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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

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.

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Dear Friends,

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

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

The SnotBot 2017 Sea of Cortez team.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain

 

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

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Perseverance pays off

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Yesterday was one of those typical wildlife days, a day when everything seems to be against you and you think that all is lost and then, in the last hour, it all comes together.

We like to get out on the water as early as we can, 7:00 a.m. on the boat means a 5:30 wake-up call to get ready and get down to the marina. We typically stay out until 6:30 p.m. because we have been seeing feeding activity late in the evening. We are working from the premise that during the day the blue whales’ food (krill) is down deep, and the whales are doing random deep dives to feed (meaning it is a lot harder to track them, but they spend a lot more time at the surface between dives). To help us try to be at the right place at the right time with a SnotBot in the air, we record the length of the whales’ dives so we can look for patterns; if a whale keeps regular dive cycles of approximately 7 minutes, we know that to be ready to collect snot we need to get a SnotBot up into the air at 6 minutes and 30 seconds after it dove.

Our day started with 20 knots of wind, so we kept delaying our departure, until at last at around 2:00 p.m. the winds seemed to be diminishing, so we headed out onto the water. We motored North from Loreto for over an hour and did not see a single blow. Finally just before 4:00 p.m., we saw a blow, then two, then a total of eight blows around us. You can imagine we were over the moon; we had found a group of blue whales!

Excitement faded to frustration as the random pattern of dives meant that we were not able to get to the right place at the right time. Our DJI Inspire 1 can fly at over 40 knots, so in most cases we could get a SnotBot to the whale but they were only doing two or three blows at the surface so all I was getting was video footage of blue whales diving. More typical behavior is for the whales to stay at the surface for six or seven blows. Multiple blows at the surface typically gives us enough time to collect snot, we think that in this case they we just doing shallow dives for krill and so did not have the need for extended surface time or blows. Did no one tell these whales that SnotBot was here and we were making a documentary?

By about 5:45 p.m. the sun was going down, we were all tired and sunburnt, and the camera team was losing light, so it looked as if we were going to be skunked. To be fair we were near a whale once but there was a whale watching boat there at the same time and the National Park had requested that we did not fly when tourists were near the whales. As much as we wanted to go back into port, we decided to persevere and stay out till 6:30 p.m.

At around 6:00 p.m. the situation changed dramatically, the water around us seemed to come alive with bubbling krill and the whales started going into full speed surface feeding mode. In the blink of an eye we had whales lunging and surface feeding everywhere (including right next to our boat). Where did all these whales come from?

This was our last day with the Nutopia film team; the one shot they did not have was video of a whale near our boat to give some perspective of the whale’s size. They also wanted Christian to get photos of SnotBot in a blow (below).

Collecting biological data from whales is harder than many people think; SnotBot is helping us with this challenge but the reality is that persistence is still a key factor. We were tired and ready to go home, but we decided to stay the course, and as a consequence, hit it out of the ball park.

From the Sea of Cortez, wishing you fair winds and a following sea.

Cheers,

Iain

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

— Andy Rogan

 

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

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Whoo hooo – wish you were here!!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Iain

 

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

SnotBot Expedition IV, Mexico 2017: Getting There

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

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

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

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

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

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

— John

SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

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OK, so stop me if you heard this one….

A German, two Brits, and a Yank are in a small wooden Panga boat off the coast of the Baja Peninsula using a drone to collect whale snot….

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well why should it? This one was written just weeks ago, but in the making for several years. Although this opening screams for a side-splitting punch line, I have none, for this is no joke. After reading this, you may want to store it away under the category of “You were doing what?” as part of the Bizarro Files.

This blog is just Part One of a series in which I intend to take you on a journey as seen through my progressive-corrective lenses. All of us who participated in this expedition were given the task of writing down their own individual experience. I’m the tech guy/ engineer on this mission, but my goal in writing these blogs will be to “focus” more on the trek with smatterings of geeky, techie stuff sprinkled in. I’ll try to keep it fresh and not to be too redundant of past articles.
The Ocean Alliance SnotBot crew consists of what is fondly referred to by its fearless leader as the A-Team. Not unlike the popular ‘80s television series, the group consists of characters in their own right; Iain Kerr (group leader and drone pilot), Andy Rogan (scientific researcher), Christian Miller (photographer/ documentarian), and me, John Graham (engineering tech). The mission is to perfect the technique in which we collect data rich, liquid exhalation, also known as “snot”, from our cetacean subjects. Spoiler Alert…….. It was a resounding success!! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Following up our “blow-catching” drone debut last September in Patagonia, Act 2 finds our ragtag team in the Sea of Cortez, and for those of you who are geographically challenged, such as me, that is off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our gear consisted of 16 very heavy and oversized waterproof shipping containers, also known as Pelican cases, and personal backpacks. The night before our departure, my wife Rebecca was pulled into the madness that was my packing process. I stood on the bathroom scale, straining to hold the over-stuffed equipment trunks in my hands, and due to my obstructed view, Rebecca recorded the results. I than subtracted my own weight to get the final poundage of the gear. 50 pounds is the cut-off for check-ins without incurring a huge surcharge. It was the first and only time in my life that I wish I weighed more, because in my mind, the more I weighed, the less the bags weighed. This was my feeble attempt to get the luggage to be within the TSA limits. All this research gear was necessary because you never know what you’ll encounter while doing research in remote locations. Small hand tools, check. Battery powered tools, check. Panty hose, check. Wait…What? (I’ll explain later.) We started our journey by leaving from Logan Airport in Boston and landing in Los Cabos San Lucas, you know, the place where the Love Boat would “set a course for adventure”. And indeed it was truly to be an adventure. After a brief overnight stay and having the Mexican Customs Department graciously lighten our load of Pesos as “payment” for allowing us to bring our plethora of gear into their country, we headed out on a 10 hour road trip.

Desert drive

Desert drive

The vistas were ever-changing with diverse terrain ranging from deserts replete with huge prickly cacti standing like silent sentinels strewn across the landscape; to its counterpart, the oases, with fields of lush green farmland and small ponds used for irrigating the crops. This is followed by mountainous roads so windy that the famous “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street in San Francisco, should hand over its crown and admit defeat. I would consider it one of the most beautifully diverse drives I have ever taken. Apart from the confusing and dangerous road rules, like random stop signs on the main highway or having to play a game of “chicken” with a tractor trailer in order to pass, the drive was quite enjoyable. There were however, the occasional sheer cliff drop-offs void of all those pesky guardrails with near-by asphalt adorned with the skid marks of vehicles not so lucky to negotiate the turn. This served as a not so gentle reminder to keep our eyes on the road and not be seduced by the scenery.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at our destination, San Ignacio. It is an amazing little town, whose image is easily conjured up by anyone who may have seen a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Passing multi-colored buildings of stucco and a beautifully crumbling old church in the center of town, we made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t difficult to find, being it was the only one around for miles. Upon our arrival in town we were also exposed to the amazing aromas that wafted in through the van’s open windows. The drive there had provided us little in the terms of substantial nutritional intake, just the usual road trip fare of cookies, chips, and candy bars. We quickly unpacked all our gear into the two rooms that served as a brief respite to recharge our batteries after the long drive, than we headed off on foot into town to find the source of the delicious food bouquet. The sounds and smells of fajitas with chicken and beef grilling pulled us towards a little cafe with outdoor seating. These sensory cues draw me back to that place in time as I sit to write this. After sampling the local cuisine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. We were informed by the hotel manager that on that very night of our stay, the annual Miss Baja Pageant was to take place. Sounded interesting until we discovered that right outside our rooms was the runway for the eager contestants and the festivities didn’t get started until 10:00p.m… This made it difficult for all of us to get sleep, but poor Christian must have drawn the short straw when it came time to choose roomies. The blaring music being emitted from the huge speakers outside was probably a welcome distraction compared to the noises from within his room. He showed great fortitude by not smothering me in my sleep with a pillow in pursuit of muffling the snoring bear in the adjacent bunk with only a night stand and Gideon’s bible as a barrier.
Morning came quickly, as we repacked up the car, grabbed a quick breakfast of huevos, jamon, y frijoles (eggs, ham, and beans) from a roadside tent stand and hit the road for San Ignacio Lagoon. The remote camp was to be our home for the next 5 days. After shooting some “B roll” (that’s movie lingo for the clips that act as filler between the actual action and help set the mood), for our cameraman/ documentarian, Christian, we were on our way. It was a bright sunny day, dirt roads, more cacti, vultures, and a van full of gear and eager SnotBot crew members. The only thing left behind was our memories in a cloud of dust as we made our way to what brought us to this country in the first place, to research Grey Whales by use of our drone platform.

San Ignacio Church

Next blog: Salt, eggs, and rice…..Hint: it’s not a recipe.

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

SnotBot Sea of Cortez: Part 2

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The first leg of the SnotBot Sea of Cortez expedition was to San Ignacio lagoon, where the accessibility of grey whales gave us an opportunity to test a number of different snot sample collection techniques.  After working with fairly social Southern right whales and very social grey whales, the work was about to get a lot harder.  While we had developed a very successful sample collection platform with the DJI Inspire 1 during the first Leg, the question was could we collect snot from other species of less social whales such as humpback, blue & fin whales?

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

San Ignacio Lagoon drone workbench

 

So after 5 productive days in San Ignacio Lagoon, we packed up our 16 bags and made the 12-hour drive to La Paz for Leg 2.  I thought that this drive was going to be very boring with hours of endless desert. While we did have plenty of desert, the countryside was spectacular, driving along coastal roads in and out of low mountainous ranges.  The scenery kept changing from desert to dry river beds where greenery was abundant and human agriculture evident. I have seen so much of Mexico from the sea so it was a real pleasure to have this terrestrial counterpoint.

Road to La Paz

Road to La Paz

 

We arrived in La Paz late on Friday night with a message from Dr. Jorge Urban that it would be too windy to go out on Saturday.  As disappointed as we were to hear this, it did give us a day to organize our equipment, buy the items that we could not get in San Ignacio, and meet the film team, Adrienne & Tom, who had come to document our work for an out-of-house project (more about that later).  It was also a luxury to have a real shower, plug our battery chargers into every socket in the room and connect to the Internet!!

Hotel room

Hotel room

 

Sunday morning we were up at 6:30 and on the boat by 8:00.  Dr Urban (who I have known for over 20 years) from the University of La Paz was at the helm of his 22 ft panga, so we knew that if there were whales out there that we were with the best man in town to find them.  Alas,  Jorge had some bad news to share. The El Nino was wreaking havoc with the Sea of Cortez ecosystems, both marine and terrestrial, and his team were not seeing the typical patterns of whales or abundance – he had just postponed a satellite tagging project because of this.  With those thoughts in mind, we headed out in the Bahia La Paz.  Bounded by the Baja peninsular to the west and the islands of Espirito Santo and Partida to the east, Bahia La Paz extends almost 30 miles north from the city of La Paz and is on average 20 miles wide. These are (typically) very productive whale grounds, and as we spent our first day searching the bay we were regaled with stories of frequent past encounters with humpback, fin and blue whales and occasional encounters with orcas and sperm whales.

Bahia La Paz route

Bahia La Paz route

 

We covered over 100 sun-blistering miles the first day, stopping every hour to look and listen. Despite the optimal conditions we did not see a single blow. We returned to our hotel that night tired, sunburnt and a little disheartened.  This is the business though, so the next morning we were in the panga by 7:30 and back out on the water.  Today our guide was Iram, another seasoned biologist from Dr Urban’s team.  Alas the day did not go much better; we did put our DJI drones to work, though, sending the Phantom 4 up to 380 feet every hour using it as an eye in the sky.

As effective as the Phantom 4 was in increasing our spotting range, we still did not see any blows, and by 4:30 in the afternoon the wind had picked up to 15-20 knots so we headed back in.  We were quite close to the city of La Paz when we saw a blow and quickly identified it as a humpback whale.  Typically in conditions this windy we would not try for a blow collection (above 15 knots the wind lays the blow down and the chances of more salt water in the blow increases).  But considering that this was the first whale that we had seen in 3 days, we went for it.  We had moderate success, but every now and then we took a wave over the bow of the boat. This was not good because we had a boat full of electronics, 3 drones and supporting equipment along with close 80K of camera equipment (Christian & Tom both had Red cameras).  So we had to abandon the work and head back into port.  As you can imagine, by this time I was really sweating it (and not because of the heat). We had a very successful first leg, but we needed to validate what we had learned with other species of whales. That night I called our logistics and expedition coordinator, John Atkinson (in Canada), to set up a spotter plane for the next day. We did not have a budget for a plane but we had to find whales. We set it up so that we would spend an hour and a half driving the panga out into the bay and then we would call the plane.  Clearly the whale gods were on our side. Right when we were about to call the plane I heard Adrienne shout BLOW.  Everyone leaped into action, and less than 20 minutes later we had our first humpback whale sample and it was spectacular – our petri dishes and the Inspire 1 were dripping with snot.

Dripping drone

Dripping drone

 

We stayed with this animal for the next few hours, keeping the panga away, but making a number of close approaches with the Inspire 1.  Andy was timing the animal’s dives, which were running at about 9 min. Our procedure was as follows: at 8 min we would prep the Inspire 1; at 8 min 30 sec John Graham would launch the drone and I would hover above the boat ready to go.  Once we saw a blow, my challenge was to get to the whale in time for the second blow.  Once I saw the whale on the surface, I would race the drone towards it and then get into my FPV position (sometimes this would be very disorientating because I would have a drone’s eye view of the world but the boat would be bouncing out of sync with my view).  The whale seemed to like Andy because once he shouted “Should be coming up any second now” and within 5 seconds the whale surfaced. Our drone and launch protocols, our practice as a team, our development of the collection methods all seemed to come together with great results, so we were living the SnotBot dream.  Once when the whale was down Christian sent up his Inspire 1 to film our boat underway, next thing you know the Humpback breached in the frame with our boat in the picture—absolutely blooming amazing.  We went home that night over the moon. Certainly we needed to test SnotBot with other whales, but it looked as if we had a winning formula, all of this work had been caught on camera by two remarkable cameramen, and we still had one day left on the water……. and OMG what a day that was! Ill report on our last day in my next blog.

Dr. Iain Kerr