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Dr. Iain Kerr is the CEO of Ocean Alliance (OA), an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding in 1971 by renowned scientist Dr. Roger Payne. Ocean Alliance’s programs include a groundbreaking global pollution study, The Voyage of the Odyssey; the longest continuous study of a great whale species, The Patagonia Right Whale Program; and a number of education initiatives. OA has maintained a reputation for developing innovative benign research tools and techniques that engage scientists and conservationists alike.
Born in Scotland in 1956, Iain received his Bachelor’s Degree in Education, with honors, from the University of London in 1978. His passion for “conservation science” has driven him to run more than 60 expeditions around the globe and to author or co-author more than 80 scientific papers. In 2013, Iain recognized that drones could be the future of whale research and conservation. In 2015, the first SnotBot® prototype was launched and today has collected over 500 respiratory samples from six species of whale in five different countries. In 2014, as part of their 25th anniversary, the Annenberg Foundation listed Iain as one of 25 global visionary leaders.
Iain’s work has been featured in the National Geographic productions Earth Live and One Strange Rock, BBC’s Blue Planet Live, Billy Connolly’s Great American Trail and BBC 2’s The Equator from the Air.
Lindsay Gearheart: Tell me about your background and what brought you to Ocean Alliance 30 years ago.
Dr. Iain Kerr: I got a bachelor’s degree from the University of London, but I’d been in a boarding school before that, and I was really looking for an adventure. I ended up down in Argentina in the late 1980s, and I met this fellow on a beach called Roger Payne. Roger Payne is a bit of a whale legend, he’s the man who discovered that whales sing songs, but of course, I had no idea of this. I think he was doing some job with whales and had a very respectful group of people around him, and I probably wasn’t that respectful and suggested he do it a different way. He’s a gentleman, and he said, “Please show me what your idea is.” As I remember it, the idea went quite well, and he looked back at me and said, “Now, who are you again?” And I’ve been working with him for over 30 years.
I think I’m a generalist. You’ll meet some brilliant scientists out there whose body of work is like a fine orchestra. It’s just a magical depth that few of us can understand. I think I’m one of those dangerous people who know a medium amount about a lot of things. And I think that’s becoming more and more rare in this world, I think we’re often put in a position to over-specialize, and I think we’re missing a lot of these generalists.
LG: Ocean Alliance’s mission is to protect whales and their ocean environment. I’m curious if you could talk about what risks are facing the marine environment today?
IK: It’s interesting. When I started this work, the primary threat to whales was commercial whaling. Certainly, our initial efforts were against that. In a bizarre situation, I’ve been working on behalf of whales and our ocean environment for 30 years, and whales now face more threats than they did when I started 30 years ago. Imagine you’ve been building a house and there’s less of it after 30 years than there was when you started.
I think one thing we all do understand now more than we did back then is the interconnectedness of everything. I like to say, “Healthy whales, healthy oceans, healthy humans.” Many people are happy to understand that two-thirds of our planet is water, but I don’t think they really understand that the ocean is the largest mediating force on our planet. The sad physical component about our oceans is that our oceans are downhill from everything and gravity never sleeps. So byproducts from our consumer lifestyle ever more seem to be washing down into our oceans, and we’re certainly finding it a struggle to get people engaged in that. Ocean Alliance is a conservation science organization, so we look at problems and we collect scientific data purely in the hope that we can capture hearts and minds and change policies and laws and engage people in the wild world.
LG: An aspect of your work that I was particularly interested in discussing was your discovery of drones. I was wondering if you could talk to me about how drones could hold the keys to the future conservation of marine mammals.
IK: I think what’s interesting from my end that I probably didn’t initially realize is that whales are actually very difficult animals to study. I have this joke where I say, “If you’re studying a rhino on the Serengeti, it doesn’t throw a bucket of salt water at you, disappear underneath the sand, and then reappear five miles away in any direction.”
I don’t want to trivialize it, but I was down in the Gulf of Mexico working after the Deepwater Horizon disaster with sperm whales, and I almost felt like I was playing the most expensive version of whack-a-mole on the planet. A whale would appear on my right, and we would race over there to try to get a physical sample from an animal. Understand that when you do a biological health assessment, when you go the doctor, what do they do? They might take your blood, urine, or a biopsy sample. To understand biological machines, we need physical samples.
So I’ve spent a lot of my life biopsying whales, but again, it’s quite difficult to do. You need to get quite close. And definitely it’s not the most uninvasive technology. If I told you that I wanted to measure your hormone levels and I was going to do it with a crossbow, if you would start running down the street and I’d chase you, I’m sure your hormone levels would be elevated by the time I collected the sample.
So the drone work came out of a frustration that there had to be a better way and the fact that it’s expensive and we weren’t getting the data we needed. I love to romanticize the story, but it really was the end of the day, the sun was going down, and I needed this robust sample set. I’d raced over to this whale, it had dived just out of range, I was incredibly frustrated, and I was engulfed in this cloud of whale snot. Many people that have been whale watching will tell you that being engulfed in whale snot is a very subjective experience. It’s fishy, smelly, a little bit sticky, and of course the purists think it’s wonderful while other people are running for the bathroom.
As biologists, the fact that it was smelly, and it had all these factors, made us say, “Wait a minute. Could there actually be something of value here?” So I went home and went online, and I saw that people had used what’s called exhaled breath condensate in captivity with animals to try to look at their health. There’s a woman in Mexico called Acevedo-Whitehouse who tried using a little radio-controlled helicopter to collect exhaled breath condensate. But in that case, there were deep concerns that the machine that she was using to collect the data was affecting the data.
I will say, that is a key thing about the device we developed. One of the most important things here is can we avoid the Heisenberg uncertainty principle or the observer effect. Can we collect biological data from an animal without it knowing? Clearly if we were going to devise such a machine, it needed a name that had authenticity. We came up with the name SnotBot.
People have on occasion decried me for diminishing science by taking a viable tool and giving it such a silly name, but I actually think as scientists we’re failing to engage humanity and engage kids. If you go to a kid and ask, “What do you think it’s like to be a scientist?” they won’t say, “It’s like being Nancy Drew or Indiana Jones, or it’s like a detective story.” They’ll probably come up with some awful story about a person in a white coat, when actually, science is a real adventure. With these new technologies, we have access to what was unimaginable just five years ago. The one thing I’m very excited about with SnotBot is, what kid doesn’t like either a drone, whale, oceans, snot, or poo?
LG: With all those things, there has to be something they love.
IK: That’s right! It really has done well. While we take the work very seriously, I don’t think we always take ourselves very seriously. We were trying to be a little playful and break the mold. I think humanity is failing from an environmental perspective in its responsibility to the wild world. I think we won’t change the way we interact with the wild world with traditional methods. We need to be thinking outside-the-box or we need moonshot thinking. Alas, I don’t think the people that are going to do that are you and I, but I think it’s going to be the kids that are following us. I think we need to inspire them a little bit, make them laugh, and empower them. Hopefully, they can take what we give them and change the world.
LG: I think kids are inherently curious about the wild world, and it makes a lot of sense to try to bring them in and help them understand that if they want to study science, they can really make a difference for these animals and places that they love.
IK: Exactly. It’s funny, we all understand that when we grow up, we lose our innocence and move onto our professional careers, but I think the innocence and love of the wild world is something we should take with us. Certainly, I don’t say to kids that you have be a biologist. You can be an environmental lawyer, or a marine engineer. Whatever skill you want, remember that we need these voices if we are going to have a blue legacy for our future.
LG: So, if you don’t mind, tell me a little more about SnotBot development.
IK: As you can imagine, when I went to funders in those early days and said I wanted to collect whale snot, it was actually quite disappointing. I’m sure you know of many entrepreneurs who are convinced they have the best idea since sliced bread, but everyone around them is not necessarily convinced. I was actually very lucky, I know this Shakespearean actor by the name of Patrick Stewart. I said, “Patrick, I want to do this little video harassing you to teach people not to harass whales.” So if you go on our website, there’s a fun little video where I harass Sir Patrick Stewart, which I have say, is one of the more fun things I’ve done in my life.
Thanks to Patrick’s help and a Kickstarter campaign, we managed to raise some money. So our first question was, “Would SnotBot work?” If you actually think about it, a drone is pushing down to get up in the air, and a whale is blowing up. So your initial response is that the drone will blow away all of the snot. We’re talking about an endangered species, so if you go ask for a permit for this, they’re not going to let you try out a new technology on an endangered whale, almost like they’re not going to let you try out some new medicine on a sick person.
So we built a little model and 3-D printed some whale nostrils, and we called this SnotShot. We flew our drone over SnotShot and looked at ways to try to collect the snot. We had a little challenge here because the tools that were best at collecting the snot, like super absorptive sponges or wedding veils, were great at collecting the snot, but then we had to get the snot out of them.
I’ve spent a lot of time at sea, and I’ve seen people spend years developing something, and when they arrive at sea with expensive or difficult technology, it breaks down and they’re not getting a return on the time they’ve invested. We really wanted a tool that would be affordable, easy to use, replicable, scalable. In the end, it was rather fascinating. You think of a whale blow as just going straight up. But actually, a whale’s swimming forward often at two or three knots, and what you’re getting is a lovely arc. The blow is arching backwards as the whale is swimming forwards. So we actually found on one occasion that as we flew into this blow, we were actually getting a lot of snot on the top of the drone.
To make a long story short, one of the things we brought with us was petri dishes. We now hold six dishes on the front and the top of our drone, and the whale exhales into the dishes and then it lands. We lift these dishes off, wrap them in Parafilm, and then later that night in the hotel room, my staff has these tiny squeegees and they suck the snot up into little cryo-valves and we send them off to the different labs for analysis.
We’ve now worked in five different countries and we’ve collected snot from six different species of whale. In every country we’ve gone to, we’ve left them with a drone and drone protocols. We’re now talking with different universities and groups all over the world. A simple idea is after we’ve collected the snot, we fly backwards to the boat, because if you fly forwards, the wind can blow off some of your sample from the dishes. We literally have pages of protocols now. On one level this is inherently simple, but there are lots of tiny things you can do that make a difference. We had to basically reinvent storage and shipping protocols and even permitting because the easier we can make this tool, the more people will use it, and the more beneficial it will be for animals in the wild world.
We went to the West Coast of Africa to Gabon where there was not a well-studied population of whales. It was a very successful expedition that proved the validity of this tool, and we left the locals with a drone. We found out two weeks later that they were using the drone to find illegal gold miners, because to hack a trail into the jungle to find these gold miners is quite difficult. But if you’re on a boat, and you can send a drone in about a mile each way, suddenly it’s a powerful tool. In North America, we sometimes forget that in some of these places around the world, just having a camera is a big deal. The people are there, the interest is there, the skill sets are there, they just don’t have a lot of the tools that we take for granted. Having a camera that can go 300 feet up in the air and fly a mile away that only costs $1,200? That’s a big deal.
71% of our planet is water. There’s a giant blue economy out there that’s just waiting for people to take these machines and sensors and use them in novel and innovative ways for the benefit of humanity. The benefit to humanity might not be that first link, but generally, we go back to where I started with healthy whales, healthy oceans, healthy humans.
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