Wednesday, 21 October 2009 01:45 A Whale of a Tale
Written by Ava

When I interviewed CEO Iain Kerr of the Ocean Alliance, an organization that collects data on whales and ocean life, he made sure that I understood that this work is not quite as romantic as it might sound, spending weeks at sea on a small boat with the same people with little or no privacy and always feeling the pinch of funding. He told me that it is very expensive to send a research vessel to sea along with the necessity for an extensive range of local and international research permits.

"You need an expensive vessel, a well-trained crew, and good equipment. Work at sea is high risk," he said.

But as difficult as it is, it's also rewarding.  He knows so much about the ocean's pollutants and what the world can (and must) do to help protect the ocean.  He goes as far as churning out a list below of top ten tips to save the ocean.  

And he's learned so much about the whales through reports on toxicology, bioacoustics, behavior, and genetics as well as efforts to conserve them. 

After all, he says below, "They serve as flagships for the health and well being of the whole marine ecosystem."

What is the Ocean Alliance in a nutshell and issues having to do with the ocean do you focus on?
Ocean Alliance, Inc., is a 501(c)3 organization, that was founded in 1971 by biologist Roger Payne. Led by Dr. Payne and CEO Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance collects a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life relating particularly to toxicology, bioacoustics, behavior, and genetics. Working from that data, we give information about ocean pollution and the health of marine mammals and other ocean life to policy makers, politicians, nongovernmental organizations, educators, and students. Our data is the basis of many conservation success stories.  Our major scientific partner is the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology, at the University of Southern Maine, which conducts state-of-the-art research aimed at understanding how environmental contaminants affect the health of humans and marine animals. The Wise Laboratory’s mission is accomplished through the pursuit of a number of key objectives, including innovative and multidisciplinary research in toxicology and molecular epidemiology to increase understanding of disease in humans and marine organisms, particularly in relation to cancer, asthma, and reproductive/developmental effects.

Why focus on whales and whale toxicology? Does this relate to pollution of the ocean as a whole?

They serve as flagships for the health and well being of the whole marine ecosystem.

As mammals - they link to humanity directly.

There many human traits, make them easy for people to relate to.

They are facing renewed threats and consequently need a renewal of human interest.

The largest of any animal that has ever existed on this planet is a whale They sing complex songs, using the same rules as humans,

 “The waves thudding on a distant shore are the heartbeat of man’s ancestral home.  The salt solution of the sea flows in man’s veins, and -- is it coincidence or a part of nature’s plan? - 70% man’s body is water, the same proportion as the surface of the earth.” Jacques-Yves Cousteau

Sperm whales vocalize 24 hours a day, using echolocation for foraging, codas for communication, and complete silence to escape danger from orcas, this makes them easy to track.

Sperm whales are at the top of the food chain and so represent the risks to all other species at the top of the food chain (ie humans).

Female and calf sperm whales feed/live at the equatorial chain, male’s feed at the poles – we were able to circumnavigate the globe at the equatorial zone but yet get samples from the poles (from the males that migrate from the poles to the equatorial zone to mate)

“Generation effect” if a big fish gets polluted these pollutants are not passed onto its young as happens with mammals. A mother can pass onto the next generation up to 75% of her toxic load during lactation.
Do you focus on pollution as it harms whales or pollution of the ocean in general through other factors?

We started by just focusing on whales but we are now trying to understand how pollutants are moving through food chains to higher order predators.  Initially then our work was species based it is now more ecosystem based.

What are those other factors?

On our next trip down to the Gulf f Mexico GOM (funding dependent) we will be looking at Clams, fish and whales. We will work in multiple locations within the GOM over three years so that we will be able to assess whether pollutants are accumulating and or spreading. We chose sperm whales, fish and mollusks because they represent different modes of feeding (e.g. filter feeders and fish eaters), different levels of the food chain (e.g. mussels near the bottom and sperm whales near the top), different lifestyles (e.g. stationary and migratory), and because several have significant commercial value and economic implications (e.g. mussels, fish). 

The health of each is essential to ensure a healthy ecosystem in the GOM as well as to support the economy in the region, as these are important species supporting tourism and commercial fishing. Each species is currently experiencing significant population issues that may be connected to exposure to environmental contaminants and the data generated will directly help evaluate the threat of contaminants to them. In addition, we chose sperm whales because we have recently completed the Voyage of the Odyssey (2000-2005) where we sampled sperm whales from around the world and thus, we now have a unique dataset to use that can put the levels found in whales in the GOM into a global context. 
Why relocate to The Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory in Gloucester and what does this location do for the organization.

  • Ocean Alliance has been “lost in the woods” of Lincoln MA for over 30 years and as a consequence the organization is not that well known.  We believe that the new waterfront location of the TWPF will benefit the organization in many ways.   
  • There is no better place to have and oceanographic organization than on the water front
  • This historic waterfront site is highly visible and will re enforce Ocean Alliance’s brand.
  • We will be able to bring all of our resources into this one location (including our research vessels)– and in that way hopefully act as an incubator/catalyst for ocean research/awareness in the region
  • We will have a small conference centre in the facility – again attracting more ocean research to this waterfront location.
  • The whole ground floor (funding dependent) will be an education centre that will be open to the public – we need waterfront education (inspiration?) centers if we are going to attract the next generation of ocean conservationists.
  • The development of Anti Fouling – Bottom Paint revolutionized, fishing commerce, warfare and recreation, and this paint was develop at the Tarr and Wonson Site.  What better platform could you have to speak to Ocean Pollution.
  • We must learn fro our past and this is a historic site that revolutionized ocean activities and the site is very polluted.

Tell me about 1991’s popular whale documentary created by the Dr. Payne and the Ocean Alliance called “In the Company of Whales” and also about the IMAX production, “Whales.” Did those movies make an impact in the way whales were seen and/or treated?

Dr Payne believes that if everyone in the world could swim with a whale – the killing of whales would stop.  Of course we cant all swim with whales but an IMAX film is in many ways the next best thing.  Also there are more IMAX theatres in Japan than anywhere else in the world – the IMAX film WHALES has been shown around the world over the last 12 years and Roger believes as with many of his other film projects that if he can capture the hearts and minds of people in some small way and change their understanding of the Ocean environment and the whales that live in it, the film projects will definitely have been worthwhile.

Dr. Payne’s contributions to the welfare of whales and dolphins were early in his career when he revolutionized cetacean research.  How did he revolutionize this research and what sort of benign research techniques did he refine? Perhaps give me an example or two.

Dr. Roger Payne has studied whales since 1967. He has an AB from Harvard, and a Ph.D. from Cornell  (both in biology). He is best known as a co-discoverer (with Scott McVay) that humpback whales sing songs, and for his theory that fin and blue whales sounds are audible across oceans, a theory since validated by Payne’s former student, Christopher Clark.

Payne has led over 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. His institute’s research vessel, Odyssey, recently completed a 5½ year, around-the-world research voyage that brought back 955 skin samples from sperm whales (obtained by biopsy dart, using a technique harmless to the whale). Analysis of these samples by marine toxicologists is providing the first base line measurements of the levels of synthetic contaminants in the global ocean. Analyses are being made of endocrine disrupting chemicals (EDCs), heavy metals, and brominated flame retardants (the PBDEs). His laboratory has pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and he has trained many of the current leaders in whale research both in America and abroad. He directs long term research projects on the behavior of over 2000 individually known Argentine right whales—the longest such continuous study. 

He has taught at Cornell, Tufts and Rockefeller Universities and served on many commissions including: the International Whaling Commission’s Scientific Committee (plus many of its sub-committees), including a three-man panel that wrote the report establishing the Indian Ocean Whale Sanctuary. He has been Scientific Advisor to the National Aquatic Resources Agency of Sri Lanka and to the IWC delegation of Antigua/Barbuda. He has worked with the Organization of American States to initiate programs training Latin American biologists in whale study techniques (designed as the first step towards conserving whales in their own countries). He has been a scientific consultant for projects sponsored by the US Minerals Management Service concerning the effects on bowhead whales of noises generated by offshore oil exploration. He has worked with the US Marine Mammal Commission, and was a member of the Workshop on Humpback Whales in Hawaii, sponsored by the U.S. Office of Coastal Zone Management, which studied the feasibility of creating a National Marine Sanctuary in Hawaiian waters. He wrote the policy statement on the Ethics of Whaling for the U.S. Delegation to the 1978 meeting of the IWC, and it was his research that lead to making Golfo San José off Peninsula Valdés, Argentina, into a sanctuary for southern right whales. 

Payne publishes for both technical and general audiences. His publications include the book, "Among Whales" (1995), and three recordings: "Songs of the Humpback Whale" (1970—the best-selling natural history recording), "Deep Voices", (1975), and "Whales Alive" (1989—compositions composed by whales but arranged and played by humans, in this case by musician Paul Winter). One of Payne’s articles in National Geographic Magazine contained a record of whale sounds for which 10.5 million copies were printed—still the largest single print order in the history of the recording industry. Payne has lectured at most major universities in the U.S. and England, and has appeared on most major TV and radio talk shows. He is a writer and presenter for television documentaries, and co-writer and co-director of the IMAX film "Whales (much of it is based on research by Payne and his institute). His 1992 appearance on One-On-One With Charlie Rose won the Emmy for Best Interview.

Payne's honors and awards, include: a knighthood in the Netherlands, a MacArthur Fellowship, the similar Lyndhurst Prize Fellowship, the Joseph Wood Krutch Medal of the Humane Society of the U.S., The Albert Schweitzer Medal of the Animal Welfare Institute, WWF’s Member of Honor; and a United Nations, UNEP, "Global 500" Award. He was a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize in 2006 and in 2008. In 2007 he won the Dawkins Prize from Balliol College, Oxford University, and in 2008 the Earth Society of New Zealand made him its Earth Trustee. 

On top of all that Dr. Payne is an excellent communicator – following is a excerpt from a speech he gave this year at the Blue Vision Summit in Washington DC where he highlights the threats to our oceans.

Here’s a partial list of things besides flooding the atmosphere with CO2 that affect ocean health negatively: 

  •      Every industrial sewer or storm sewer that empties into the sea.
  •      Every toxic thing that we discard into the ocean.
  •      The human population explosion and the consequent destruction of critical habitats.
  •      The overwhelming pollution of the land, of the water, and of the air.
  •      A continent-sized hole in the Ozone Layer
  •      Soil erosion
  •      Expanding deserts
  •      Rivers that no longer reach the sea
  •      Dead zones The leveling of Mangroves for mariculture.
  •      The leveling of rain forests for agriculture
  •      The rapid evolution of fish diseases stemming from fish farming.
  •      The genetic swamping of tiny populations of wild fish that occurs whenever there is a massive escape of farmed fish.
  •      The removal of hundreds of millions of tons of wildlife from the seas.
  •      The ten to one ratio of wild fish used, to farmed fish produced.
  •      The bycatch of unwanted fish that is thrown away even though it may be 50 to 100 times the catch that is kept and sent to market.
  •      The transport of alien species in the ballast water.
  •      The damage to ecosystems from introduced species.
  •      The extinction of species. (Currently at its highest rate in sixty million years at least.)
  •      The consumption of sea turtles that take 50 years to reach sexual maturity, or of fish like Sea Bass, rock fish and sharks that may be 50 years old; or orange roughy that may be 200 years old.
  •      The consumption of endangered species like the incomparable bluefin tuna—in my opinion the most magnificent fish in the sea.
  •      The addition of tens of millions of tons of plastic and other trash to the sea.
  •      The Pacific Gyre of plastic trash—dubbed “the toilet that can’t be flushed”). It is rapidlybecoming a gyre of microscopic bits of plastic small enough to get into cells—a plastic soup.
  •      Spillage of oil during the drilling of undersea wells, during extracting and flaring of gas, and also during transport.
  •      The devastating noise levels from military sonars, supertankers, and air guns used in seismic surveys
  •      Fishing technologies that no species’ reproductive rate can keep up with:
  •      Drift Nets, gill nets, and giant purse seines.
  •      Fish traps made of indestructible plastics which, when they break free, keep re-baiting themselves with the fish that are attracted to the trap’s previous victims.
  •      Longlines, fifty miles long, or longer, containing thousands of hooks.
  •      Millions of tons of discarded fishing nets, many of which keep on killing.
  •      Deep trawling that destroys the very sea-floor life that is essential for the growth of the fish species the trawlers want to catch.
  •      Dual Trawl operations in which gigantic nets are dragged by two ships.
  •      The over-killing of apex predators such as whales, bill fish and sharks.
  •      The consequent collapse of these fisheries.
  •      The wholesale destruction of coral reefs through bleaching, mining, the use of dynamite to kill fish, and the use of cyanide to collect fish for the aquarium trade.
  •      The acidification of the oceans that comes from the same excess carbon dioxide that, Oh Yes, also causes Global warming 

What are some ways we can help contribute to prevention of ocean pollution or cleaning of the ocean of its pollutants?

Ten Things You Can Do to Save the Oceans

      1.  Don’t throw heavy metals down the drain. Learn which things in your home contain heavy metals, e.g. household paints. These should only be disposed of at your local hazardous waste depot.  They should NEVER be poured down the drain.

      2. How safe is your household cleaner? Many common household cleaners, toiletries, and soaps are made from very toxic stuff that is harmful to the oceans. Replace them with eco-friendly, non-toxic brands. Use vinegar, baking soda, or microfiber cloths to clean the house and the car.  Any toxic household product should be disposed of at a hazardous waste depot and NEVER discarded in the trash.

      3.  Plastic is filling the oceans. The ocean is awash with non-biodegradable plastic debris, some of it so finely ground that it is digested by microscopic plankton, the basis of oceanic food chains.  Keep plastic out of the ocean by reducing the amount of plastic you use. Avoid plastic bags by using reusable shopping bags. Refill plastic water bottles. Recycle plastic, or dispose of it with care. Biodegradable plastic products made from corn, food starch, and sugar cane are now available.  Seek them out, or buy them at or

      4. Think about how your food is produced. Run-off from modern conventional agricultural practices is one of the major contributors to the amount of EDCs (endocrine-disrupting chemicals) in the ocean. By supporting organic farming and buying organic food, you will keep the oceans healthier and decrease the contaminant loads carried by you and your children. Support locally grown food by   shopping at local farmers’ markets.

      5.  A healthy lawn and garden? Too much fertilizer as well as chemically based pesticides and herbicides are harmful to life in the oceans, and seafood feeds them back to us. Use an organic fertilizer, or one that releases its nitrogen slowly. Choose plants native to your area. They don’t need so much care. Compost your vegetable food waste and feed it to the garden. When you mow the lawn, leave the clippings behind. They will serve as a natural fertilizer. Try using a less toxic insecticidal soap as a pesticide before opening up the toxic one. If you have to resort to chemicals, use them sparingly and strictly according to the instructions.

      6. Be careful what you flush down the toilet. Only human wastes and food should be flushed down the toilet. Do not use harsh chemicals or poisons to clean the toilet as they will kill the useful bacteria that process and purify water in sewage systems.

      7.  Recycle used motor oil. Oil is a major pollutant in the ocean. Don’t let excess oil or antifreeze spill on the ground, as rain will wash it into the storm-water drains, and from there to the sea. Be sure to recycle used motor oil at your local gas station, auto parts store, or where you get your oil changed. NEVER pour it down the drain.

      8.  Support or volunteer for the oceans. Find a local, small, nonprofit organization working to save the oceans and ocean life, and get involved. That way you will learn more about the problems the ocean faces and can become a more effective part of the solution.

      9. Educate yourself. Pollution in the oceans comes from many sources, especially industry. The burning of coal releases mercury, a neurotoxin that is found in heavy concentrations in tuna and swordfish. Dioxins from paper bleaching and agriculture affect hormone systems. We all need to learn more about how the way we live is affecting the world we live in, and begin to pressure our government to invest in alternative energy sources and green industrial practices.

      10. Become active. We all cause marine pollution, and only if all of us work together can we stop it.  We must become more thoughtful about how we consume energy, materials, and water, and how we handle our wastes. We must take seriously the phrase: reduce, reuse, recycle. We must let our  representatives know that we all care about how ocean pollution is affecting the fish that we eat,  the animals we love, and our families. Above all, we must exercise our democratic right to vote, to ensure that our leaders take the steps necessary to stop the wholesale pollution of the oceans.

      Source  – Lisa Harrow – What can I do

In your opinion, do you think a marine conservationist can be someone who keeps fish or other marine life in their home? (Aquarist, Aquarium owner, etc.)

      Generally speaking in order for a person to become engaged with a cause they have to feel some affinity/connection to that cause.  Certainly then having an aquarium can be a way for people to become engaged with the fragility and wonder of life in the sea.  BUT – It is crucially important to be aware of what you are buying, who you are buying from and the effects it can have on the oceans.  Fish should only be bought from breeders and not from live catch – the movie Saving Nemo – had a very negative effect on Clownfish populations world wide as catchers went out to catch every clown fish they could, to meet the demand for this fish.  Some fish catchers use chemicals to catch fish and the by catch (i.e. how many other fish are damaged or killed) in the catching process can be enormous.  

Your site says that educating the public about whales and the ocean is part of your core mission?  What does OA do to educate the world?

We respond to questions/ surveys/interviews like yours, we have been a part of 39 documentaries, an IMAX film and a Hi Definition film on whales.  We reach out to all aspects of the media when we can and we maintain 2 websites: and As a research group we like to think that we are a voice of reason – We can say this is what we found with our research and these are the implications.  Our oceans are the largest mediating force on this planet covering 71% of the surface – Healthy Ocean means healthy ecosystems / healthy animals.  If our oceans become too polluted, the consequences could be devastating not just for whales but also for humanity and thousands of other species.

Image Credit: Iain Kerr

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