy to see when changes happen on land, but the oceans always seem unchanged to us. Hopefully, with the continued success of SnotBot and our future ventures here at Ocean Alliance, we can help change perspectives about our ocean and make a lasting impact.

The Sounds of a SnotBot Expedition

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By Andy Rogan, Ocean Alliance science manager

Whales live in a world of sound, in contrast to our world of sight. This is one of Ocean Alliance founder and president Dr. Roger Payne’s key messages about whales. What he means is that while our dominant sense is sight (i.e. how we see the world around us), for whales it is sound. Whales use sound for a number of crucial behaviours: communicating with one another, finding food, escaping predators, navigating through their environment, and finding a mate.

With that in mind, I thought I would look at a SnotBot expedition as if I, also, lived in a world of sound.

This idea did not come to me in any profound moment whilst out on the ocean listening to the sounds of drones and whales. Rather it came to me whilst sitting in our apartment at the end of a difficult day out on the water. The tap/faucet was broken in the kitchen, gurgling and burping every few seconds; the A.C. unit constantly whining in the background; unfamiliar birds chirping outside; the sound of me breaking up bags of frozen peas (we couldn’t find ice packs in the town, which we need to keep the samples cold, so used frozen peas instead!); the drone battery charger sending out a menagerie of different beeps, informing us of its progress; Chris, our engineer, appropriately playing some humpback whale songs we had recorded earlier in the day.

Indeed, the sounds of a SnotBot expedition start long before we are out on the water:

The exclamations and gasps from airline representatives behind check-in desks (and indeed those of other passengers behind us in the queue) when they see how many bags we have. Iain discussing the latest rules and regulations governing what size li-po (lithium polymer) batteries (which power the drones) can be taken on a plane.

Christian making stupid jokes.

Verbally communicated frustrations at our attempts to fit all our bags into the rental car.

Discussions over our first dinner of where the SnotBot program is headed, what our hopes for the program are, any new locations we might like to take the program.

The first call, ‘WHALE, 5 O’CLOCK, 500 METRES’ (we use the hands of the clocks, with the bow of the boat pointing at 12, to direct other crew to a sighted whale).

During our trip to Alaska in 2016 there seemed to be whales constantly breaching in the distance. We would see them breach, and then a second or two later the sound created from a 50-ton animal smashing into the water would eventually reach us.

Me at the back of the boat, surrounded by petri dishes and coolers, trying to predict when the whale is next going to surface.

People trying to direct Iain (who is face down in his screen piloting the drone) to the nearest whales. It is surprisingly difficult for those on the boat to accurately determine the direction and distance of a whale from the drone, particularly if the drone is far from the boat, and this discussion can be somewhat animated at times!

Of course there is the distinctive whirring of the SnotBot drone itself… The sound of engines ramping up as the drone prepares to take off, and winding down as the drone is caught.

Christian making more stupid jokes.

All these different sounds mean different things, marking success or failure, excitement or fatigue, happiness or frustration. To me, there is however one sound that stands above the rest.

The sound of the largest animal on the planet taking a breath: the “blow” or exhalation of a whale. It can be a difficult sound to explain. At its most practical, it alerts us to the presence of a whale: you often hear a whale blow long before you see it. Indeed, with the mighty blue whales we have studied in the Gulf of California, you can hear the blow from well over a mile away! Sometimes, you also hear the whale inhale as well. This is more common with different species, such as fin whales, but is a wonderful sound — the sound of a vast cavern filling with air.

It also means, of course, that there is the potential for a sample, which is the whole reason we are in Alaska or Mexico or Gabon in the first place. It is always great to hear a blow and then subsequently hear Iain exclaim “BINGO”or “oh, wow, the drone is covered in snot!.”

Better than all of this is something altogether more intangible. On one hand this is such a simple, elemental behaviour. The act of respiring, of filling the body with the oxygen all animals need to survive. But in such a vast, extraordinary and enigmatic animal … it is something more. It represents one of the few times we are able to gain glimpses into the lives of these enigmatic and often elusive animals, as they breach the surface of the ocean to breathe. I could throw out so many superlatives about mighty leviathans rising from the depths of the ocean, or some other mumblings like that.

Instead, I’ll leave you with a (modified!) quote from Moby Dick, in which I have replaced the word “blow” with “tail.”

The more I consider this mighty blow, the more do I deplore my inability to describe it.’

It is an immense privilege just being able to listen to these wonderful animals breathe.

And listening to Christian making more stupid jokes.

 

 

Parley SnotBot Expedition 9: Heading home

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Dear Friends,

We are back in the USA after what has been the most logistically challenging and the most successful Parley SnotBot expedition to date! Forgive the cliché but we hit this one out of the ball park in spite of some very serious obstacles along the way. I’ll send a full data update at a later date but in short, working with the Gabonese government and NGOs we collected 55 Exhaled Breath Condensate (snot) samples, shot photogrammetry images (and tested a new photogrammetry rig), recorded whale songs and took hundreds of photos and behavioral video footage of a whale population about which very little is known.

We did come back “drone light” though; due to an improper propeller attachment, an Inspire 2 dropped into the water right after takeoff and we gave a Mavic Pro kit to our friends at ANPN (the Gabonese Wildlife Conservation authority). We conducted a number of flight training sessions with our ANPN friends (photo 1) and Chris taught a photogrammetry session. ANPN are very excited about the potential use of drones for wildlife conservation both ashore and afloat. As part of our Democratizing Science with Drones initiative we have now left drones and hard-won operational & scientific protocols in Argentina, Alaska, Mexico and Gabon.

As expressed in earlier e mails, the biggest challenge for us was the weather; when you only have 10 days on the water, one bad weather front can really mess you up. By day 5 we had collected less than 12 samples, were exhausted from battling rough seas and were feeling the pressure. If we had been working out of Gloucester we would have called weather days, but this far from home we had to keep pushing, regardless of the weather. By day 8 we had 34 samples; everything changed on day 9 (technically our last day on the water), great weather allowed our Parley SnotBot to perform at its peak and we collected 15 samples, giving us a grand total of 49 samples. We had not planned on going out on the water on Saturday, or Sunday before our flight, but we felt that we had to take advantage of the continued good weather and we went out for a couple of hours on both days and collected 6 more samples, taking us to a grand (and highest expedition total so far) of 55 samples.

I was close to panic the evening before the BBC arrived. The camera/gimbal assembly on my trusty drone decided that after being doused in snotty water a few hundred times, it did not want to work anymore. Luckily, we had a spare camera and drone, which 30 minutes later disappeared below the waves due to the previously discussed faulty blade attachment. We were in big trouble. Christian had his drone, but his drone was there to film my drone collecting snot for the BBC. The DJI drones are hardly what you would call “service friendly,” but when we got back to our accommodation, I had no choice but to pull out our mini screwdriver kit and start disassembling.

My thought was that a little bit of saltwater had gotten onto one of the many connections inside the camera / gimbal assembly and it was causing an electrical short.  So, I took apart the whole assembly (photographing every step) and doused everything with the French equivalent of WD 40 — my now favorite liquid, YACCO Degrippant 6 En 1.

I reassembled the camera gimbal system (incorrectly once) but after just over an hour’s work I got it all back together and gave it a go. I will admit to being somewhat surprised that the camera and gimbal worked fine. I remained on edge for the whole BBC shoot expecting the camera assembly to fail at some crucial time, but apart from a couple of odd twitches it worked fine, not just for the BBC stay but for the rest of our trip.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

At one point with the BBC we followed a couple of whales quite close to an oil storage facility. The guide on the BBC boat got a call asking us not to get any closer to the oil facility, and I thought that this was a regular security issue. It was not. It turned out to be one that blew my mind. The facility was under high security because just a week previously someone had hijacked a 368-foot oil tanker (and 19 crew) with 32,500 gallons of crude oil on board. The story ended well, though, with the tanker Pantelena and crew being held for 9 days, before the crew and vessel were released (probably minus oil).  Note the attached photo of dummies that we saw on the decks of other tankers to make it look like there are crew working/observing on deck and the barbed wire to stop pirates climbing up to the bridge (crazy).

 

I have attached a couple more of Christians photos (top and below).

Also the promised photo of what we thought was an illegal timber barge.

I had hoped to see a bit more of Africa, but we basically lived drones, whales, equipment and data for over 10 days.  We did go up a local river on Saturday morning and we saw a number of species of different parrots, monkeys, crocodiles, deer and eagles which was fantastic and the first real reminder that we were in deepest Africa – on the way back we did go out and collect a few more samples.

Two closing stories for you, the first speaks to the last attached photograph of a social whale. The Gabonese crew on our boat were both stunned and enthralled when a 45 ton? curious whale repeatedly came over to our boat to check us out (photo 9). We were drifting downwind, so the whale had to swim to keep up with us, it was fun to try and imagine what the whale might have been thinking.

Lastly as you all know I am a big fan of FLIR technologies, and as we were going though airport security leaving Gabon we had to pass through a small room that had two FLIR cameras and screens set up.  My theory is that these FLIR systems were monitoring body temperatures looking for people with a fever. Considering that ebola can be found in the country next door (the Republic of Congo) this application makes sense.

I hope that you are all safe from hurricanes and enjoying the fall.

Best Fishes

Iain

Parley SnotBot Expedition 9: Gabon is like no place else!

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Dear Friends,

Gabon has been quite an adventure, but one thing is clear, this is like no place I have ever worked before and I have worked in some pretty unusual locations.  Our time here has seemed more like true exploration than a regular research expedition. Most people seem to be aware that there are whales here but beyond that the knowledge seems pretty limited, so we have been blazing our own trail, sometimes successfully and sometimes not.

I always get great joy from the unintended consequences of our work. For example, in the Galapagos we exposed an illegal sea cucumber fishery and in Papua New Guinea we were the catalyst for creating a marine sanctuary. Now in Port Gentil we may have helped to discover an illegal gold mining operation. The brown water you saw in an earlier blog is river sediment, but it is not the rainy season here, so the water should not be this color. We shared Christians photos with some ANPN officials and they were concerned that this was likely evidence of illegal gold mining, so a plane is going up to see if they can track this to the source. Wet wash gold mining is notorious for the environmental devastation it causes  and that is beyond the use of mercury in the extraction process.

We also saw a barge loaded with lumber heading offshore, the officials on our boat said that there were no facilities in the direction that the barge was going, so it was likely the result of illegal logging or illegal exporting or both. So, this was called in to the authorities.

We had a team from the BBC with us for the last two days and what a great crew they were! Alas the wind blew like hell for most of the time, but they just went with it and we had a few great whale encounters, and some equipment failures – but we persevered and as a consequence I think that we got some pretty special footage. The BBC team were happy so I am confident that this is going to be a great story. What made this shoot special for me was the fact that the host Gordon Buchanan is a fellow Scot, so it was fun to share a few memories of the home country with him. The show is expected to air in March 2019, I will of course let you know when.

 

 

On the whale front we went back out into the Atlantic proper again today to look for whales, resulting in good and bad news. The good news was that there were more whales out there, the bad news was that the wind and seas were terrible. We had around 6 to 8 foot swells with a big chop on top, it was a wild ride. We are not going to do this again! but again we got some good humpback whale recordings and we had a social animal hang around our boat for over 20 minutes. Note that in the first photo we are all looking in the wrong direction for the whale.

 

 Port Gentil is safe but some of the areas surrounding it are not, we passed an oil tanker today and were confused by allof the crew just standing around on the deck until we realized that they were not crew they were dummies (I’ll try to get a photo tomorrow). Port Gentil is a bust city with over 100,000 people and yet there are only two ways to get here, by plane or by boat. I can’t imagine many cities in the world with a population of over 100,000 that you can’t drive to or from. The most noticeable consequence of this is that most people seem to travel by taxi – why have a car if you are only moving around city?

I have attached a few more of Christians photos (top and below) that speak far more to our work than my blogs.

Be safe, but take a few risks!

 

Iain

 

Parley SnotBot Expedition 9: It’s Windy!

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Dear friends,

The photo above demonstrates the problem of collecting snot cross wind. As yet I do not have augmented reality – or the attached perspective when I am collecting Snot in a crosswind situation. Since I am only about 10 feet up I have to look at the surface of the water and try to estimate where to put the drone to collect the snot. More often than not I am in the wrong place. In this shot I got it right, upwind whale (so no contamination from another whale) and just at the right place at the right time.

The continued windy weather is testing us, but we are making it work.

Of course, nothing slows down Mr. Miller – another spectacular mother calf photo. Notice my drone waiting for the mother to surface 🙂

From the windy equator (is that an oxymoron?) holding fast.

Onwards. Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Expedition 9: Gabon

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Dear Friends,

There is no easy way to say this, but our first two days on the water in Gabon have not gone as well as we hoped.  It has been incredibly windy, meaning it is hard to see blows, hard to collect blows, and hard to keep all of our equipment (chargers, inverters, etc) and crew dry. This is the nature of the job and we are here for 10 days, so I am sure that the weather will change for the better soon.

We have collected 6 samples in what only could be called extreme conditions. I had to fly lower than my usual 10 feet above the whale since the blows were laid flat by the wind – of course Mr. Miller got some spectacular shots of this and a baby humpback floating above its mother.

 

 

 

Christian  has been travelling the globe when he is not making us lunch or dinner to save a few $$.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Christian’s photos  are always spectacular, a minke whale off the Great Barrier reef and a humpback mother and calf (look carefully) off Tonga.

 

 

Back to Gabon, we did experience a brand-new challenge today.  We came across an area of muddy fresh water that was sitting on top of the salt water, as you can see from the photo at the top of the blog, this was a pretty spectacular sight.The whales did not seem to care about the muddy water,  but I realized that the crucial element of being at the right place at the right time (to collect snot) is based on being able to see the whale just below the surface during multiple blow breathing intervals.  As they swam through the mud this was nigh on impossible. We could see the dive footprints better than ever before since they mixed up the fresh and the salt water producing a very dramatic color change, I’ll try to get you that photo in a follow up blog.

Last but not least in homage to our president and founder, Dr. Roger Payne, we did make a couple of short humpback whale recordings today.  Roger will shudder when he hears them because the water was rough and there is a lot of boat and water noise in the recordings.  That said, I can tell you there is nothing like putting on headphones and hearing a cacophony of whales singing right under your boat – I am not a mystical man, but this is a magical experience.  I will attach a short sound clip to an email following this, since it is 11 meg and the internet is pretty bad here.

Thank you again to all of our new friends in Gabon for helping us to make this trip a reality.

Best Fishes.

Iain

Parley SnotBot: Arrival in Gabon

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Dear Friends,

I have long wanted to visit Gabon, for me it has always been one of those mysterious places that are not en-route to anywhere but always in the back of your mind.  Whenever I think of Gabon it conjures up images of exploration and adventure that I read about as a child. Exotic and full of wildlife (we hope). We wanted to take the Research Vessel Odyssey there in 2004 but the economics would not allow that.  So here we are over 14 years later about to make that dream a reality. And we are going with an affordable, scalable, replicable research program that will give us more data than the much larger Odyssey expedition would have.

I will say that the road to Gabon has not been easy, Gabon has more wildlife preserves than any country in Africa and they have recently been incorporating their marine resources into the park systems, so when we started applying for a research permit there was some confusion as to whom we should apply to.  After two months of trying to get a permit we were advised by one consultant that it would not be possible to get a research permit in 2018. Luckily, we have had great friends in Tim Collins of WCS and Michelle Lee of ANPN who have been very patient guides and have facilitated not only our research permits but also our collaborations with a number of Gabonese institutions.

Because of the remoteness of this location even packing has been a challenge; we can’t take everything, but what will be the crucial item that we will need or might fail in the field?  How many batteries, remote controllers, Petri dishes, spare drones & drone parts should we bring?  Should we take Malaria tablets or sleep under mosquito nets (it turns out both).

What other inoculations do we need?

 

While we have taken SnotBot to three countries already, Gabon is certainly the end of the road less travelled.  Logistics has been a nightmare, in part because communications has been nigh on impossible.  And as if that was not enough, because our permit came through only a month before the expedition was planned to leave, we did not have all the funds we needed for the expedition just two weeks before we left.  Thanks to a great friend of the oceans (and Ocean Alliance), and our partners at Parley for the Oceans the expedition is now fully funded. So, with 12 bags to check in (all carefully packed to the 50-pound maximum) and 8 carry on bags (some of which might have been overweight) we left Boston on Monday night for Gabon.

The Gabonese government have told us that we will be the first research group to work in their newly designated Marine Protected Area, and we have representatives joining us from ANPN, CENAREST and AGEOS.  The BBC will also document our work for a couple of days as part of a four-part series they are shooting called The Equator from the Air.

I have an incredible team going with me, (from left) Chris Zadra, robotic coordinator; Andy Rogan, scientific coordinator; and  Christian Miller (cinematographer extraordinaire).

But this expedition would not have been possible without the incredible support of Britta Akerley (office and data manager), John Atkinson (logistics coordinator), Mark Hayes (CFO) and of course Ann Cortissoz (social media and communications manager). I, of course, extend my deepest thanks to Amy and Dylan for putting up with me when I repeatedly came home with a new logistical complaint.

Port Gentil, we have been told, does not have many of the basic facilities we have relied on in the past, but we were told just a few days ago that orcas were seen attacking humpback whales. The old commercial whaling pilot charts that we used to guide the Odyssey around the world also show sperm whales in these waters, and because the rainforest runs right down into the sea both hippos and elephants can be seen in the surf.  This is why we are here and I can’t wait to share stories of our adventure with you (Sorry but we will not be looking for either elephants or hippos – so please don’t expect those photos!)

We have worked hard for this one, but the biggest surprise to date has been the fact that Port Gentil does not use credit cards – EVERYTHING IS CASH. Excess baggage fee at the airport: CASH. Airport hotel: CASH. The $2,000 deposit on rental car: CASH – since you can only rent a car with CASH.  I am one of those people who does not carry much cash; luckily, I got word of this issue in advance, but even being warned about it, experiencing it is quite a shock. Considering that Port Gentil is and oil town and is probably the most expensive town that we have run a Parley SnotBot expedition from, this is quite a contradiction.

Last but not least, we heard today that our friends from Sea Shepherd were in town, so we stopped by to say hi; they are doing amazing work patrolling Gabonese waters with the Navy and fisheries aboard looking for poachers.

With all of that said, I am hoping that this will be one of the most productive locations we have visited. Since there is so little known about the whale populations here, almost any data that we get will be valuable…. but I am hoping that we hit this proverbial ball out of the ballpark.

From the amazing West African nation of Gabon – I wish you fair winds and a following sea (but bring CASH).

Iain

 

Gloucester, Gabon, and Beyond

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Dear Friends,

An update on SnotBot: The good news is that things are going well at Ocean Alliance.

TED recently published what I think is one of the best stories on the Parley SnotBot to date.

A few weeks ago a BBC Film crew went to South Woodstock, Vermont, to interview Roger about his life and work. Following that, Annie Minhoff (from NPR’s Science Friday) visited him to do a story. Roger also did a very nice piece earlier this year with the BBC show Witness, called When the World Sang with Whales.

We have been running Parley SnotBot expeditions out to the whales on Stellwagen Banks to test new equipment, protocols and methodologies (note the attached Photogrammetry image).

I did write a general blog at the start of this season which can be found here.  It has been a real pleasure to work directly out of our headquarters. We did manage to collect a Snot sample from a fin whale (see attached) this means that we have successfully collected snot samples from 6 different species of whales.

Fin whale

It is also exciting that the Parley SnotBot now has four distinct scientific legs to stand on: 1. The biological data (snot!), 2. Behavior/photo-ID, 3. Photogrammetry and 4. FLIR/Thermal. We have a new Robotics Program Manager, Chris Zadra, who is helping on all these fronts. On top of that of course is the science communication/educational aspect; after my UN talk this summer a friend said to me that she was very happy that we were helping to make science and learning more accessible globally!

I am very happy to report that we are off to Gabon, West Africa in 12 days. We had planned to visit Gabon with the Voyage of the Odyssey in 2005, when we were just North of the Cape Verde Islands we realized that this would likely cost over $250,000, so we crossed the Atlantic and visited the old whaling grounds called the Twelve Forty Grounds instead.  You can read a blog on the Twelve Forty Grounds that was originally published in May 2005 on the PBS website here.

The whale population in the Gabon region was decimated by commercial whaling, but the whales are thought to be on the rebound. Gabon is not an easy place to get to, and thus its whales have not seen the type of attention that they might see in many areas of the world. To me this is the epitome of a perfect Parley SnotBot location. We plan to work with humpback whales, but sperm whales and right whales have also been seen at this location (so fingers crossed). We will be working with the local conservation authorities ANPN, CENAREST, and Gabon’s Space Agency – AGEOS. Our work in Gabon is going to be documented by the BBC in a show called The Equator from the Air. We will also work with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS). They have a great webpage on Gabon if you want to learn more:https://gabon.wcs.org

Building restoration work continues at the Paint Factory. Prior to hosting the I Am More art show, which drew attention to mental health issues, we laid new concrete floors in buildings A and B. Tobias Richon, our contractor, commented that ‘we are now out of the dirt!’  We are still in discussion with the Economic Development Administration with regards to building/funding a co-work/innovation/maker-space at our site, and we are going through the permitting process to put 136 feet of docks outside of our facility.  Once completed both of these initiatives will constitute significant revenue streams for OA.

Last but not least, Vicky Rowntree and ICB are in the final preparation stages for the 48th annual right whale season in Patagonia!

I could not write a blog without attaching a few of Christian Miller’s amazing photographs. Thank you all again for your interest and support of this work!The next series of blogs will be coming from Gabon, West Africa!!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Iain

 

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!

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