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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

 

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

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Dear Friends,

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

Whale poo

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

Best Fishes from Mexico.

Iain

FlightWave Edge — Parley SnotBot Expedition 7

By | Mexico, SnotBot, Whales | No Comments

Dear Friends,

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

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

FlightWave Edge

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Fishes from Loreto in the Sea of Cortez.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Expedition #7

By | Mexico, Whales | No Comments
Dear Friends,
Parley SnotBot Expedition #7, the first for 2018, is now underway. Our enthusiasm remains high as we are returning to two of our favorite locations: San Ignacio Lagoon and Loreto. We have a slightly expanded team, expanded mission goals, and two new drones to test.
Our first location and mission will be on the Pacific side of the Baja peninsula, at San Ignacio Lagoon. Here we will be counting gray whales from the air using our FlightWave Edge vertical take-off and landing fixed-wing drone. Dr. Steven Swartz has been doing abundance surveys from small boats here for over 30 years, and as many of you know we have been conducting aerial surveys of the Southern right whales in Argentina for over 46 years.  Along with the SnotBot themes of easier, cheaper, safer, and field-friendly we are exploring the use of fixed-wing UAS for these surveys/population counts. We do not plan on doing a full lagoon survey this year, but we will deploy our FlightWave Edge and test different flight patterns, different cameras/camera angles and different speeds.  Our goal is to cover part of Dr. Swartz’s survey line (from the air) to see how the UAS whale counts compare with his vessel-based counts.  We are very lucky to have Dan Levy from FlightWave with us this year to help us put the Edge thought its paces. We will be writing a full blog on the Edge and our results but it is an exciting machine!
The second location will be a more familiar Parley SnotBot expedition with blue whales off Loreto. Our goals for this expedition are:
•+40 blow samples – volume, volume, volume!!
•Validate all deployment, storage and collection protocols.
•Test different configurations & size of petri dishes with the goal of more robust samples.
•Conduct day long focal follows of one animal, collecting multiple blows over the day along with opportunistic feces collection.
•Compare snot collection from 3 different aerial platforms. Inspire 2, Mavic Pro, Matrice 210 (thank You FLIR)!
•Fly for visual data streams – photo-ID & volumetrics work (build on our Intel database and protocols) – also spot for Faeces.
•Sample other species opportunistically: fin whales, sperm whales, orca?
•Ensure full video data feeds and corresponding meta & live data is collected (i.e. wet or dry blows).
•Take the body temperature of a whale by looking down its blowhole with a FLIR Zenmuse XT camera – another first we believe for the Parley SnotBot program.
Matrice 210

Matrice 210

 

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

Gray whale

 

Blue whale

Blue whale

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

Parley SnotBot Alaska: the view from behind the camera

By | Alaska, Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In a previous post, Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr recounted the the nail-biting events leading up to National Geographic’s Earth Live segment during which SnotBot collected whale blow from a humpback in Alaska on live TV. Now Alex Tate, producer of the Alaska segment of National Geographic’s Earth Live, gives us a look at the

 

On 9th July 2017, the small island of Kake in South East Alaska hosted a team from National Geographic hoping to make television history. Two years in the making, Earth live was to be an unprecedented wildlife documentary with cameras across six continents – from lions in Africa to bull sharks in Fiji – all filming in a single live two-hour show. National Geographic had chosen Frederick Sound as a location to film humpback whales as part of this live spectacle, and they had clearly done their homework. It’s one of the best places in the world to see these majestic giants, especially during the months of July and August; still the odds of the team completing its mission were stacked against them.

That’s because they weren’t here simply to film humpback whales, they were following a scientific team from Massachusetts-based ocean Alliance, which was using a drone called SnotBot to collect whale exhale, or snot, when these giants come to the surface to breathe. The sample can offer amazing insights into the biology and physiology of the whales, from DNA to hormones, data that in the past scientists could only get invasively by getting close to a whale and taking a biopsy. And National Geographic wanted to broadcast this revolutionary scientific method on TV.

Attempting to film SnotBot capture a live snot sample was to be a real technological challenge, one which included boats drones, and an airplane. In total there were four cameras, the primary drone (SnotBot) taking the sample, a second drone filming SnotBot, a cameraman on the boat filming the SnotBot drone pilot, and a camera on an airplane with a gyro-stabilized gimble to keep the shots steady. The plane also was acting as a relay to get the live images from the boat back to a satellite on land which had been set up at Point Macartney. From there the images were to be beamed up into space and then on to the main studio in New York, where all the other live feeds from around the world were sent.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

The whole team just before the Nat Geo shoot.

Because the feeds from the cameras on the boat (the Glacier Seal) had to get back to the satellite on point Macartney, it meant the range of the filming team was restricted to effectively line-of-sight, so they weren’t able to explore the full length of Frederick Sound on their hunt for whales. In any other year this might not have been a problem, as usually the area is jam-packed full of whales. However, this year the whales were scattered and isolated, with individuals using it as a highway but few staying around to feed. This made the Earth Live mission even harder.

If the lack of whales weren’t enough to worry about, the weather also caused concern. On the morning of the live event on the 9th, the clouds rolled in and the rain began to shower down. Not only was that bad news for the drones (they don’t take kindly to a drenching), but more crucially it meant the plane could not take to the sky. Without the plane, the live feeds from the boat could not be beamed back to the satellite on Point Macartney and then on to the studio in New York. At midday, the team had to do a live rehearsal with New York with no drones, no plane and, to add insult to injury, no whales. It did not look promising.

But they say fortune favors the brave, and at 4 pm (8 pm in New York, the time the live broadcast started), the clouds had cleared, the sun was out, the plane was up in the sky, and drones were on standby, ready to be called into action. At 4:30 pm, the drone was deployed, a whale had surfaced some 300 feet in front of the boat. Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance and chief drone pilot, carefully maneuvered SnotBot into position above the whale’s blowhole, and on the third attempt he struck the bullseye. As the whale surfaced and took one last breath, its exhalation covered the petri dishes on SnotBot, complete with all the scientific information the team was hoping for. The timing couldn’t have been more perfect, as, with a flick of its fluke, the whale dove and vanished from sight. And for national Geographic, they achieved a world first — humpback whale snot captured on live TV!

This was my first visit to SE Alaska and Kake, and I have to say that the community support we received undoubtedly helped to make this expedition successful. People always greeted us warmly and were quick to offer help. I hope my work will bring me back to Kake again one day.

Alex Tate
Producer of Earth Live

Parley SnotBot Alaska – the science

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Dear Friends,

I love these expeditions, but I will admit that when I get back home I am exhausted. There is nothing more exciting that being in the field with a good hypothesis, good equipment and a great team. In the field, you just focus on the work that you are doing. Typically in the remote locations that we go to we have poor to no cell contact so we are cut off from the world around us, living in our work bubble (which is unusual in today’s ever-connected world). We work dawn to dusk, go through the data, back up hard drives at night, and then start it all again the next morning.

When we started the SnotBot program we were fairly confident that the tool would work at some basic level, but we did not realize the myriad experiments, applications and opportunities that these drones would bring to the marine science table. Nor did we realize how lucky we would be with the partners that would come onboard to help us with collection and preservation protocols, analyzing the samples and processing the data. Analysis team leaders to date are Dr. Scott Baker, Dr. Shannon Atkinson, and Dr. Fred Sharpe.

The population studies that Dr. Baker and his team are doing with the DNA are amazing. To learn more about Scott’s work I encourage you to visit his website. Please note that the paper “ ‘Eve’ and descendants shape global sperm whale population structure” came, in part, from data collected during Ocean Alliance’s Voyage of the Odyssey.

We are over the moon to be working with Shannon Atkinson’s Lab. As critical as hormones are to mammals, many people don’t understand how they work, so we are lucky that Kendall Mashburn from Shannon’s lab has written up a piece on hormones that she calls, “So Whales Have Hormones, Too?” In their most simple capacity, hormones are tiny molecules that govern nearly everything every animal does. From sleeping to eating to the transitional changes of puberty or pregnancy, these tiny molecules are potent activators and pretty much run the show in all animals’ bodies. The endocrine system is the group of organs responsible for the production of hormones.

Hormones come in two major varieties, the steroids and the proteins. Steroids are the major settings for the body’s operation, and the proteins fine tune those settings. Some familiar steroids are testosterone, progesterone, estrogen, and cortisol. Steroids are synthesized by the body using a cholesterol backbone in the same way as in almost all living organisms.  The term for this is evolutionary conservation. The beauty of evolutionary conservation is that steroid hormones have the same basic structures and functions in a fish as they do in a human. The structural similarities are a boon to people who study wildlife endocrinology, as it means that the tools used by your local hospital or lab to analyze human steroid hormones are not only commercially available, but generally compatible with steroids produced by any other living organism.

What we don’t know about whales, particularly the great whales, is astonishing. How do we know how best to protect them if we don’t know how they function and under what conditions they function best?  How can we tell when something is wrong? Since hormones in whales, as in other mammals, dictate a physical reaction, they are an excellent place to start to understand things like pregnancy and responses to stress, food shortages or other anthropogenic influences. Hormones are potent and evoke a distinct response. After their work is done, they are metabolized and excreted. In some cases, hormones are broken down by the body and the important bits are recycled. In other cases, they are expelled the way you would get rid of any other bodily waste product.  That’s right — urine, feces and breath (snot)! These forms of excrement can be some of the most precious biological samples available to wildlife scientists. SnotBot has the potential to swoop in and collect the respiratory blow from the animal. This gives the wildlife endocrinologist the ability to determine real-time concentrations of hormones of free-ranging animals.

It will take some time to define the baseline physiology of these incredible animals, but each snippet of information is one step closer to helping us better understand them.  More importantly, understanding the physiology allows us to communicate how the whale functions to people responsible for their conservation.  In turn, natural resource managers can make conservation decisions based on the actual health of the animals. And while it is true that being among whales is the experience of a lifetime, a wildlife endocrinologist gets positively hormonal the second they carry those precious samples into the lab!

Thank you, Kendall, Shannon, Scott, Fred and your staffs and interns for bringing such value to the work that we do.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

SnotBot Indian Summer

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Dear Friends,

While I am not sure of the title of this email is politically correct, it is definitely good for us in Alaska. The day we arrived in Juneau, it was bucketing down rain and blowing 30 knots — this is fall in Alaska after all. The last two days (after foggy starts) have been blue skies and sunny, 5 to 10 knots of wind and calm seas.  We have also had good whale interactions, not the big numbers of animals we see in the summer, but that is OK. The Parley SnotBot gods seem to be with us.

It’s great to be working with Ted, Bryn, and Javier from INTEL Labs for a second  time, following our July expedition. This expedition (beyond collecting snot) we are working to further develop their photogrammetry and volumetrics programs as well as train them to fly and collect data over whales. I have often stated that I believe this work, these tools, are replicable, so we are trying to walk the talk; we have now collaborated with biologists in two other countries (Argentina and Mexico) and left them with drones and instruction / data sheets as part of this philosophy. And now INTEL.

Most people don’t realize that the expedition part of our work is just the beginning. In many ways the real work starts when we get home and start analyzing the data. But that can also be the most frustrating time; there is nothing more disappointing than getting home and finding out you did not collect some key data point, or that you saw some unique behavior / data but did not realize it at the time and as a consequence could not act on it. The best analogy I can think of is the difference between the old tech of using a film camera and the current tech of digital cameras. I remember coming home from our whale camp in Argentina with 20 rolls of film, not really knowing what I had captured but hoping for the best. With digital photos you can look at them real time and know if you got the shot. This is the capacity that the team (and the technology) at INTEL is developing with us, and it is a game changer — we are able to make better use of our time and resources, which is good for the whales, good for us, and even good for the funders that are supporting this work.

It is incredible how far we have come since Parley for the Oceans, our founding partner, introduced us to INTEL and brought us together at the United Nations on World Oceans Day 2017 on June 8. Not only have we developed new tech, but we have put that tech to use. I am excited to report that we have already identified whales that we saw on our first Parley SnotBot expedition this summer as a consequence of looking at our data in real time, in the field, and we’ve been able to estimate how the animals are doing healthwise. If you compare the attached photos taken at very different angles you can get an idea of how good this tech is that the INTEL team are developing. Circumstantial evidence suggests that this has not been a productive summer food wise for Alaska’s humpback whales. We saw far fewer whales in Frederick Sound this summer than we did in summer 2016, so this is a great time to be bringing this new technology to bear.

I am sending this email from a sat phone, so apologies for fewer photos and a shorter blog.

Another first for the Parley SnotBot team and another great collaborative effort.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

Parley SnotBot Alaska, Take Two

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Dear Friends,

I am writing this email en route to Alaska. Yes, we are heading back up to Alaska for the second time this year, and it is exciting for many reasons. The first of which being that we are continuing our Parley SnotBot collaboration with INTEL and Ted Willke’s team at the Mind’s Eyes lab.

On the scientific front, to be able to go back and study the same population later in the same year is not something that we get an opportunity to do that often; couple this with the advanced tech the Mind’s Eye lab are bringing to the table, and we have an exciting expedition ahead of us. We are returning to the area we worked this summer in the hope of seeing some familiar whales and documenting how their behavior, interactions, and body condition have changed since we last saw them.

Since the last expedition Ted, Bryn, and Javier have been working like crazy to expand their fluke ID database and further develop their algorithms so that they can better identify individual animals and better estimate size/girth with their volumetrics work (more on that later). The weather is likely to be a challenge, but we have stacked the odds as far as we can in our favor. We are of course working with the Alaska Whale Foundation and Dr. Fred Sharpe, who should keep us pointed in the right direction.

We will be staying on a boat instead of with our good friends at the Kake Kwaan Lodge (sorry Tinker) so Internet is going to be tricky, but my goal is to send you expedition blogs whenever possible. We do have expedition cameraman extraordinaire Christian Miller with us, so expect some pretty dramatic photographs – I have attached a few from the summer expedition.

I remain an avid proponent of drones for whale research but also of drones for ocean research. I think that these machines are going to permeate every aspect of ocean research, changing the way we do our work and hopefully resulting in a democratization of science, with more people collecting more data in more locations, more affordably, and more safely. It’s just amazing to me how far this tech has come in just three years and how far it has permeated (and will permeate) so many aspects of our work. Not just the drones and sensor packages but also the support equipment. I was in our robotics lab last weekend 3D printing small mounts to hold petri dishes on the INTEL Falcon 8 drone for this expedition (photos attached) and I realized how I was already taking this amazing affordable tech ($2,500 printer) for granted. Yes, one of the students (Austin, pictured below) had to do the design work for me (10 min?) and then we were printing out custom mounts for two different drones just 30 minutes after coming up with a design concept – crazy.

And don’t even get me started on the Artificial Intelligence and machine learning work that Ted and his team are doing. I bring this up because while I believe that the work we are doing now is innovative and, dare I say, disruptive (in a positive way), I am excited by what we will likely be doing with drones in two years from now. I will admit to finding the challenge of trying to predict where this tech is going and how we will make best use of it very thought-provoking.

As an example, when we are collecting snot we have to have our Parley SnotBot at the right height above the whale, we have to be the right distance behind the whale’s blowhole (varies due to the speed of the whale) and we have to be at the right angle behind the blowhole (depending on crosswind) so that we are in the best position to collect the largest amount of snot that we can. It’s not as easy as you might think. I have thousands of hours of flying time, which most people don’t have – making the current Parley SnotBot tool not as replicable as we hope for. That said, I believe that in a year’s time (two at most) pilots like me will just be overseeing the snot collection flight with the SnotBot auto sensing drone (version 22 🙂 analyzing all of the above parameters in real time and far more accurately and consistently than a human can – consequently bringing in more and better data and bringing this tech into the hands of pilots who have training but perhaps not as much as our pilots have and need now.

From a wet and windy in Alaska.

Onwards Upwards.

Iain

Iain Kerr: Update #2 from the Maldives

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Day 4 in the Maldives. We have been traveling down the Maldive Island chain, and today we will reach our last stop and the last (occupied) island in the Maldives: Huvadhu Atoll. I will fly out of here on Monday & then back to the USA on Tuesday. Since we landed in the capital Island Male, we have visited Vaava Atoll, Meemu Atoll, Laama Atoll and North Huvaghu Atoll. Yesterday we had a pretty rough ocean passage lasting about 9 hours between Laamu & Huvadhu Atoll – it was in this deepwater channel that the RV Odyssey found the most abundance of whales in 2003/2004. We saw a large group of dolphins, but the rough seas made any sort of whale watching tough going.

christianmiler_parley_maldives-25lr

It has been a pretty amazing experience to be able to sit down and talk with this group of like-minded, passionate environmentalists every day. None of us have the same speciality (whales, turtles, plastics, clean oceans, education) but everyone has an enormous passion for our oceans. One of the hardest parts of my job (after fundraising) is reviewing stories & science from my friends, associates and media from around the world – stories and data that speak to the constant onslaughts that humanity is inflicting on our oceans. While it is critically important for us at Ocean Alliance to understand what the problems are and who is doing what – this really can get overwhelming and depressing at times. So to be in the Maldives surrounded by some of the most pristine oceans in the world with such a powerful group of activists and environmentalists is definitely an uplifting experience. I will certainly be returning home with renewed enthusiasm.

If you have a moment put these names into Google and read about the remarkable achievements of these Parley Ocean Ambassadors:

Kahi Pacarro – Sustainable Coastlines Hawaii
Christian Miller – Photographer (Nat Geo underwater photographer of the year 2014).
Emily Penn – Founder and director of Pangaea Exploration
Mike Long – Director of Operations, Parley for the Oceans. Maldives Expedition leader. www.parley.tv
Shaahina Ali – Photojournalist & Environmental educator.
Steve Richardson – Adidas Group
Ann Schultz – Ocean Adventurer & nurse.

Not on this trip but on our minds: Cyrill Gutsch, founder of Parley for the Oceans.

Last night we watched a very humbling and educational film on the early history of Greenpeace called ‘How to Save the World’ (this film has not yet been released). I had forgotten that the first pre Greenpeace campaign was against a nuclear test in the Aleutian Islands. Robert Hunter said, “This test is not just an offense to humanity, nuclear testing it is an offense to nature”. It was after this campaign then that the two philosophies: Green & Peace came about. Greenpeace is now perhaps one of the most recognized environmental brands in the world.

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As you can see from Christian Miller’s photos, our last anchorage is spectacular & we do not have to look far for wildlife.  As we finished dinner, we had a visit from a nurse shark (my iPhone photo), and we had time for a snorkel this morning.

Shark Visit

I have 3 more days to learn all I can from these extraordinary people. I will do my best to keep you posted on our progress.

From South Huvadhu Atoll, Maldives – I wish you all well.

Iain

Iain Kerr Reporting from the Maldives

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Currently I am in the Maldive Islands on an expedition put together by Parley for the Oceans. Ocean Alliance’s Research Vessel Odyssey was in the Maldive Islands in 2003 & 2004 (see whale sightings chart below) as part of our 5 1/2 year global circumnavigation to collect baseline data on the distribution, concentrations and effects of environmental toxicants in the world’s oceans. I never made it to the Maldives for either of the Odyssey’s visits, but heard nothing but good reports about them from the Odyssey crew.

Odyssey Maldives
I am aboard an 80 ft powerboat called The Dive-Master with a pretty incredible crew of ocean advocates, film makers and scientists. I am aboard as part of a program called The Parley Ocean School. This is another aspect of Parley’s collaborative mindset in which creative people from all aspects of life get together to share their experiences and work for solutions…in Parley’s own words: To raise awareness and to collaborate on projects that can end the destruction of the magic universe below us: Our Oceans. We have another vessel traveling with us with more than 20 people from Adidas. I will find out the exact number before the end of the trip, but between the Adidas folks and our group we represent at least 12 nationalities. The Adidas folks have come to learn about, experience, and then work for ocean conservation.

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As one of Parley’s ocean ambassadors, I am giving a series of talks during the week and either leading or participating in a number of workshops. I gave my first talk ‘Why Whales’ today – the boat was underway and I was on my 5th slide during which I say – I wish people would not talk about whales and dolphins – dolphins are small toothed whales! As soon as I said this (I was standing looking over the heads of the audience) I saw dolphins racing towards the bow of the boat. The talk was suspended for 10 minutes while we watched them cavort off the bow, and it certainly brought a new perspective to my whale talk.  Emily Penn, the founder and director of Pangaea Expeditions, then gave an amazing talk on her journey and work over the last 8 years. After lunch we all split up for an activity, dive, snorkel, paddle board. We then joined up on a deserted beach and spent a few hours doing a beach clean up.

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I applaud Parley for putting this expedition together — a good blend of science, exposure to ocean wildlife, and getting our hands dirty — all in the name of Ocean Conservation.

From Laamu Atol in the Northern Indian Ocean – I wish you all well.

Iain Kerr

What We Found on Our Shoreline

By | apr14, Education, Ocean Alliance News, Paint Factory Headquarters | No Comments

Volunteers for Harbor CleanupIt was a beautiful clear sunny day on Saturday when members of the Gloucester community gathered to clean our harbor. Teams were dispersed all around the city thanks to the coordination efforts of the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, Maritime Gloucester, our two Cultural Districts downtown and on Rocky Neck, and our own Rebecca Siswick Graham. After a presentation about ocean trash by the Rozalia Project Friday night, volunteers gathered at their assigned locations Saturday morning for this one-hour effort to collect and record as much trash and recycling as possible. Read More