SnotBot goes tagging: Success!

Dear Friends,

One word says it all “Success”…. such a simple word, but for us it represents the culmination of months of hard work and years of hard won lessons.

On the first day of SnotBot expedition #16 we successfully attached four — FOUR —  Data Tags onto the backs of blue whales using a drone!

  • On our first approach to a blue whale we deployed a CATS tag (Customized Animal Tracking Solutions) the tag did not release properly, which was our fault (my fault) for not checking a new robot (the piece that holds the tag to the drone).
  • For the second attempt the CATS tag rolled slightly to the left as it dropped and it did not stick to the whale.
  • For the third attempt the tag stuck perfectly and it stayed on for over an hour. Suction cup tags can stay on for up to 40 hours, but early on in the expedition we are only doing short tag deployments as this trip is about developing a system to successfully deploy tags from a drone.

We then tracked the tagged whale, it was so cool, every time the whale came to the surface we could hear the VHF beacon Beep Beep Beep and quickly find the whale before it dove and the tracker went silent.

After a very exciting hour of tracking the CATS tag came off and as we picked it up out of the water we got a second gift, a big piece of skin that we can now use to get DNA from the animal.

With a major success under our belt, we then decided to try attaching a dummy Data Tag – the DTags (real and dummy) were built by Alex Shorter’s Lab at the University of Michigan. The dummy tags are just what they say – cheaper alternatives than the real thing – best used for testing. In the course of the next two hours we successfully attached three dummy tags to blue whales. Such easy words to write – yet an amazing accomplishment. Our goal for this 16 day expedition was to attach 10 tags and we attached four on the first day!

When we reviewed our flight data we noticed that most of Chris’s flight times to Tag a whale were less than two minutes!  Think about that, whale surfaces, drone launches, flies over to the whale, drops the tag and flies back to the boat…in less than two minutes! Another key metric was how far away the whale was from the boat when Chris attached the tag, in these early days we are trying be close to the whales so that we can see how the tags drop and adhere, but for Chris’s last tag attachment for day 1 the whale was just over a kilometer away.

Expedition member Dave Wiley has been tagging whales for over two decades in repose to day ones success Dave said:

“There has been a great deal of effort and funding targeting the development of innovative tags to understand whale behavior, but this is the first major improvement dealing with how the animals are approached and the tags are attached to them. The only downside I can see is that it takes a great deal of UAV expertise to be successful – luckily Ocean Alliance has that expertise”

I want to give our deepest thanks here to OceanX for giving us the support we needed to develop this potentially revolutionary research tool – that will allow us and others to deploy wildlife tags from a drone. I also want to thank our great board, staff and all of our supporters who give us opportunities like this to support marine mammal research and conservation with new drone research tools!

There is still a lot of development work to be done when we return from this expedition, but the team here are beyond elated, the weather is bad now for the next few days so we are working on our drones, release systems and data collection protocols.

I have attached a few of Christian Miller’s photographs. I am sure that we will have more exciting SnotBot goes Tagging stories to share with you soon.

From a very very happy team in Loreto Baja Sur, we wish you fair winds and a following sea.


Iain Kerr

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