SnotBot Sea of Cortez Part 3: Blue Whale
Two remarkable people joined us in La Paz to document the second (and last) leg of our Sea of Cortez expedition. Adrienne Hall from Sound Off Productions (soundofffilms.com) and wildlife cameraman Tom Fitz (http://fitzpro.tv). Adrienne has worked on a number of projects with my good friend Louie Psihoyos (“Racing Extinction” & “The Cove”) and Tom and I met at a friend’s wedding over 20 years ago.
By 8:00 am the SnotBot team were in a 22 ft panga heading out into Bahia La Paz both excited and a little anxious. We’d had a very productive time in Baja Mexico but we wanted to put the icing on the cake – we needed to further validate SnotBot as a scientific tool, and to do that we needed to fly with at least one more species of whale and this was the last day on the water, the last day of the expedition. Dr. Jorge Urban was at the helm along with two of his students from the University of La Paz and Adrienne and Tom were in a second boat to get a different filming perspective. So we had the A team, we had DJI drones, we had great weather, we just needed whales. As we headed offshore I joked with Dr Urban, “OK Jorge we need a blue whale today!” In spirit, he smiled and replied, “No problem amigo!”
And two hours into our search that’s what happened. We saw a blow a long way off (still too far off to confirm what species, but it did not look like a humpback blow). My heart was racing as the boats sped towards where we had seen the blows. After 10 minutes of high speed running the boats slowed down and we immediately launched a SnotBot. Within seconds we saw a blow, still a long way off. Luckily the Inspire 1’s top speed is close to 50 mph so I raced towards the whale and was soon close enough to see it though my FPV camera system…. and OMG – it was a blue whale! I cannot describe my feelings as I approached this remarkable animal gliding through the water. After almost 30 years in this business and a British understated reputation to maintain, I have to admit that my hands started shaking and yes I made a mess of my first approach and did not get a blow sample. I did not care though, the experience of flying SnotBot over the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet was an experience of a lifetime. To put this animal’s size into context: this is the largest animal that has ever lived on the planet; an adult blue whale’s tongue can weigh 6.5 tons; the heart is so big that a human adult could climb into one chamber. Our blue whale was stunning in the crystal clear water, seeming to swim effortlessly. After it dove I just left the drone hovering above its footprint and looked around at the rest of the team who were all ecstatic – last day on the water, beautiful weather and we were with a blue whale. I have only ever seen a blue whale once and when you look at the photo below you realize that a drone’s eye view is incomparable; it’s the ultimate viewing experience. Look at its features, how the eyes protrude so that the animal can see forward; look at all of the different musculature and markings on the animal; just look at its amazing color. So often with SnotBot we focus on the physical data we are collecting from the blow: DNA, microbiomes, pregnancy and stress hormones, but here we can see that even the photos and video that we take have enormous scientific, educational and emotional value.
The whale was not coming up in any predictable manner (position-wise), but it was keeping pretty regular dive times (approximately 10 minutes). So to be safe, we would prep for drone launch at eight minutes and launch at around eight and a half minutes and I would hang in the air 25 feet up looking and waiting for a blow. This whale’s first blow was always huge, the second big and the third pretty wimpy and the animal would dive right after the third blow, so I had to get there for the second blow. It took two more tries. I flew down the length of the body just as the whale came up and we caught a massive blow (there is even a rainbow in the blow) well over 80 microliters and just amazing photos and video. We had 3 more blue whale blow captures that day before we left the animal, totally stunned by the whole experience, with remarkable data, footage and emotions.
I think that it is important to pause here and remember that there is no shortcut with the scientific process. We have spent years developing SnotBot working with many volunteers, conducting endless tests with more than enough failures, and a few crashes ashore and over water. For the first leg of this expedition we spent three days flying into grey whale blows with 5 different snot collection experiments – a total of 41 flights, all of which collected snot but we made no progress collecting snot sample sizes bigger than we collected in Argentina until the 6th and last experiment. Raising funds for this work has also been a tough road, because it was new and experimental. Yes the Kickstarter campaign was successful, but for a small non profit, developing the Kickstarter campaign and running it all the way through to the fulfillment process took up an inordinate amount of staff time and costs. Five years ago pretty much everyone laughed at the SnotBot idea yet here we were collecting samples from blue, humpback, grey and southern right whales. Success is never guaranteed, hard work is – so to have hit the ball out of the ball park on the last day was an experience that is hard to define. I have spent much of my life looking at whales from an oblique angle from a boat. In one of our first experiments together in 1988 Roger Payne and I were flying helium balloons and parasails in Argentina trying to get up into the air and here we were 27 years later getting the perfect aerial view and I can tell you it did not disappoint!
We learned so much on the last two expeditions; we better understand what the challenges are ahead of us and what our current limitations are. At the end of the day, though, SnotBot has been an unqualified success – the capacity and value of drones as marine mammal research tools has been validated beyond our initial expectations. The journey is by no means over though. I hope that you will stay with us; we are going to keep pushing this work forward and we hope that you will continue to support us. If you are interested in contributing to this work at any level or know someone who might want to help, please let us know. Also be advised that there is SnotBot SWAG available in our store! http://shop.whale.org
I have to thank all of you out there who are reading this for joining us on this remarkable journey. To the many supporters without whom we could not have done this work – thank you, thank you. My deepest thanks also go to the staff at Ocean Alliance for being the foundation upon which this work stands. Last but not least I want to thank my wife and daughter, my drone heaven has been their drone hell, my wife posted on her Facebook page just before we left “Must be a SnotBot expedition coming up, I have a drone in the bathtub, drone parts all over the dining room table and two drones on my bed.”
Dr. Iain Kerr