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Gabon

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