SnotBot Expedition 12: A Day in the Life

Dear Friends,

Considering that we are all still sailing in unchartered coronavirus waters, I thought that a distraction might be in order. Following is a SnotBot blog (with photos), written by science manager Andy Rogan.

A Day in the Life: SnotBot Loreto

We get up early. Around 5:45 the early risers can be heard shuffling around and a few minutes later the first people arrive in the communal living room area throwing together a quick breakfast: normally cereal or peanut butter/jelly sandwiches. Breakfast quickly turns into work, as the different team members begin attending to their duties.

Iain is organising the day ahead, sending some quick morning emails, communicating with the park officials, the boat driver and National Park interns about departure times, and then heading down to bring our minivan to the front of the hotel.

Christian is busy with his wide array of camera gear & drones: including a number of different cameras (for drones, stills photography, videography, and underwater videography), and the associated lenses, batteries, and assorted equipment to go with these cameras.

Chris is checking all the Ocean Alliance drone equipment: which drones we will be bringing, the drone controllers and screens, various wires/cables, and equipment for making basic (and sometimes not basic!) repairs at sea.

Britta, Alicia, and Andy are going over the science equipment. Do we have enough petri dishes for the day? Parafilm? Scissors? Ziploc bags for storing samples? Large vials for storing fecal samples? Ensuring the photo-ID camera has batteries and memory cards.

Towards 6:20, the team are all moving their equipment down to the lobby and into the mini van, and at 6:30 we all pile in and set off. It is a tight fit in the mini van.

Twenty minutes later we arrive at a small beach at Puerto Escondido which marks our departure and arrival point, we begin the process of unloading the minivan, and then loading up the 24-foot panga (the typical local fishing boat and driver we rent for these expeditions) with our equipment.

Each person has their own spot on the boat: for themselves and their equipment. Chris typically is towards the front of the boat, where the drones are launched and recovered. Just behind him is Alicia: who has the stores of petri dishes, ready to place them on the drone at a moment’s notice. This forward position also gives her a good spot to get photos for photo-ID. Iain is next, in the middle of the boat, alongside our local boat driver, with his drone controller and screen, ready to fly over to any whales we target for sampling. Andy and Britta are towards the back with the cooler (for storing samples), the datasheets, and all the science equipment. Christian typically moves up and down the boat: depending on what and who he is filming/photographing. It is cramped on the boat with crew and equipment but we have it all pretty worked out.

With the gear all packed up, we head out onto the water, and all eyes begin scanning the ocean for that little cloud of vapor on the horizon which signals the presence of a whale: the whale’s blow/spout (or snot!).

There tends to be a healthy amount of competition on the boat for who can spot the first whale. Naturally, most people think they are the best at spotting whales. Naturally, all of them (apart from myself) are wrong. The reality is that there is only ever one winner when it comes to spotting whales: our local boat driver. No amount of Ocean Alliance knowledge about whales can ever compete with the local boat driver’s skills in not only spotting whales, but predicting their behaviour: the number of times they will exhale at the surface before diving, when they will dive, how long they will dive for, and when (and where!) they will surface: all information which is crucial for a successful expedition.

This work we do can be very exciting. But it can also be very boring. In fact, we have had multiple people fall asleep during these trips. Sometimes we are scouring the ocean for hours without seeing a single whale. Other times we are keeping our head down fully donned with all-weather clothing as waves crash across the deck. We rarely stop for lunch but eat on the fly, the photos and blogs we put out might seem glamorous, but the reality is often very different.

I will save what actually happens when we are working on the boat for another blog – for now I’ll skip ahead a few (or sometimes more than a few) hours! To the time when Iain (the boss) calls it for the day, in Loreto this was typically around 4:00 pm with an expected one hour ride back to the beach (that’s 10 hours on the water). The crew make sure everything is packed up (particularly the battery cases and drones which aren’t particularly fond of seawater), put on their jackets and sit back. Typically, we are alone with ourselves on the journey back: beating against waves with the motor pushing us a long at twenty knots while the wind rushes past is a loud environment and talking tends to be at a minimum.

Our boat driver runs the boat straight up on to the beach, and the team immediately spring into action. Within a few minutes, the boat is empty of all our gear, and is all packed up in the minivan. It is a 20-minute drive back to the hotel, and ten minutes after this all the gear moves swiftly from the van > through the hotel lobby > up the elevator and into our hotel room.

The working day is by no means over.

The science team immediately get to work processing the samples. Each sample (up to six petri dishes) takes between 15-20 minutes to process. On one day on this expedition we collected 18 samples (over 100 petri dishes): taking a little over two hours to process between three people.

Chris and Christian are backing up all their footage and prepare some videos and photos for social media, before recharging a wide array of batteries – ready for the next days work.

Iain is sitting on his bed, madly scrambling to answer important emails, writing blogs, and sending out reports on the day’s work or reviewing footage with Christian and Chris.

Dinner is often made by head chef (and photographer) Christian Miller, or (if the day is running on) a quick journey to one of the local restaurants near our hotel. Dinner conversations tends to be foucsed on the days activities what worked well and what did not.

With the day quickly running down at about 10 pm there is a quick pre-sleep run around, with different people checking all their equipment is ready for the next day, before we all head off to bed to dream of whales, snot, and the drones which bring them together.  All too soon its 5:45 am ….and we are back out on the water.

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Iain here, I will admit that I enjoy the singular focus we have on expedition, yes we keep in touch with our families but we are on expeditions for one reason, to collect as much data as we can. We don’t watch the news or TV, we don’t socialize, we are either prepping, are out on the water, organizing data or equipment.  I can tell you after two weeks of this we are all exhausted, but happy and more often than not thinking about the next expedition.

This summer, coronavirus permitting we will be running a mini SnotBot expedition off Gloucester with humpback, fin and minke whales.

Hoping that you are all staying healthy.

Onwards, Upwards!

Iain

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