Monthly Archives

December 2015

Seasons Greetings and Thanks from Ocean Alliance

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Roger Payne developing a benign research tool in Antarctica – the penguin suit

Dear Friends,

As your year-end thoughts reflect on the past and the future, I would like you to know that Ocean Alliance had a remarkable year. (I encourage you to go to our website and see the diversity of postings).  I believe in the power of a small group of passionate individuals — a point Margret Mead made famous by saying… (but you know what she said).

This year we worked with half-a-dozen partners around the world, collected data, conducted data analyses and published papers. Ten scientific presentations at the recent biennial meeting of the Society for Marine Mammalogy featured our work. Based on our data CEO Iain Kerr addressed the General Assembly of the United Nations about giving ocean conservation priority in the Paris climate talks agenda (COP-21). Our Kickstarter campaign supporting SnotBot was a big success. Not only in creating an innovative research tool, it also showed the effectiveness of large numbers of people giving small contributions.

But… I urge you to consider how even more effective it might be if smaller numbers of people gave slightly larger contributions to Ocean Alliance as year-end gifts.  I am hoping you are one of that small number who will help us promote healthy oceans to benefit humanity and ocean life.

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Intern Spotlight: Gregory Taylor

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Hosting interns at Ocean Alliance is hugely important to us.  The work we do simply could not continue if it weren’t for ensuring we nurture a new crop of next-generation scientists, researchers and engineers into the world each year to solve the pressing challenges faced by our oceans.  So we thought it fitting that each of our interns gets introduced to you and a chance to shine in a spotlight, and as a thanks for all their hard work, with hopefully a bit of a leg-up into their new career.

Name: Gregory Taylor
Studying: Environmental Science
Studying at: Endicott College

What brought you to choose to study this subject?

I chose to study environmental science because I knew it was something that was going to need a lot of attention over the course of my lifetime. Climate change and all of its consequences (ocean acidification, sea level rise, etc.) along with deforestation, CO2 production and many other global environmental issues, all require the attention and responsibility of everyone who lives and breathes on this planet. I wanted to study the environmental sciences so I can help fix the mess we have created because I feel that responsibility is partly mine. It is also a very broad and interdisciplinary field that I am positive I will be able to find a job in where I can help fix the pressing environmental issues of our generation.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?

Well first, I created a ~10 terabyte library of video data from The Voyage of the Odyssey. I also further developed Ocean Alliance’s internship program by creating formal intern and volunteer applications, as well as created a welcome packet for new interns. I am currently working on expanding Ocean Alliance’s whale adoption program.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?

The site. It is so amazing coming into work every day at such an iconic building and being able to see and hear the ocean right under my feet. I also particularly enjoy working with both 7 Seas Whale Watch and Ocean Alliance on their joint summer internship program. Creating the new application and smoothing out the selection process will make things run much smoother next summer.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?

My biggest challenge here was finding the confidence to talk at staff meetings. In the beginning I don’t think I said anything during meetings. Now I have my own speaking time towards the end of the meetings and feel confident enough to throw my two cents in at any point. The team has actually wanted to move forward with a few of my ideas!

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?

I have learned how important whales are to life on earth. These animals are the sentinels for the oceans. That means that if they are affected by ocean meta-trends like microplastics, pollution, acidification etc, then we can use them as models for the effects owe might see as humans. For example, we share food sources like fish. If the whales are unable to eat because pollution is killing off their prey, then not only will the whales be without fish, but we will be too.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?

Working for a non-profit is, in a way, more satisfying than studying. It is more hands on here so for example, I can give myself tasks to work on and when I complete those tasks I feel a sense of immediate reward, whereas at school I may work on things for weeks to months and not get that reward sense at all. Getting an A on a test is great but there are always going to be more tests. Making intern applications, welcome packets and expanding their whale adoption program that can be used for years to come is much more satisfying to me.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?

A humpback whale named Milkweed. On one of my first whale watches this past summer we spotted her and watched her for a long while. At one point I was looking over the starboard side after she went down on a dive and she came up and spy-hopped right in front of my face. It was one of the most surreal feelings I have ever felt. Seeing her (almost) face to face gave me a sense of how big she really was. That moment in time has been fixed in my mind ever since and has been a driving factor in my desire to conserve and educate people about these gentle giants.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?

Racing Extinction by Louie Psihoyos. It is one of the most moving documentaries ever created in my opinion. It exposes the illegal endangered wildlife trade in other countries, not only to see how brutal some of the things they do are, but also to offer alternatives. Manta Rays play a huge role in the film. In Indonesia they are the natives’ main source of income (they can dry and sell the gills and dry cartilage to china) Shawn Heinrichs works to get them on the globally endangered list- and succeeds- as well as offers the natives a new perspective on the Manta Ray. He shows the younger generation how beautiful the creatures are and was able to really connect with the kids. The film also brings awareness to anthropogenic climate change and the causes of it. It really is a great film I highly recommend it.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?

Well, when I am done studying I will have a B/S in Environmental Science, and am currently applying for an MBA, so hopefully I can find a job somewhere that is focused on helping the environment and that can utilize the skills I have.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?

We all have to do something. The problems we face aren’t going to be solved by just a few people. We all contribute to the problem so we all need to help fix it. My hopes are that as time progresses, the people who previously denied climate change and every other important environmental issue will change the way they think and really start to see what is wrong and how to fix it. The more people that change and do something the more people will follow it would create a movement, when movements happen, legislation happens, and that is really what we need.

Ocean Acidification, by Roger Payne

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By now, most people probably know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But fewer people know that the CO2 the seas absorb combines with seawater to make carbonic acid, which raises the acidity of the oceans. Since humanity started burning coal in earnest 150-200 years ago the seas have become 30 percent more acidic and it is now known that in some areas such species as oysters, and corals are already being prevented from retaining (or forming) their shells, simply because these animals can’t make their shells or their stone-like houses if the water is too acidic.

Ocean acidity also devastates a series of tiny animals with unfamiliar names like pteropods—a kind of snail with wings that are used to fly underwater. Pteropods form shoals containing millions of individuals and are a principal food for baleen whales.

Ocean acidity already affects such tiny planktonic organisms as coccolithophores, corraline algae and foraminiferans, all of which live at the bases of ocean food chains. If the seas get acidic enough to cause these plankton populations to crash, it will demolish the complex food pyramids that support all economically important ocean food pyramids. That’s because all such food pyramids are entirely dependent on plankton. If the plankton die, the whole pyramid dies. No phyto-plankton, no zooplankton. No zooplankton, no fish. No fish, no whales (or seals, or sea birds, or the roughly1billion people-who-depend-on-fish as their primary source of animal protein). We must also not forget that it is plankton that provide the oxygen for two out of every three breaths we take (a topic I will have more to say about later).

Scientists now predict that people must either plant billions of trees to convert the excess CO2 into wood or stop producing so much carbon dioxide. If we don’t do either, ocean acidity will more than double in the next 40 years.

But how bad could that be?

Well, in the last 20 million years ocean acidity has never changed at a rate any faster than 1/100th of that rate. Life has no mechanisms to cope with such rates of change.
One of the benefits of the 21st session of The Conference of The Parties (COP) currently taking place in Paris is that several independent organizations seem to be starting to consolidate their efforts—a step that seems bound to give them greater impact. Of particular promise is the recently announced Tapestry of Hope, representing 1700 local service projects that combine Jane Goodall’s powerful Roots and Shoots programs (now operating in more than 130 countries) with Sylvia Earle’s Mission Blue (which specifies 46 Hope Spots—each being an area critical to ocean health).

When Drs. Goodall and Earle announced this important initiative Sylvia Earle noticed that the agreement the COP was discussing failed even to mention ocean acidification—a rather strange omission, I thought, given that ocean acidification may just be a more immediate and all-encompassing threat to life on earth than global warming is, simply because it may reach lethal levels sooner (it is already high enough so that such key species as corraline algae, staghorn coral, pteropods and oysters are unable in some areas to get carbonate ions to precipitate out of solution and that means they cannot form their shells or coral skeletons that they need to protect and enable their lives.

It is clear enough that life on land will take a terrible hit from global warming, but thousands of species will nevertheless probably survive by moving to higher ground or expanding their ranges into the polar seas where the water can be counted on to remain cool, even when the oceans warm overall, simply because polar waters will continue to lose heat during the dark months of winter.

The acidity of the seas, on the other hand, will inexorably increase over time, worldwide. This means that neither the polar oceans nor any other part of the seas will represent a Coventry where the levels of acidification can be counted on to remain low enough for life to persist.

All in all, the massive increase in CO2 from burning fossil fuels produces two quite separate effects on ocean life. But the time it takes for the oceans to become dangerously acidic seems to be shorter than the time it takes them to become dangerously warm. In general, seriously consequential acidity appears to take decades while seriously consequential warming appears to take much longer before it exerts a comparably destructive effect on ocean life.

In each case these rates depend on the intensities at which different species are affected—a subject about which there is very little information. However the fact remains that the time it takes for heating to affect species negatively may be significantly longer than the time it takes to see similar damage from acidification.

But the key point here is that although both are triggered by increasing CO2, warming and acidification are very different processes and it would be naive to assume that the rates at which their effects will cause problems for ocean life should be the same. They can be expected to affect different species and different ecosystems after different delays and therefore should be considered separately.

In summary: I believe that the most imminent threat we face may very well not be global warming but the acidification of the oceans, simply because acidification seems to be causing serious mischief to ocean life sooner.

If that it turns out to be true I would not be surprised if the most serious problem our species now faces is ocean acidification, not global warming.

© Roger Payne
Dec 9, 2015

Dr. Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

Japan’s Latest Move, by Roger Payne

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The recent sudden departure by Japan for the Antarctic is a particularly grim development on several counts. In spite of the ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague ordering Japan to cease their “Scientific Whaling Program” because it does not qualify as scientific research, they unilaterally awarded themselves a quota of 330 minke whales and slipped their moorings and left.

The quota they gave themselves is a third of what they took last time they went whaling in the Antarctic. 330 is clearly an arbitrary round number that has no possible scientific justification, particularly in light of the fact that when the zero quota came into effect Japan argued vigorously for increasing the numbers of whales they killed—claiming that they needed larger sample sizes to produce valid results. That argument was their response to criticism of their “research” proposals by the Scientific Committee of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) which reviewed their proposals every year (and rejected their proposals every year). In doing so, one of the things that the committee discussed was that there was already so much data of the kind Japan proposed to take that regardless of what those data showed the sample size would be so small it couldn’t make a valid difference to the conclusions one could already draw from the much larger existing dataset that dated back to the commercial whaling era.

In every year the Scientific Committee recommended to the Commission that it ask Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers and in every year the Commission complied with that recommendation by formally asking Japan not to issue a permit to its whalers. However, every year Japan went ahead and issued a permit to its whalers anyway.

In spite of this grim history and the fact that the recent International Court of Justice ruling saying that Japan’s “scientific research” did not meet the standards of scientific research, Japan has now added to its shame by once again awarding itself a permit in order to re-institute its non-scientific, “scientific whaling.” And having done so slipping its moorings without fanfare, and vanishing over the horizon in the direction of the Antarctic.

The strongest evidence that there is no improved science in the offing but only further subterfuge comes from the fact that by asking for a third as many whales this season as she took in her last hunting season, Japan’s tacit argument is that even smaller sample sizes are important—an argument that runs counter to her earlier claims.

I would like to know whether there is any limit to the willingness of Japan’s whalers to ignore the norms of science? I have always assumed that honesty must have a lower limit below which you cannot go—a point where there is no further truth available that can be removed—an absolute zero of honesty. Have the whalers figured out a way to go below that point? If so is there any limit to their tolerance for shame. Is it perhaps infinite?

– Roger Payne

Dr. Roger Payne, Founder and President of Ocean Alliance, has been the leading proponent of non-invasive whale research for over 45 years.

Video Highlights of our SnotBot Patagonia Expedition

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Over the last six months there has been a lot of talk and a lot of press about our innovative research drone SnotBot.  The million-dollar question then is, “Does SnotBot work?”  Watch the video below, and you decide.

The camera we used to guide us to the whale and position us over the blow holes was recording all the time.  Not only did we capture a lot of snot, we also captured totally unique footage, including a very precious moment between a mother and calf right whale.

Thanks again to our Kickstarter backers and other donors who helped make this possible!  Please consider making a donation to Ocean Alliance today, on #GivingTuesday, at