The Azores: a tale of whales, seaweeds and drones

It was 10:25 in the morning and my flight was leaving in 5 minutes. “What was going on in your mind?”, I wondered while running at full speed and possibly doing the best workout in my life. Arriving at the gate, I still remember the words echoing in my head: “30 seconds and you would have lost your flight, sir”. I can’t really remember if I managed to respond, but this was a plane I just had to get on, and am glad I did.

The Azores are volcanic islands in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean and under the authority of Portugal. They seem to be quite well-known, but I had heard of them only a couple of times before. My first few days in São Miguel, the largest and most famous island, made it clear what makes the Azores so special. Owing to their volcanic origins, their landscape is highly irregular with constant alternations between cliffs and plains, giving them a unique “bumpy” look. At the same time, the soil is so rich in nutrients that green is the most common color around, with various plant species introduced from all around the world. The edges of the islands are very steep like they have been cut vertically with a large knife, and the waters get extremely deep in short distances from land which explains the presence of the most spectacular animals in the archipelago: dolphins and whales. I will never forget spotting fin whales for the first time, nor swimming with wild bottlenoses. The islands also offer other wonderful aspects such as hot springs and waterfalls where it is possible to have a swim. To top it all off, the Portuguese are amongst the most warm, friendly and welcoming peoples I have ever met, alongside my fellow compatriots in Greece.

33. Pico volcano

Figure 1:  The volcano on Pico Island – climbing to the top was the most challenging experience of my life

Exploring the archipelago was interesting, but I was here for a much stronger purpose. In my masters project, I am investigating the potential of drones as a monitoring tool for seaweed communities. Now why would someone ever want to use a drone for such a purpose? Well, drones provide a larger spatial extent to monitoring than traditional surveys such as diving, and much higher resolution than satellite imagery. As such, they might be an efficient and low-cost tool for rapidly estimating the distribution and abundance of seaweeds in heterogeneous communities, where also lots of useful information would be lost within a single large satellite image pixel. The harpoon weed, Asparagopsis armata, is of special interest in the Azores due its introduction and potentially harmful ecological impacts, as well as its recent commercial use. The highly heterogeneous and turfy seaweed communities in the archipelago imply that drones could possibly be used to rapidly monitor the spread of this species. In pure scientific terms, I am using machine learning algorithms to construct predictive models of seaweed coverage through analyzing drone imagery, but I will go deeper into these concepts in my following blog (for a perspective on the wider project, see also http://aspazor2016.wixsite.com/aspazor).

Monitoring this species, however, is much harder than I had ever expected. It is very dynamic and its growth depends on the local microclimatic conditions, which means it is difficult to anticipate where and when it will appear. The absence of the species in our predetermined study site in Caloura upon my arrival, was slightly disheartening. A similar situation during my undergraduate thesis, however, had taught me the hard way that successful research is all about efficient management and keeping calm in difficult situations. After lots of snorkeling around the island, we managed to identify a location where the harpoon weed was present! In the meantime, we surveyed other sites to collect information on different seaweed groups which would be included in our models. I also spent lots of time programming to have the analysis ready once the data were collected. The excitement of succesfully writing complex programming scripts was easily comparable with that of exploring the islands (I guess that may sound a bit geeky!).

232

Figure 2:  Patches of the harpoon weed – notice the heterogeneity of the seabed

Anyways, designing our kayak survey in the local restaurant “Apito Dourado” was quite cool too, and I still remember when our snorkeler, Nacho, was surrounded by a school of barracuda! By the way, the purpose of the kayak surveys was to collect GPS coordinates which verify that a particular group of pixels in the drone image belongs to a particular seaweed target. Visually identifying the seaweed through direct inspection of the images is not easy, hence the necessity of such a survey. Apart from hunting the harpoon weed, we were also on the hunt for ideal weather conditions to fly our drone, the Phantom Pro 3. The weather in the Atlantic is even more unpredictable than British weather, but we managed to find a few days with low wind and cloud cover to survey our target areas. Nowadays, it is very easy to use software and design flight paths throughout which the drone will capture multiple images, essentially being stitched together to create high-resolution maps. After all, at the ZSL we are dedicated at developing efficient, automated and low-cost methodologies for conservation purposes, which can be easily transferrable to people and organizations with various backgrounds. With this positive thought, I will be thoroughly analyzing the collected data in the following months to identify the strengths and weaknesses of using drones to monitor seaweed.

30. Roger Roger

Figure 3:  Flying the Phantom Pro 3 in Mosteiros – the DJI Phantom series is the most famous for its low cost and efficiency

Flying off from the Azores has left me with a bittersweet feeling. Spending two months here was amazing, but my expectations are now quite high and I know of only a few places that surpass these unique islands. Well, I guess that’s what dreaming is all about! João, Nacho, Ruben, Artur, Ana, Afonso, Eva, Nikola, and of course, Chris, thank you for showing me how teamwork can be fun and efficient at the same time! Abraço!

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