#16 Like Four Peas, a Laptop, a Telephoto Camera, a Life Raft and a Satellite Phone in a Pod

There are a lot of aspects of aerial surveys that pose challenges, such as the aforementioned photographing, attempting to prevent whale-ship interactions, and staying on top of the continuous collection of data-- marking data points for sea states, unique species, location on the tracklines, and vessel traffic. But on a more basic level, the simple requirement of just sitting in a Cessna Skymaster for 7 hours is quite the challenge in itself. The interior of this airplane is incomprehensibly small, and you can't realize just how small until you physically take your seat inside and realize you're within kicking distance of everyone else in the plane, from pilot to co-observer.

Aside from sitting still all day, the other challenge that the limited space inside the airplane gives us is the effective use of this space in order to fit all of our research and safety equipment inside, while still allowing room for our legs. The total floor space we have to work with adds up to about seven or eight square feet, an area a little smaller than a yoga mat. About two of these square feet are taken up by the Pelican case which holds our seven-pound camera, and another two feet are taken up by safety equipment, including a hefty life raft. The laptop sits perfectly in front of us so that the left-side observer has direct visual sight of the airplane's GPS location and other data-collection software on the screen if and when needed. We also have our satellite phone taking up another half square foot, leaving under four square feet to deal with-- just enough for our legs and feet, which, as anyone can imagine, need a good stretching out several times during the flight. But that doesn't mean our knees aren't banging against the VHF radio or the Personal Locator Beacon in the seat-front pockets every now and then.

The last but nonetheless important piece of equipment that needs to be well-placed in the plane is the mouse that controls the computer. As observers, our eyesight needs to be trained out the window on the sea's surface during every possible second of the survey, except during ship-strike mitigation emergencies and data collection while we circle on whales-- but even then we need to be looking out the windows as much as possible. Whenever we take a data point, which will be explained in more detail in a future post, we have to click the mouse in order for our software to mark the data. However, we can't be distracted by looking at the computer screen in order to direct the mouse, especially if we need to keep our eyes on a whale we've just spotted far off in the distance. As a solution, we have secured the mouse right up on the left siding of the airplane, just to the right of the observing window and at eye level, so the observer's focus never has to leave the water. Everything in the plane is arranged with the most effective observing in mind, and though the Cessna is a tight space, this does mean that all of our equipment is within arm's reach, and we never have to take our attention away from our most important task: visually locating and marking positions for every single right whale in our survey area.

Photo Credit: Kelly Slivka. Top - Pilots Ken and Holly and Team Leader Jess in the Cessna; bottom - observer Karen on watch.



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