Aloha from Hawaii
Our trip to Maui has been incredibly productive and we still have five days left.
Day one was set up and planning. In the morning we sat down with Ed Lyman and the Resource Protection and Monitoring Team with the Hawaiian Island Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary. In the afternoon we got in a few OEM familiarity flights with Ed’s team on the DJI M210 and the DJI M300. We have three drones with us on this expedition two DJI M210 ‘s that have become our primary tagging drone and a DJI M 300 that is our entanglement response test bed. The M210 and the M300 are Enterprise drones – they are drones that are designed for commercial applications as against recreational use. Just weeks before we arrived Ed received a grant from the Volgenau Foundation that enabled them to buy a DJI M210 drone that Chris is rigging up with our tagging toolbox so that Ed and team and others (NOAA and NMFS) will be able to Tag whales after we leave.
The CATS (camera and data) tags weigh just over a pound and a half, so when we launched our drone tagging program in 2021 we thought that we would need a heavy lift extended flight capacity drones. lt turns out that with Chris’s average tagging time of under 3 minutes and an average distance from the boat to the tagged whale of over 490 meters we should be able to use smaller drones to tag whales in the future, we will be exploring that and other drone tagging equipment upgrades this summer.
On day two we were out on the water by 8:15 and probably with whales by 8:20! I was in Maui in 1993 working on the IMAX film WHALES aboard the RV Odyssey and I can tell you that there are a LOT more whales here now. In the early 90’s the Hawaiian humpback whale population was estimated to be in the three to four thousand range, ten years later it is estimated to be over 20,000 so this population is recovering well.
It took Chris no time at all to drone deploy a CATS tag (with a two hour galvanic release) onto a humpback whale which gave us time to get onto the second priority of this expedition – training. Ed and his team did an amazing job of creating a whale surrogate for his team to practice dropping DTags on to. They towed an upside down 18 foot inflatable dingy behind our boat along with their (plywood) whale tail that they use for disentanglement training. Ed’s chief pilots Bill and Jason each flew multiple flights out to the surrogate whale and dropped DTags, while Chris and I tried to impart what knowledge we could. It turns out that a tagging flight has a lot in common with a SnotBot flight with regards to where you want the drone to be, the speed and height, so the many hundreds of SnotBot flights that Chris and I have flown have been great practice for us for this tagging work. Chris and I were really impressed by Bill and Jason’s flight skills on their first few flights over the surrogate whale they got on multiple DTag attachments!
On day three we had terrible weather and flash flood warnings, so we spent the morning in the NOAA office’s diving deep into many of the challenges that Ed and his team face when disentangling whales. As with the tagging we do not think that the technologies we are developing will replace current tagging or disentanglement methodologies but rather be of help in difficult situations where a close boat approach to a whale might not be advisable. Chris and I really learnt a lot and as with all good meetings we came away with more questions and ideas than we had going in – so huge thanks to Ed and team.
On Saturday Chris spoke at the Maui Whale Trust Whale Tales conference at the Ritz Carlton, Chris spoke right after Ed and right before our good friend Dr. Jorge Urban. The days ceremonies were closed with a talk by Jean Michelle Cousteau so Chris was in good company . On Sunday Ed, Chris and the other presenters went out on whale watches with conference attendees so I took this opportunity to go Mountain Biking in the Makawao Mountain Reserve, it was more like a slip and slide ride but I had a great time.
Clearly it is way too early for us to have any data, but I have attached a few expedition photos — all of our activities are conducted under research permits (in this case Permit No. 24359).
The development and oversight of this work is conducted under the NOAA Fisheries Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response Program, so a big thank you to all of the folks there that have helped to make this work, this collaboration possible.
Last but not least, the hospitality we have received here in Maui has been extraordinary and across the board, people tell me that is the way in Hawaii, but regardless we are very grateful.