Whales, Snotbot Drones, Iron Fertilization of the Ocean via whale poop #suglobalsummit

Nextbigfuture interviewed Iain Kerr at the Singularity University Global Summit.

Iain Kerr is with the Ocean Alliance. Ocean Alliance has been pioneering methods of studying and learning about the lives of these amazing mammals noninvasively, without injuring or disturbing them. Ocean Alliance’s latest innovation is the use of drones to observe whales and collect data about them without having to get researchers or boats anywhere near the animals.


In the past, the only ways to get a biological sample from a specific whale were expensive, time-consuming, dangerous, or all three. Researchers could necropsy a dead whale if one was found, approach a live whale in a boat to dart it and retrieve skin and blubber samples, or approach by boat to try to collect samples of the whale’s blow using a long pole. The blow, or exhaled breath condensate (EBC), contains a treasure trove of biological information, including DNA, stress hormones, pregnancy hormones, ketones and microbiomes. Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr thought there might be a less expensive and more benign way of collecting EBC than by chasing after a whale in a boat — drones!

Modified consumer drones have immense potential in marine mammal science and conservation. Ocean Alliance’s SnotBot program has been at the very forefront of this new research paradigm. not only attaching petri dishes and sponges to drones to collect whale blow, but also attaching cameras and microphones to collect a broad spectrum of other valuable data.

SnotBot collects biological data:

* DNA, which reveals the animals sex and gives us the animal’s individual biological fingerprint.
* Microbiomes, which help fight disease, digest food, and synthesize vitamins; knowing more about a whale’s microbiomes help us better understand the species
* Pregnancy hormones, which are valuable in understanding the reproductive cycle and the animal’s health
* Stress hormones, which SnotBot can collect without adding to the animal’s stress level (which being chased by a boat would do)
* Ketones, which are related to metabolism and can give us information about energetics and health

SnotBot’s video camera also collects images of natural behavior, uninfluenced by the presence of boats or people, and photogrammetry — high-resolution vertical images used to asses body condition from girth and lesion marking; until SnotBot, these images were collected using expensive, very loud, and potentially dangerous light aircraft.

SnotBot, with its capability to inexpensively collect this wide variety of immensely valuable data, is changing the way we are able to study whales. And being able to better study these magnificent and ecologically important species is vital to our understanding of the oceans and life on our planet. It is truly remarkable to have a single, affordable, safe, scalable tool that can simultaneously collect such a variety of data, a capability which has led our CEO to suggest that drones could be to marine mammal research what the invention of the microscope was to cellular biology.

Whales are critical part of iron fertilization for the Ocean

Whale feces is up to 10 million times richer in iron than the surrounding sea water and plays a vital role in providing the iron required for maintaining phytoplankton biomass on the earth. The iron defecation of just the 12,000 strong sperm whale population in the Southern Ocean results in the sequestration of 200,000 tonnes of atmospheric carbon per year.”

A study of the Southern Ocean found that whales not only recycled iron concentrations vital for phytoplankton, but also formed, along with krill, a major source of sequestered iron in the ocean, up to 24% of the iron held in the surface waters of Southern Ocean. Whales formed part of a positive feedback loop and if whale populations are allowed to recover in the Southern Ocean, greater productivity of phytoplankton will result as larger amounts of iron are recycled through the system.

Marine biologists have estimated that the Pacific grey whale population is now about 22,000 individuals, and some biologists have speculated that this is the species’ ‘carrying capacity’, or its natural maximum population. But when Stanford University graduate student Elizabeth Alter and her colleagues surveyed the genetic diversity of 42 whales, they found it was higher than they would have expected if past populations were as small as they are today. Instead, their data suggest that past grey whale populations may have numbered as high as 96,000 animals in the Pacific.

The number of whales killed by industrial harvesting last century reveals that nearly 3 million cetaceans were wiped out in what may have been the largest cull of any animal — in terms of total biomass — in human history.

By some estimates, sperm whales have been driven down to one-third of their pre-whaling population, and blue whales have been depleted by up to 90%. Although some populations, such as minke whales, have largely recovered, others — including the North Atlantic right whale and the Antarctic blue whale — now hover on the brink of extinction.

There used to be a lot more whales and a lot more whale poop. Whale poop caused iron fertilization.A Fertilization occurs naturally when upwellings bring nutrient-rich water to the surface, as occurs when ocean currents meet an ocean bank or a sea mount. This form of fertilization produces the world’s largest marine habitats. Fertilization can also occur when weather carries wind blown dust long distances over the ocean, or iron-rich minerals are carried into the ocean by glaciers, rivers and icebergs. Fertilization would occur when Whales pooped.

Small amounts of iron (measured by mass parts per trillion) in HNLC zones can trigger large phytoplankton blooms on the order of 100,000 kilograms of plankton per kilogram of iron . The size of the iron particles is critical. Particles of 0.5–1 micrometer or less seem to be ideal both in terms of sink rate and bioavailability. Particles this small are easier for cyanobacteria and other phytoplankton to incorporate and the churning of surface waters keeps them in the euphotic or sunlit biologically active depths without sinking for long periods.

A 2010 study of oceanic transparency since 1899 and in situ chlorophyll measurements concluded that oceanic phytoplankton medians decreased by ~1% per year over that century.

In 2012, 120 tonnes of iron sulphate was put into Canada’s coastA by the Haida Restoration Corp. The iron spawned an artificial plankton bloom as large as 10,000 square kilometres. In 2014, the fish catch in the area was boosted by over 100,000 tons. Pink salmon mature in two years. Salmon can add a pound a month if they are well fed in the ocean. 2013 had the largest pink salmon run in 50 years.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game recorded pink salmon harvest of 219 million fish. It was the second most valuable on record. At $691.1 million, 2013 is only exceeded by the 1988 harvest value of $724 million. In addition to setting a record for pink salmon, the total number of salmon harvested also set a new record at 272 million fish.

Go here http://shop.whale.org/products/donate to donate to the Ocean Alliance

Ocean is also key to the solutions for Climate Change

There was a proposal (not from Ocean Alliance) to use about 9% of the oceans surface for massive kelp farms. The Ocean surface area is about 36 billion hectares. This would offset all CO2 production and provide 0.5 kg of fish and sea vegetables per person per day for 10 billion people as an “incidental” by-product. Nine per cent of the world’s oceans would be equivalent to about four and a half times the area of Australia. Kelp forest grows faster than tropical bamboo—about 10 to 12 inches in the bay and under ideal conditions, giant kelp can grow an astonishing two feet each day.

Iain does agree that the Ocean covering two thirds of the world are the key to understanding the climate and for solutions for climate change.

A 2015 kickstarter was used to fund the Snotbot.