All Posts By

Harry Milkman

“Fake News is the Winner, and the Winner Takes All” by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Well… talk about things getting worse! On April 7, 2018, I heard a radio broadcast of the NPR show, Radio Lab which is the most terrifying, new development I’ve yet had to process. The segment is entitled: The Future of Fake News. Find it here . I have no words strong enough to express how important I think it is for everyone to hear. The program describes how close computer scientists are to perfecting the tools that will make it possible for anyone to change the words that anyone else says about any subject (e.g.: global warming; voter fraud; war crimes; politicians’ sex-scandals; etc.) in a way that is entirely believable, yet entirely devoid of the truth.

The program examines “progress” in computer science that is making it possible to create both audio and video fake news clips in which you hear a completely believable recording or see a completely convincing video of some leader or celebrity whose voice you know and trust, speaking words and sentences they never said and would never support. And yet, they speak so convincingly and confidently, that even though this technology is still under development, neither you nor I nor anyone else, including the speaker, has any way to prove beyond the shadow of a doubt that the fake sound-bite or fake video clip is, in fact, the total fraud that it is.

The reason I find this technology so depressing is that all my life I have thought of the truth as the One Hope—the only hope—the only force strong enough to enable us to reverse the problems we create for all life including us—the only thing with enough power and authority to save us from ourselves. But now the computer revolution has made it possible to cast the strongest doubts on even the most solid scientific truths—Natural Laws—those laws of Nature that control everything in the universe, and has done so even though Natural Laws are the most important scientific ideas that those who think our species is exempt from Natural Laws need to understand and learn to accept and trust. Yet… those who have no interest in whether future generations get to experience a future will soon have use of a technology that can cast false doubts on things like global warming, ocean acidification, pollution of land, air and water; sea level rise; the future flooding of coastal cities; the importance of living sustainably; etc.

Several articles and blogs about this subject have come out in recent months but the reason I recommend the Radio-Lab production is because it explains this development in ways we all can understand, and it draws its final conclusions carefully and convincingly. It also interviews some of the computer programmers who are building these systems and you get to hear firsthand how totally asleep they are to the moral implications of their efforts.

Hitherto this technology that I find so unsettling has required many hours of a computer specialist’s time to create even one soundbite a few seconds long. But now anyone with a smartphone will be able to make more realistic fake news clips, and do so in real time. For example, a program already exists that makes fake acoustic clips. It involves the analysis of 20 to 40 minutes of recordings of your victim speaking about pretty much anything. This program then classifies each syllable they said and divides it into small slices of its component frequencies so that when you want to have your victim speak a word in their own voice that they didn’t say, those frequencies and the emotional context in which they were spoken will be chosen by the program to match the statement you wrote for them to say. This program already makes fraudulent recordings that sound authentic.

The programs for making fake videos that will soon be available are no less convincing.

First, you find or create as many head-on shots of your victim speaking as you can. Next, you shoot a video of yourself head-on, saying any words you like. The program will then create a video of your victim saying exactly those same words and imparting to them the same stresses that you used, only the resulting video of the victim will be entirely and convincingly them even though they will be saying your words. The victim will speak in their own voice, with their own personal tonalities, their own subtleties of pronunciation and sound-shading that make up their themness, and yet they will be saying your words, and with the same enthusiasm, seriousness and emphases that you used when you said them. In effect, your victim will have become the ultimate puppet and you the ultimate puppeteer.

Using your smart phone you could make a video of a conversation between, say, our president and some news anchor, in which one (or both) of the talking heads were saying things that neither person had said in the interview. And the whole thing could be made in time to be uploaded to the nightly newsfeed on the same day the real interview happened.

Or suppose that you wanted to take over some country but didn’t want to be guilty of firing the first shot. You could use a news clip of that country’s leader declaring war on your country, add a few never-before-broadcast clips of bomb blasts, followed by a live feed in which you reluctantly announce that your hand has been forced and you are retaliating. Because the major networks would seek two or more authorities to verify your fake news clip before broadcasting it you could also manufacture clips with the voices and images of two or three appropriate authorities, each confirming the authenticity of your news clip.

For me, the most chilling aspect of this technology is that at present it is apparently not possible to expose unequivocally these fake news audios and videos as the frauds they are.

Simon Adler, co-producer of The Future of Fake News, expresses his main worry about this development this way: “This is all occurring within a context of massive news illiteracy, and the consumers seem to be just throwing their hands up—tiring of trying even to figure it out.” He then expresses the hope that today’s teenagers will prove to be; “willing to do the work, maybe out of self-interest, maybe so they aren’t dissed by, you know, the girl in social studies. But that’s our best hope for overcoming it, because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.”

“Because everybody else seems to be sick of trying.” Since the Trump administration came to power that is precisely what I have observed in the attitudes of some of my fellow conservationists. They are sick of trying. It is something I am seeing for the first time in 50 years. The chillingly ignorant reversals that the current administration has unleashed against everything that a generation of well-qualified, well-respected, well-informed conservation biologists worked to secure are being destroyed so effectively by such seamlessly ill-informed Trump appointees that it is hard even to list the extent of the disasters and failures that the current administration has caused and is causing—let alone to make a logical plan for how to reverse them. Which gives me the impression that some conservation biologists are “tiring of trying even to figure it out.”

Furthermore, this dual attack on the future—these two technologies that enable such flawless fakery, are so tightly linked that they employ identical means to destroy our children’s future: they do it by casting-doubt-on, and/or annihilating, scientifically-established truths. To do so, each depends on the generally incomplete understanding of ordinary people like you and me, about computers or principles of biology, or both.

This new technology sounds the death knell of anyone being able to believe anything that is spoken or videoed. It is the ultimate achievement in creating an environment in which entirely convincing but totally fraudulent governance can grab the reins.

It is the end of truth.  And if the Bible is right; that “the truth shall set you free,” then this new technology also spells the end of freedom. This is how to make our nation doubt everything it once stood for and that made it great, including its former confidence in what are, in fact, the inalienable truths that we held to be self-evident.

Roger Payne

“Killed by a Whale” by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Disentangling a right whale (Photo by NOAA Fisheries)

On July 10th, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip,”

I have discussed this tragedy with several who have claimed that disentangling a whale is “Asking for trouble,” “Nuts,” and “Insane.” “You gotta be crazy to do such a dangerous thing” is a typical remark. And although that sounds reasonable enough, it turns out that these opinions are based on fear and inexperience. After all, you are in a small boat, a zodiac, trying to free an animal that’s bigger than most private yachts and has been under life-threatening stress for hours, days, weeks, or months; and you pull up near it while the propeller on your boat is making a loud, screaming noise. It would not be unreasonable for the whale to conclude that you have come to attack. It only adds fuel to that assumption when you begin tugging on the ropes entangling the whale, because often, some of them pass through open wounds on its body—something that is surely hellishly painful to the whale.

As if further proof were needed about the gravity of the danger you face, the whale is in its element—seawater—in which it is an agile, fully skilled challenger, whereas, you in your zodiac are little more than a helpless, onlooker—having turned off your motor when you arrived to avoid frightening the whale any worse than you already have.

That is the kind of story that fear paints. However, experience tells a very different story. The fact is that despite the clearly scary circumstances in which one finds oneself when disentangling a whale, the evidence of thousands of such disentanglements shows that the whale does not try to strike you. Instead (and for reasons that are counterintuitive), it seems to catch on fast that you are trying to help—some individuals even seem to cooperate by holding still or rolling slowly as you unwind some long net section. The Center for Coastal Studies in Provincetown, Massachusetts, one of the pioneers in freeing entangled whales, is reported as saying that Joe Howlett’s death is the first fatality since whale rescues began, back in the early 1980s.

The US is not alone in developing techniques for disentangling whales from fishing gear, the Canadians also pioneered such techniques and both countries’ methods are widely used today. Many were developed by my late friend, Newfoundlander Jon Lien. Over his lifetime, Jon and his team rescued over 1,000 humpback whales from fishing gear without anyone sustaining a serious injury. His presence was not just a godsend to the whales but to the fishermen who owned the nets which, before Jon’s efforts, had often been destroyed or carried away by the whale—with devastating consequences to the fishermen’s lives.

At Ocean Alliance we have studied the behavior of right whales for 47 years and it is clear from that experience that right whales are tail fighters. But they don’t slap with their tails—they strike with them edge-on by making lateral, slashing blows. The thing I would like to know most is what that “big flip,” was that the whale made. Did it slap Joe with the flat of its tail or strike him with a lateral slash? Because if it was a tail slap I would strongly suspect it was not intended to cause harm—that the whale was just accelerating away and the result was a tragic accident that killed Joe—a ghastly mistake, not a tail-slash struck in anger.

There are, of course, dangers involved in disentangling whales, which is why it should only be attempted by professionals with lots of experience—never by the public (doing so is, in fact, illegal and subject to heavy fines). However, the fact that this activity is safer than it looks is so counterintuitive that even though thousands of whale disentanglements have been achieved without incident and for decades, when news broke that Joe Howlett had been killed, the first action the Canadian and US fisheries authorities took was to put a stop to all future disentangling efforts—an announcement that annoyed a lot of people, including me. I vented my anger by drafting this blog. Fortunately, I set what I had written aside (my intention was to make a more stinging rebuke the following day). Mackie Green, Howlett’s co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, expressed best what we were all thinking when he said; “Joe definitely would not want us to stop because of this. This is something he loved and there’s no better feeling than getting a whale untangled, and I know how good he was feeling after cutting that whale clear.”

So… should we stop the activity of disentangling whales? Well, should we stop welcoming dogs into our families? After all, dogs have killed hundreds of people over the years. Horses have killed thousands, but should we therefore try to stop our children from falling in love with horses? I once met a logging elephant in Nepal who had killed six people in her life—the last two, her handlers said, because she had witnessed them stealing rice from her daily food allowance.

And I have sympathy for the head ranger in the Sundarbans National Park and Biosphere Reserve (basically, the delta of the Ganges River) who must defend man-eating tigers from the people who have lost spouses and children to the tigers and want the tigers exterminated.

Any discussion of such examples as these eventually leads to the question of how important our species is and how big a deal the role is that we actually play on this planet. As I have said on other occasions, my view is that we are not the star of the show, but just another pretty face—one species among millions of other beguiling species—and unless we stop trying to upstage Nature, the show can’t go on. As a matter of cold, hard fact, our role is unimportant—a walk-on, a bit part. We aren’t important to the main act—life on earth. It can get along fine without us. It did just that for 2.5 billion years and if we self-destruct will continue to get along just fine—probably better,

However, bacteria, and moulds and plankton and nematode worms are important. Life can’t make it without them. But it can exist without us, and if we ignore our errors and destroy the conditions that support us by allowing global warming, ocean acidification, ocean pollution, overpopulation, and overconsumption to go unchecked, our kind won’t survive.

Many bacteria will survive, however, and in due time they will make the earth relivable for whatever life forms succeed us (unless we have knocked the life support balance too far out of whack with something like a runaway greenhouse effect).

We need to find a role to play that will enable us to fit in sustainably and therefore to survive (and have life survive), because that approach is our only hope if we are to have any more than a fleeting future.

Fortunately, before I embarrassed myself by sending out my first draft of this blog, the fisheries authorities clarified their position by pointing out that they had declared a temporary halt to disentanglements solely to enable an investigation that might shed light on what happened, in case they could find something that could be avoided in future to lower the chance that this tragedy would be repeated. When I read that, I was grateful for having to modify my words, because I saw that our species is moving towards enlightenment and that the need for people to recognize the inalienable rights of the rest of life is starting to be recognized. Sure, the process is moving glacially slowly, but it is moving, and that is cause for celebration, just as surely as the death of Joe Howlett is cause for mourning. For their role in giving us that ray of hope I thank the fisheries authorities of Canada and the United States.

My heart goes out to Howlett’s family for whom this tragedy is a calamity beyond expressing. Because it didn’t happen to me I have the luxury of seeing it in a different light. To me, Joe Howlett is an inspiration, a man years ahead of his time who stepped in to help another species that was suffering. It was an act unsurpassed for decency and morality. He was willing to take risks, which, though they are usually benign, are, when things go wrong, deadly. He certainly knew that. But he acted anyway.

Although I have spent the past 50 years studying whales and working to save them I never met Joe, although we shared the same atypical mission. But I admire him entirely because he was doing something of which our species—any species—could be unreservedly proud. He was showing the way, taking action in response to another species’ distress. Within our species, racism is a heinous offense to all things positive and decent; within the broader world, speciesism is equally reprehensible. Overcoming racism and speciesism are the central problems of our time—the defining achievements that we must accomplish.

We hear daily that we should pitch in to make a difference—should step up. But few do it; our lives are overwhelmingly Business As Usual. Joe Howlett, did do something—he risked his life to save a member of another species that was suffering. In the past, whales and dolphins have done that for humans; he returned the favor. In my opinion that makes him a hero. His children can be proud of him through all eternity. He didn’t get to see them grow old, but the mark he made is something they can cherish forever.

Roger Payne

“No Place for a Mere Man” by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The Elephant and Whale Screens     Roger Payne and Daphne Sheldrick in front—Nov 24, 2010

Back in 2010 I was invited by the filmmaker Jin Tatsumura, the dearest of men, to go to Japan and give a talk along with Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi—a haven for orphaned, east African wildlife, particularly elephants.  Our talks would take place at the Miho Museum—the dream of Mihoko Koyama, after whom it is named. She and her daughter Hiroko Koyama commissioned it, and it was designed by the architect I.M. Pei who called it his Shangri La. It is an architectural tour de force built in the wild, nearly vertical, mountainous, forested terrain that is near Kyoto.

One purpose of our talks would be to discuss one of the main exhibits—the Elephant and Whale Screens (1795) attributed to the 18th century master, Ito Jakuchu. Of course, there are no elephants in Japan but in 1729 when Jakuchu was 13, one was brought from Vietnam to Kyoto and shown to the emperor. If Jakuchu saw it, many years went by before he painted an elephant, and in his two most famous pictures of elephants they are white. Real white elephants are very rare but the other errors in those two pictures suggest that he simply forgot that elephants are grey. When he painted an animal that was easily available to him, such as a rooster, his painting was both the essence of roosterness and showed the rooster’s true form.

Whales are abundant off the coast of Japan but a common error in Jakuchu’s times was to give whales fish fins. However, the fact that the fish-finned creature in the screens is spouting forces us to conclude that it’s a whale. As the old whalers said so well; “A whale is a spouting fish.”

Jakuchu painted only the whale’s back, but if we use the elephant as a yardstick we can see that it’s a big whale, so he probably meant it to be a blue whale—the apparent singleness and height of the spout supports that supposition.  It seems likely that Jakuchu intended the screens to show the largest creatures of land and sea—the message being to anyone who saw the picture hanging in any space; “Strength is present; all is safe here.”

But what did he want us to believe about what these giants were doing? Both are immobile; the elephant is lying down on what seems to be the top of a bluff overlooking the sea. It is facing the whale which cannot be moving forward (if it were it would hit the underwater base of the bluff or the beach itself). Yet the whale is spouting and the elephant is raising its trunk high. Both gestures are usually accompanied by loud sounds. Is Jakuchu implying that these two giants are conversing?

Years ago, I would have said; “Nonsense; whales and elephants in their own elements can’t realistically be expected to hear each other more than a few meters away. Sounds lose too much energy as they pass from the air into the water, or from the water into the air. But then Katy Payne discovered that elephants are very talkative but speak mostly at frequencies too low for humans to hear. They are, nevertheless, very talkative and in social groups they make many sounds much of the time. They are immersed in a rumbling social world. She also showed that they speak loudly enough to hear each other for several kilometers. Her work attracted other scientists who showed that their infrasonic calls travel not just through the air but through the ground and that listening elephants also sense such vibrations through their feet.

I had calculated that before the ocean was filled with the noise humans generate, the sounds made by blue whales could have been heard across entire oceans—a theory since confirmed by others.

A corollary to this is that it is reasonable to assume blue whales must also be able to communicate through the crust of the Earth, the rock of the sea floor. That could be a big advantage for long distance communication since rock conducts sounds faster than water does and when you make sounds underwater over a continuous rock floor some of the energy of your sounds will get into the rock, whether or not you intend them to.

Elephants and whales both live very social lives. Both have large brains and as such seem to be the most likely potential communicants to have either the ability or the interest to trade news about ocean life and sea life. So I suspect that Jakuchu’s screens in the Miho museum depict more than just the planet’s biggest land and sea creatures. I suspect he may have been suggesting that life on land and life in the sea inform each other of what’s up in the other’s world.

But that seems Pretty far-fetched. After all, what information could a whale give an elephant about the sea that would concern the elephant, or vice versa? Well, how about the whale saying the equivalent of; “Where’s the food I used to find here? The water tastes awful; stop messing up the water!”

It wouldn’t be a dumb request; whales are used to rearranging seascapes—feeding grey whales root up the sea floor by making bathtub-sized holes in the mud—rather the way pigs root up soil. Was Jakuchu alluding to how land animals and sea animals might communicate so as to cooperate in keeping the earth habitable? OK, most unlikely, given that such ideas were rare in Jakuchu’s time. However, back then, although people had very incomplete ideas of what caused what, they were already learning how to use organic mixtures of microbes to restore the fertility of soils. How intriguing, given that another great interest of the Koyama family is permaculture—something they were advancing long before they acquired the Jakuchu screens.

I still suppose that one of Jakuchu’s main motives was simply to depict the biggest land and the biggest sea creatures. However, any great artist knows that everyone loves a painting that tells a good story. Maybe he intended that the elephant and the whale were having a chat, each telling the other stories… hanging out. If so, the late Lyall Watson, a friend from my days of attending International Whaling Commission meetings, claimed to have witnessed the very thing Jakuchu’s screens depict. He described it in his book, Elephantoms.

Near the end of the book, Watson goes in search of a female elephant whom he has learned is the last remaining elephant in a region of the South African, Cape coast called Knysna —a place in which Watson spent his summers as a child. By sheer luck he finds this last living elephant of the clan he had known in his youth, but he finds her in a totally uncharacteristic place. She is standing at the edge of the sea, looking towards a blue whale that has come close to shore—a totally uncharacteristic place to see a blue whale. Lyle assumes that the whale is also a female because it is so big (female baleen whales are bigger than males).

Let us suspend our disbelief for a moment—not worry whether some of Lyle Watson’s assumptions are wrong, or even whether his account is slightly manicured—he tells a compelling story with words, just as Jakuchu did with paints.

After feeling a kind of throbbing in the air, he guesses it to be the whale’s infrasound and expresses his surprise at finding the last elephant of Knysna, the matriarch, here. He writes:

“She was here because she no longer had anyone to talk to in the forest. She was standing here on the edge of the ocean because it was the next, nearest, and most powerful source of infrasound. The underrumble of the surf would have been well within her range, a soothing balm for an animal used to being surrounded, submerged, by low and comforting frequencies, by the lifesounds of a herd, and now this was the next-best thing!

“My heart went out to her. The whole idea of this grandmother of many being alone for the first time in her life was tragic, conjuring up the vision of countless other old and lonely souls. But just as I was about to be consumed by helpless sorrow, something even more extraordinary took place…

“The throbbing was back in the air. I could feel it, and I began to understand why. The blue whale was on the surface again, pointed inshore, resting, her blowhole clearly visible. The Matriarch was here for the whale! The largest animal in the ocean and the largest living land animal were no more than a hundred yards apart, and I was convinced that they were communicating! In infrasound, in concert, sharing big brains and long lives, understanding the pain of high investment in a few precious offspring, aware of the importance and the pleasure of complex sociality, these rare and lovely great ladies were commiserating over the back fence of this rocky Cape shore, woman to woman, matriarch to matriarch, almost the last of their kind.

“I turned, blinking away the tears, and left them to it. This was no place for a mere man…”

Roger Payne

Doing What Really Matters, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Donald Trump’s nomination of climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Administration is grotesque. Confirmation of Pruitt would threaten the world with the most disastrous and lasting damage that the Trump administration is likely to be able to create. This country needs an EPA Administrator whose rulings are based on science not on the lobbying agendas of special interests.

Of the trepidations that are expressed about a Trump presidency almost all concern its impacts on just one species… ours. However, the overwhelmingly most important and lasting consequences of the next 4-8 years will be the impact of Trump’s policies on the rest of life on earth (euphemistically referred to as: “the environment”).

As I have stated before, a strong argument can be made that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is not E=mc2, or plate tectonics, or the structure of DNA, or decoding the human Genome, or the threat of global warming, or the engineering advances that put a man on the moon; it is the discovery that our species is utterly interdependent with a broad array of other species, each one of which interdepends with a somewhat different collection of species. What makes this discovery so consequential is that unless we stop our destruction of the rest of life on earth we have no future—i.e., unless we make conservation of life the primary consideration of all of our actions our children and grandchildren—yours and mine—won’t make it.

It is possible, though painful, to imagine ways in which we can endure the unsettling inconveniences and embarrassments that the bottomless ignorance of Trump’d policies will unleash on our species. But if the Trump administration further accelerates humanity’s damage to life on earth there is a significant chance that he will devastate not just our species but Nature itself.

There can be no greater political consequence of Trump’s ignorance. Compared to what the Third Reich accomplished, a disruption of the conditions that enable life as we know it would make World War II seem like a “minor disturbance.” After all, most of its devastation was directed at one species and it physically damaged a very small area of the world.

One of the perennially hardest questions to answer is what it is that makes humans different from other animals. It’s usually attributed to tool use or language but it turns out that several other species possess languages that share many of the fundamentals of human language, and recent work shows that numerous species make and use tools.

I believe the thing that makes our species unique is our overwhelming capacity for denial—something at which Trump and Co appear to be masters—the most serious example thereof is the refusal of Trump to recognize the undeniable importance of making the fate of non-human species our number one priority, simply because our lives are so utterly controlled by our interdependence with other species, which means that if we keep destroying the species with which we interdepend, life as we know it will be reduced below viability.

So job number one is to prevent the confirmation of Scott Pruitt or anyone else likely to make the actions of the EPA into a means of accelerating humanity’s race towards self-destruction.

I can see no point more important point on which to spend every hour, every dollar, every thought, every effort than to stop Scott Pruitt. All other threats from Trump affect only our generation. Even if he blunders us into an all-out nuclear war it would be less damaging in the long run than failing to stop the wholesale destruction of the environment. I ask each of you reading this to make environmental protection your first priority from this point forward. Environmental issues matter more than any of the other temporary inconveniences that Trump’s ignorance will be aiming at our lives.

Roger Payne

By Photo: LA(Phot) Vicki Benwell/MOD, OGL,

More Good News about the Oceans, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops at all.
Emily Dickinson

I have lived through eight decades of bad news about the environment with good news always as rare as rain during a long drought. But after years of watching the oceans suffer blows at the hands of our species I suddenly sense that the world has arrived at a tipping point, and good news is starting to flow like water.

I wrote last time about the miracle of the Our Oceans Conference at the U.S. State Department during which the total expanse of marine protected areas was tripled and $5.3 billion was pledged to insure that such a grand plan would be fulfilled and that IUU fishing (Illegal, undocumented, unregulated fishing) could be punished rigorously.

The latest cause for thanks came last Friday, October 28th with a grand announcement from the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR). It is a consortium of 25 countries that includes the United States, Russia and China. After 11 years of negotiation and patient diplomacy this consortium finally voted unanimously to create the world’s largest marine reserve in Antarctica’s Ross Sea—an area of 600,000 square miles, 72% of which now has the status of a no-take area.

When I showed joy over this fact to friends, I got a disdainful reaction form some of them; “The Ross Sea? Antarctica!? Couldn’t they have protected an area that’s a bit more friendly—a bit more accessible?

Though most people don’t find the Antarctic Ocean friendly and accessible, for many non-human species it is an unimaginably productive paradise. I am not sure there is a comparably large area anywhere on earth with so much life. In the Antarctic summer the upwelling of mineral rich waters that have been traveling for thousands of miles through the perpetual darkness of the ocean deeps, brings that mineral richness up into 24-hour daylight that triggers an explosive growth of short-lived, quick-to-reproduce plants called diatoms. These single-celled plants are some of the most beautiful life forms on earth and some of the most abundant. (To a biologist like me the word ‘abundance’ means species per unit area.) The diatom plants enable all of the food chains above them, including the incalculably abundant, tiny shrimp called krill (the main food for all larger Antarctic animals; fish of many species, penguins, seabirds, seals, dolphins, beaked whales, and baleen whales—the latter including the most massive animals that have ever lived, the blue whales).

Given such a robust food chain, saving the Ross Sea is like saving the Serengeti Plains of Africa. There are areas of greater diversity, but we’re talking abundance here. And it is cause for celebration that so much of that abundance has just been designated as a no-take zone with the first review to take place only after 35 years.

It’s the kind of good news that, frankly, I never thought I’d live long enough to see. Back when I started studying whales I used to say in a voice of gloom that because overhunting had laid blue whales so low, it would be at least fifty years before they could show any measurable recovery. I stressed “fifty years” because that seemed like an eternity to my then 30-year-old self. But time passed and I have lived through more than those five decades. And although my gloom at times reached greater depths I am thrilled by the positive news we are starting to hear about the oceans. Hope is no longer just “a thing with feathers,” it has wings and it perches not only in enigmas like the soul but on solid branches that connect to limbs and trunks with roots that grip the earth. And it is growing ever stronger, and emboldening a brighter future.

Roger Payne

“Our Ocean” Conference—The Miracle of 2016, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

I spent last week in Washington, DC where I attended the Our Ocean Conference. I was surprised to see how consequential this meeting turned out to be. Although I have been to dozens of international conferences in my long life, no other meeting ever left me with such hope. To be blunt, I usually regret the time I spend attending conferences, as many seem to me to be a nearly seamless waste of time. But this was different—shockingly different!

The feeling in the room was electrifying as leader after leader from country after country stood in line waiting to announce that they were pledging some incomprehensibly large amount of money, and/or setting aside some incomprehensibly vast square mileage (some pledged their entire Exclusive Economic Zones) as a Marine Protected Area where fishing would be restricted. It was a powerful start at repairing some of the damage our species has done to marine life.

During the conference a total of more than 5.3 biliion dollars (U.S.) was pledged for ending ocean pollution and IUU fishing (Illegal, unregulated, unreported fishing) as well as for maintaining existing Marine Protected Areas (MPAs) and establishing new ones.

IMG_73322015 was the first Our Ocean Conference, and by its end the total area of MPAs covered about 1% of the oceans. But by the end of this year’s Our Ocean conference the MPA pledges had grown to cover 3% of the oceans; and the stated goal for next year’s conference is to bring that total up to 6% of the oceans.

The reason I find this so consequential is that almost anything that makes the news these days has two characteristics: it is usually bad news, and in the rare cases that it is good news it only benefits one species, ours. This time it was extraordinarily good news and it will benefit all life on earth in wonderfully positive ways.

I, like so many other invited guests had decided to follow my wife’s advice and go, although I had all-but-no hope that it would be of any consequence. But by the end of the first day I stood speechless… awestruck by what we had all just witnessed.

And then came the second day, and it outdid the first!

I, of course, realize that in order to have this unprecedented growth of interest in ocean health bear fruit, the protection of MPAs will have to be enforced. I see the main player in this effort as the Sea Shepherd movement with its new focus on helping developing countries police their MPAs by offering local law enforcement officers a chance to get out to where the poachers do their dirty work and arrest them at sea and in the act. I see this as a particularly powerful direction for marine conservation organizations to follow, which is why Ocean Alliance is pleased to be cooperating fully with this pioneering work by the Sea Shepherd movement.

Ocean Alliance’s recent emphasis is on perfecting the use of drones to assess populations of ocean life—seen most famously in the success of Iain Kerr’s SnotBot. Taking such a step follows smoothly in the wake of our global Voyage of the Odyssey in which we made the first global assessment of how badly toxic metals and several synthetic molecules are contaminating sea life… worldwide. That exercise proved our efficacy in assessing the extent of ocean pollution and we plan to scale it up so that other entities can monitor their MPAs—but can do so by sampling the blows of the main indicator species, whales, rather than by taking skin/blubber biopsies.

But identifying problems is just the beginning. We need to find ways to solve those problems in ways that are scalable. As our global “Voyage of the Odyssey” clearly showed, the two major sources of the contaminants that affect ocean life come from: 1) Big Industries that follows the practice of dumping their wastes into the air which then carries the contaminants into the sea, and 2) Big Agriculture—principally synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that are washed into rivers and from there down to the sea where they get into all ocean life.

We are now working with Urth Agriculture, an organization that is helping farmers increase their yields while renewing their soils and holding ponds by replacing synthetic fertilizers with microbes that cost a fraction of synthetic fertilizers. Plus, the microbes also rebuild soils rather than continuing to poison them the way synthetic fertilizers do.

The word miracle is much overused, but if you witnessed one, as I did last week, what else can you call it? I had never dreamed of seeing what happened at last week’s conference. Listening to the comments of the participants it became clear that of the many conference organizers who worked so hard to achieve the result, Secretary of State, John Kerry stood out. It was his ability to encourage a kind of friendly rivalry among sovereign nations as to who could promise the biggest percentage of their physical and fiscal resources to improve ocean health (a kind of marine potlatch) that created what I believe should be called The Miracle of 2016.

In the interests of full disclosure, neither Ocean Alliance nor I have asked for, nor stand to receive any financial benefit from the State Department, and although I have shaken his hand, I could easily forgive Secretary Kerry if he didn’t remember me from a sea cucumber. The man deserves our deepest, collective thanks.

What is now most obvious is that this brilliant start needs to be funded generously by governments and foundations as well as by everyone with the vision to see the peril our future holds unless we take the trident that Kerry has passed to us and brandish it as though our lives depended on it. In fact, they do.

Roger Payne

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

Jeff Orlowski (Chasing Ice), Sylvia Earle, Roger Payne, Andy Rogan


M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan

M. Sanjayan (Conservation International), Roger Payne, Andy Rogan



NBC Nightly News visits Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

On Monday Sept 12th, Tom Costello from NBC Nightly News visited Ocean Alliance to shoot a story on SnotBot.

Mr. Costello was accompanied by his producer Jay Blackman, a videographer, and soundman. The weather was absolutely beautiful and the NBC team were on site from 9:00 am until 2:00 pm.


Our CEO and chief SnotBot pilot Iain Kerr was interviewed and filmed flying SnotBot. Understanding the unique perspective of a drone, he offered to shoot some video of Mr. Costello for the news story with SnotBot. NBC are now heading to interview Dr. Scott Baker at Oregon State University, who is analyzing SnotBot samples from our most recent expedition to Alaska.

“We are very excited to have NBC Nightly News show an interest in this work,” said Dr. Kerr. “Mr. Costello was a real pleasure to work with, and he asked some great questions with regards to SnotBot and whales both on and off camera.”

SnotBot Alaska was the last Kickstarter-funded SnotBot expedition, so the grind of raising funds to keep the SnotBot (and now EarBot) program moving forward now goes back into high gear. We hope that the exposure offered by Mr. Costello and the NBC team will help with this process.

Details of when the show will air will be posted on Ocean Alliance’s Facebook page – likely it will be the week of September 19th. 

Thank You for a Successful Gloucester Harbor Cruise! – by Andy Rogan, OA Science Manager

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

On Tuesday the 26th July we hosted our Gloucester Harbour Cruise (which turned into a sunset whale watch!). We are thrilled to announce that it was an enormous success, raising almost $4,000 to support Ocean Alliance and our activities protecting whales & their ocean environment.

With all of the donated food and great weather we knew that we were in store for a great evening, but we were over the moon when our partners (and incredibly gracious hosts), Seven Seas Whale watch, told us that the humpback whales on Stellwagen bank were close enough to shore to access in the time we had available. Our evening on the Privateer IV was thus off to a great start when it turned from a tour of the harbor into a whale watch with our president and founder Dr. Roger Payne!

IMG_0005-Tasia Blough

Photo by Tasia Blough


As we went out to sea, Roger and CEO Iain Kerr talked about our work, our hopes and ambitions for the oceans and our home at the Gloucester Paint Manufactory. The stars of the show were the whales which make Stellwagen Bank their summer home. During one whale dive Roger talked about a similar night he had at sea over 40 years ago when he first heard whale songs.

We reached the whales half an hour before sunset and were treated to a stunningly beautiful display. Lots of fluking into the sunset (to the delight of all with a camera!) and surfacing right next to the vessel thrilled all on-board, including Roger!

Photo by Alex Paradis

Photo by Alex Paradis

IMG_1083-2As we headed back to Gloucester after watching the sun dip beneath the horizon (with a glimpse of a green flash) the silent auction and the raffle got in to full gear, and after a few more tales from Iain and Roger, including his poetic description of ‘The Borneo Cat Drop’, the raffle prize winners were announced.

A great time was had by all and it was fantastic being able to connect with so many Gloucester and Cape Ann locals: a tremendous success all round and we were thrilled to raise $4,000 to support our research & restoration activities! So great a success was it, that we are hoping to make it an annual event!

Enormous thanks are due to a lot of great friends. First and foremost, to Seven Seas Whale Watch, whose vessel the Privateer IV and crew kept everyone safe and happy, and to their captain Jay, whose instinctive understanding of Humpback whales got us so many wonderful encounters. Also to the many local groups that kindly donated food and drink to the cruise including: Cape Ann Brewery, Stop & Shop, the Common Crow, Maritime Gloucester, Passports Restaurant, Latitude 43, Ryan & Wood Distillery, Cape Ann Coffee, the Studio Restaurant and Sugar Magnolias. Thank You so much for your generosity: you made this night the success it was!

And finally to the Ocean Alliance staff and volunteers who worked tirelessly during the whole planning phase and during the evening itself: and in particular to Rebecca Graham, the orchestra conductor, and our board member Linde Mac.



UAS Vision Interview with Iain Kerr

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This interview with Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr originally appeared on the UAS Vision website, an independent global forum for the Unmanned Aircraft Systems community.

We wanted to find out more about the team behind Drone World Expo – what makes them tick, what motivates them and what are the secrets behind the success of the event. We will be interviewing several of the Advisory Board members over the coming months. We start with Dr. Iain Kerr, the CEO of the Ocean Alliance, an organization recognised as an international leader in whale research and ocean conservation since its founding by renowned scientist Dr. Roger Payne in 1970. Iain has pioneered research using UAVs  to collect data from whales and the ocean environment.

  1. What was the trigger for your move to the USA? Was Ocean Alliance your first employer?

I first came over to the USA looking for adventure, I had just finished four years at university I wanted to go and explore the world, my sister had friends in Miami and the Bahamas so that seemed like the best place to go. A year or so later I started a small company in Miami called CDI hovercraft.  These were small light weight hovercraft that were the ultimate all terrain vehicles, we sold some to rice growers in the Mississippi, gold miners in Brazil and adventurers or early adopters looking for a new type of transportation.  I still see these hovercraft as a solution looking for a problem.  I have always liked to tinker with machines.  After CDI Hovercraft I worked as a yacht delivery captain for a few years but my first formal job was with Ocean Alliance when I captained their research vessel Siben to the Galapagos in the 1980’s.

  1. What was your first encounter with a drone ?

I studied engineering at the University of London (part of a teacher training course) I don’t know why but I have always had a great fascination with Helicopters, so I wanted to build a gyrocopter for a final design/build project at University. Luckily my dad persuaded me to build a Hovercraft (see photo below – less height to fall if something goes wrong) hence the Hovercraft company in Miami.

Hovercraft Shoreditch
I did not do much airborne tech work for the next decade that I spent at sea but when I came ashore I instantly started back up with gas powered RC helicopters. I did not like the constant engine issues, exhaust and fuel problems and my landlord did not like the dead spots all over the lawn.  About another decade later when battery powered helicopters and planes came onto the scene I leapt back into the field with both feet.

  1. What do you see as being the advantage(s) of using drones for conservation?

I could spend all day answering this question – I believe that drones for conservation and research are akin to the invention of the microscope for cellular biology.  They are opening up a whole new world for us to explore.  They are affordable, quite, adaptable, reliable and scalable.  I was recently hovering above a blue whale, the largest animal that has ever lived on this planet.

Blue body short
Through FPV [First-Person View] I was just sitting 20 feet above this remarkable animal watching, its movement, its musculature, its respiration rate, its patterning and then a few minutes later I had, DNA, Microbiomes and who knows what else from its snot and it never even knew that I was there.  If we truly want to understand what effects humanity is having on wildlife we need to study them in a non invasive manner (see the observer effect) – todays drones are the ultimate realization of non invasive research. I also believe we are only just scratching the surface of the potential for these machines.

  1. Which airframes did you select for your most recent expeditions to the Sea of Cortez and Alaska and why ?

When we first started the SnotBot program we built prototypes with our friends at Olin College of Engineering, we soon realized that companies like DJI were spending millions on research and development and it would be easier for us to modify their product than create a whole new product. When you spend a lot of money and time getting a team on location, you want a drone that you can rely on and DJI had that in spades. We also really liked the interface that the DJI products have with the iPad or iPhone and the flight log App. Using a drone to collect whale blows is a bit counterintuitive, the whales are blowing up but the drones are blowing down.

Inspire 1 SnotBot[2]
In Mexico we wanted to explore two avenues of Snot collection, the first was to use a number of different Snot collection devices on a pole (trying to get out of the downwash) and the second was to use the drone rotor circulation or vortex’s to collect snot for us, taking advantage of the prop wash as against fighting it.  The DJI Phantom 4 was perfect for attaching poles and different payloads.  The thin body of the DJI Inspire 1 (as against the typical round body) meant that we could put Petri Dishes on the top of the Inspire and collect snot as it was sucked in by the blades and pushed down along the thin body (see photo).  We chose wisely, this method was very successful.

5. There is now a wide variety of exhibitions and conferences about UAS in the USA.  Why did you choose to support Drone World Expo (

I started by looking at their advisory board, I really liked the fact that they had such a diverse collection of people, from industry, legislation, investment, science and innovation.  The skills experience and expertise that this group bring to the table is quite remarkable.  I also like the fact that this conference represents a true cross section of the industry, I see other conferences that are more focused on one aspect or another but in their own words:  “The DWE conference program will provide a road map for the application and deployment of drone solutions and key insights for participants into how to measure and maximize on the value drones can add to commercial businesses”.

“Aerial and Underwater Drones” by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It was 46 years ago that I first saw right whales off Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia and started the study of their behavior that Ocean Alliance has continued without a break to this day (making ours the longest continuous study of a whale species based on known individuals). In that first year I watched the right whales from a high cliff and when they came beneath it could see through the water exactly what they were doing and in perfect detail. By filming the patterns of white markings (callosities) on their heads, I could also tell who they were. However, because they were almost always on the move the perfect views from above never lasted more than a few minutes. We could run along the rim of the cliff for a while, looking down at the whale but it was both exhausting and dangerous as any misstep would plunge you headfirst onto the rocks, 150 feet below.

By accurately plotting their positions with surveyors’ theodolytes we later found that at Penìnsula Valdès right whales prefer to be in 5 meters of water—not 4½ meters or 5½ meters but 5 meters of water. They stick to that depth tenaciously in our study area in Golfo San José. In fact, I have never seen a more sharply tuned behavioral preference for water depth in any whale species. It was clear that if you could observe from overhead the whales could not get out of your sight because of their strong preference for water that is only 5 meters deep—a depth through which you can see the whale’s entire body.

For all those reasons, from year one I longed to observe right whales from the air. Sure sure, underwater observations were possible but whenever you approach closely, the whales either leave at once or stop whatever they are doing and come over to examine you closely—often, they try to intimidate or dominate you as well. It is all very impressive but you see nothing of the whale’s normal behavior which is why you are there in the first place. Because it was so clear from the start that aerial observations would enable us to make huge advances in understanding right whale behavior, we tried in that first year to find a helicopter we could afford to charter from which we could observe the whales’. But neither then nor later could we find one at a charter price we could afford. Years later when we were cooperating in the filming of an Imax film, we did finally have the chance to keep a chartered helicopter at whale camp for 10 days. The views we got from it were great but we had to observe from much further away, since helicopters disturb right whales much more than the fixed-wing planes we were used to.

Parasail and baloon

Roger and Iain’s early attempts to observe whales from above in 1987, with a parasail and balloon.

For years I simply yearned to have a model aircraft that could carry a TV camera. I was sure it would be able to get closer without disturbing the whales and that would give us better results. However, none of us had the skills to operate such a machine and it was clear that learning to do so and keeping that skill honed would be a full time occupation—hard to accomplish since there is a long roster of other things that demand one’s full attention during our all-too-short field seasons.

As time passed affordable drones finally began to appear. In 2006 I had the luck of meeting MIT Professor Daniela Rus, two of whose former students had developed a very successful octocopter called the Falcon. We took it and them to Argentina in 2008 and tried it out as a tool for observing right whales. The results were stunning. First off, as long as we kept the downdraft clear of the the whales they simply ignored the drone. Here’s an example of what you can see from a small drone when above a right whale:


At the same time Iain approached Professor Andrew Bennett at Olin College of Engineering and they began building what they dubbed the SnotBot, (one of my least favorite names but a great machine that collects blow samples from right whales, subsequent analyses of which enable you to learn about the health and reproductive state of the whale). Iain is currently off doing this work on the second of three expeditions that Ocean Alliance funded through Kickstarter.

While all of this explosive development was going on Iain was spending evenings and weekends learning how to fly drones in his back yard and the result of that effort made it clear that the dream of studying behavior of whales with drones is now a reality.

Allow me to go out on a limb and predict (in the spirit of Moore’s law) a trend in the amount of information one can get by using drones: I predict that the number of papers on whale behavior based on drones will roughly double every three to five years—thereby tempting one to conclude that if you want to learn about whales, don’t waste your time on, or in, the water, get up in the air.

However, everyone who does accept the challenge of designing drones that can operate in the far-more-difficult world of underwater observations will find that the amount of data they can get on whales will increase even faster. I suspect that in a few more years the explosion of papers based on underwater drones will be increasing at twice the rate of papers based on aerial drones.

I have often felt that by great good fortune I was born at a time ideal for learning more about whales. However, I now feel that an understanding of the world of whales is only in its very earliest, most primitive beginning phase and that its full fruition will come as a result of both aerial and underwater drones—rather than from observations by divers or from shipboard.

Blue body 2


Roger Payne is the Founder and President of Ocean Alliance.

“Art of the Sea and Science,” a collaboration of North Shore Arts Association and Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

WHAT: “Art of the Sea and Science”
EVENTS: Art exhibition, silent auction, lectures and performance series
WHEN: June 17th through July 30th
WHERE: North Shore Arts Association, 11 Pirates Lane, Gloucester, MA 01930
ADMISSION: Open free to the public with suggested donation of $5 for lectures  and performance series
CONTACT INFO: NSAA at 978.283.1857 or

  • June 17-July 30 “Art of the Sea and Science” exhibition
  • June 17-July 30 Original artwork on Paint Factory Slates silent auction
  • June 26 (12:30-1:30) “Why Whales” lecture with Dr. Iain Kerr
  • June 26 (2-4pm) Reception open free to the general public
  • July 7 (7pm) “Sea Change-Reversing the Tide” performance with Dr. Roger Payne and Lisa Harrow (noted New Zealand actress)
  • July 23 (3pm) “The Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art” lecture with Karen Ristuben

“From the Harbor” by Sharon Bahosh

American writer, artist and philosopher E. Hubbard said “Art is not a thing, it is a way.” The historic North Shore Arts Association of Gloucester celebrating its 94th year, reflects this philosophy with its “Art in Action – Connecting Communities” focus this season, by hosting a groundbreaking collaboration with Gloucester’s marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance, now headquartered in Gloucester’s iconic Paint Factory, and historic Rocky Neck Art Colony.

Supporting the Ocean Alliance mission to protect and preserve our oceans and marine life and North Shore Arts Association and Rocky Neck Art Colony’s mission of supporting the arts, an “Art Exhibition of the Sea and Science” will be on display June 17 through July 30 in the galleries of NSAA. Although works of all genres will be on display, the main focus will be works depicting the sea and Cape Ann.

A very unique component of the exhibition will be a show and silent auction of works painted on old roofing slates removed from the historic Paint Factory building. These historic slates donated to NSAA by non-profit Ocean Alliance provide the substrate used by NSAA Artist Members to create original paintings, each approximately 12″x24″ depicting a myriad images. Bids for the silent auction may be placed June 17 through July 30 by visiting or contacting NSAA. One hundred per cent of silent auction proceeds will go to fund the ongoing restoration of the NSAA’s gallery building and Ocean Alliance’s Paint Factory headquarters.

Slate_Demeter, Anne_WhaleandCalf

“Whale and Calf” by Anne Demeter

The collaboration also offers an extraordinary series of Ocean Alliance and Rocky Neck Art Colony lectures and performances. This special programing was made possible through partial funding by the Massachusetts Cultural Council. The first of the series will be marine conservation/research group Ocean Alliance presenting a lecture “Why Whales?” by CEO Dr. Iain Kerr on Sunday, June 26th, 12:30-1:30pm followed by a reception, open free to the public 2-4pm. A dynamic performance/poetry reading, “Sea Change: Reversing the Tide” will be presented by President of Ocean Alliance Dr. Roger Payne – whose profound discovery of whale songs has been a major force in their protection – and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow on Thursday, July 7th at 7pm. Rocky Neck Art Colony President and arts and marine conservation advocate Karen Ristuben will present a lecture “Intersection of Marine Science, Conservation, Activism and Art on Saturday, July 23rd 3pm. All lectures and performances are free with a suggested donation of $5.

To learn more about these three iconic non-profits visit, and

About the Lecturers and Performers

– Dr. Roger Payne, Ocean Alliance President and Founder

Dr. Roger Payne states, “I am so disappointed that the Arts and Sciences are taught separately – both the Arts and the Sciences lose. They should be co-mingled.” Ocean scientist Payne embodies the best of the Arts and Sciences functioning together to do something probably neither could have done separately.

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr shares, “Because Dr. Payne is a musician. . . because he is an artist/scientist, his training allowed him to identify, and make the most profound discovery about humpback whales. That whales sing songs!” Prior to his discovery in 1967, along with Scott McVay, whale sounds were a mystery. Payne knew, however, that “a song is a rhythmically repeated collection of notes” and was able, because of his music training, to identify the particular songs of individual whales that he later confirmed can be heard over thousands of miles of ocean.

Having worked aboard the sloop “Clearwater” in support of Pete Seeger’s efforts to clean up the Hudson River in New York, Payne is considered a pioneer in his field. In the hope of sharing the work of artists/scientists, recordings of whale songs were placed aboard American Satellites Voyager I and II. Drs. Payne and Kerr have also stimulated interest in conserving our oceans and marine life by testifying before congress and presenting before the United Nations.

 About SEACHANGE: Reversing the Tide (performed by Dr. Roger Payne and his wife, noted New Zealand actress Lisa Harrow

What is the most consequential contribution of science in the past 100 years? Is it E=mc2, the structure of DNA, decoding the human genome, plate tectonics, the computer revolution, putting a man on the moon, the development of nuclear weapons? None of those directly affects the lives of every human being on earth—most indigenous peoples are simply unaware of all of them. However, respect for the hundreds of species that make the world habitable for us, and with which we interdepend is utterly consequential. Indigenous people were first to guess at it but scientific discovery during the past 50 years has proved it. And the consequence is that discovery is—if we ignore the destruction of the wild world until it can no longer keep the world habitable, our species will not survive.

The evidence for and the consequences of this broad claim are explored in Seachange: Reversing the Tide. In this hour long presentation Roger Payne and his wife, actress Lisa Harrow combine the knowledge of science with the wisdom of poetry to argue compellingly that man is not the overseer of Life on earth but an integral part of Life’s complex web and conclude that the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years is the realization that our species’ survival requires that we attend not just to our own wellbeing but to the wellbeing of the entire web of Life—nothing else we can ever do will be nearly as consequential as understanding that point. The audience emerges with a clear understanding of humanity’s role in the natural world and of the urgency of our need to start living sustainably.

Since 2004, Roger and Lisa have presented SeaChange: Reversing the Tide to audiences in universities, film festivals, schools, churches, conferences, libraries and other public spaces,  off-Broadway, the UN, and in people’s living rooms, throughout the US, as well as in New Zealand and the UK.

Currently, a team of New Zealand/Canadian documentary makers are raising the funds from international sources to make a film of the piece, which they are calling Pale Blue Dot after Carl Sagan’s book, an extract from which are the last words of SeaChange.

“SeaChange moves its viewers. The strength of its ecological convictions derives from well-marshalled facts of the reality of our despoilment of the planet, and the emotional impact of the poetry the piece uses. Most importantly, Harrow and Payne turn away from despair, to what is to be done.” Roald Hoffman, Nobel laureate, chemist and writer

“Thank you, both of you, for that haunting and lovely stage piece. You had me thrumming all the way home.”

– Lawrence Weschler, Director of the New York Institute for the Humanities at NYU

Dr. Iain Kerr, CEO Ocean Alliance

“I think of our planet as Planet Ocean, not Planet Earth because almost three quarters of the planet is ocean.” A self described adventurer who loves ocean science, Kerr was granted a Doctor of Humane Letters degree from the University of Southern Maine in honor of his 20 years of ocean research in over 21 countries.

On a trip out of Gloucester harbor in 1993 on a whale watch boat he saw the Paint Factory. Recognizing that such an iconic building, with its long maritime history, might capture the hearts and minds of people thereby stimulating their interest and involvement in ocean and whale conservation, he realized it would be a valuable place to headquarter Ocean Alliance.  As a result, the organization contacted the Annenberg Foundation which ultimately provided all the funds necessary to purchase the Paint Factory.  Kerr emphasizes that, since the building is mortgage free, all donations go to the ongoing restoration of the Paint Factory buildings.

The OA organization is a pioneer in developing benign research tools for studying our oceans, the most recent iteration being drones – which they have dubbed “Snotbots” – which gather specimens from the spray spouted through the blow holes of whales. Award winning actor Patrick Stewart has long been a friend to Ocean Alliance and was instrumental in garnering funds for the “Snotbot” research program. This research method is hailed for its non-invasive approach to studying the health of whale populations.

When asked what is meant by “Alliance” in the OA title, Kerr said it “reflects the idea that, along with collaboration from many other scientific organizations, all of humanity needs to be allied to preserve our oceans.”

Finding Gloucester reminiscent of the small fishing village in South West England where he grew up, Kerr and his wife chose to make their home East Gloucester.


“FV Ocean Reporter” by Jude Abbe

Karen Ristuben, Artist and Marine Conservation Advocate

After a conversation in 2009 with Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance, about the challenges of preserving our oceans, Ms. Ristuben became actively involved using her artistic energies to build awareness about marine conservation. Fascinated with the qualities of reflectivity and transparency, she adopted working in glass as her artistic medium.

Then, looking out at the ocean from her Gloucester home she “realized how reflective and transparent” the water is. Also she began noticing the accumulation of plastics on the sand in front of her house. Inspired to take action, Ristuben developed a dynamic performance/lecture using the arts – music, photography and her own videos – creating an art piece as a vehicle to communicate information about the toxic effects of plastics pollution on our oceans. She states, “If there’s something in the world that needs attention – if you present it within an aesthetic framework – it becomes compelling, and they will be engaged and more likely to learn and become an agent for change.  Without an aesthetic element the offering is two dimensional.

Presenting a performance translates the issues through artistic media which then asks a viewer to be a part of it, to experience it, and be touched by it – which then leads to audiences to inquire – what can I do?

Ristuben suggests that people get involved through something that they know and care about that surrounds them. She was surrounded by the sea.  She says, “One can be most effective when talking about something from your own perspective. It allows others to do the same. It gives permission to bring your own life into your art.”

A longtime resident of Rocky Neck and current Rocky Neck Art Colony President, Ristuben sees new excitement and possibilities for forming new working partnerships, especially under the banner of the Cultural Districts, between local arts and scientific communities on Cape Ann.


“Cod” by Phyllis Bezanson

Today is World Oceans Day by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.

World Oceans Day has been celebrated every year since the Rio Earth Summit, and Starting in 2003 the worldwide events have been coordinated by the World Ocean Network, which late in 2008 persuaded the UN to officially recognize World Oceans Day. Ever since, June 8th has featured ever greater numbers of celebrants, celebrations and events.

Each year World Oceans Day has had a different theme. This year it is: “Healthy oceans healthy planet.” That’s a good theme, given that if the oceans die we won’t survive, because the ocean and the life within it perform so many crucial services that keep the planet livable for us. So even if you live in central Kansas, don’t like seafood, have never seen the ocean, and think that it has no relevance to your life, you should know that it is the ocean that keeps Kansas and the rest of the US livable. As the Secretary General of the UN said on that first World Oceans Day after the UN had recognized it: “Safe, healthy and productive seas and oceans are integral to human well-being, economic security and sustainable development.”

An easier way to make the same point is to say: If the oceans die, we die.

The reason for such a drastic claim is that ocean plants provide half to two thirds of the oxygen we breathe. You may think you could get along fine with half to one third of the oxygen you’re used to; after all, you once climbed that mountain and it was almost 10,000 feet high, and you did OK. You didn’t need oxygen. So how bad could it be to have to get used to breathing air with a third as much oxygen as we’re used to? You and I could get used to it. But oops, it’s the equivalent of being on top of a mountain 100 meters higher than Mt. Everest.

“But,” I hear you say, “People have summited Everest without oxygen.”

Yes, they have, but they didn’t stay on the summit very long.

Given the suite of major problems with which we humans have burdened the ocean:

  • Acidification that kills shellfish and corals,
  • The aquarium trade threatening coral reef species,
  •  The collapse of albatross populations from longline fishing,
  • Noise pollution from ships’ traffic and seismic profiling for petroleum,
  • Oil spills,
  • Offshore drilling in ever-deeper waters,
  • Marine pollution,
  • Gyres of microplastics,
  • Macroplastic trash and tar balls on beaches,
  • Mariculture and its many associated problems,
  • Global and seawater warming that reshapes ecosystems (particularly in polar seas),
  • Unregulated fishing,
  • Unreported fishing,
  • Over-exploitation and extinction of species,
  • Destructive fishing practices like driftnets, trawling, dynamiting for fish on coral reefs,
  • Invasive alien species,
  • Sea-level canals,
  • Etc.

Could we not afford to give our attention to such problems for more than one day a year? Or do we think these problems are not serious enough to warrant more of our attention, and that in one day each year we will become interested enough to solve them before it’s too late?

Or is it just that we like grandstanding, with efforts that cannot possibly solve a problem but that make us feel as though we are making a difference, even when the difference we are making is insignificant?

I think that events like Earth Day and World Oceans Day do make a significant difference but only if we open our calendars or our wallets and contribute enough time or money to make us confident that what we are doing has a chance of making a difference. That is my challenge: that you judge the effectiveness of your efforts today and if you find that you could have done more… do it.

Roger Payne

“Data: More or Less?” by OA Science Manager Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Perception of our jobs, as marine biologists, varies enormously and is almost always fairly wide of the mark. The, sadly fairly inaccurate, vision tends to be some variation of endless weeks spent cruising over flat-calm and crystal clear deep blue oceans, interacting daily with a myriad of charismatic ocean life, hair going lighter and skin going darker under an infinitely azure and cloudless sky.

These days, the reality is that less and less time is being spent in the field collecting data. Field work can be incredibly expensive, and more time on the ocean means less time in the office fund-raising. Nowadays there are hundreds of groups collecting data: from big oceanographic institutions such as Woods Hole & SCRIPSS, universities and other academic groups, government organizations such as NOAA and non-profits such as Ocean Alliance. This is of course a wonderful thing. Competition inevitably leads to a more efficient, productive industry. Yet, for the most part, we’re competing for the same resources: more hands being put in the same pots for smaller sums of money.

What this means is that when the time for data collection comes along we need to take full advantage. This puts more pressure on us to collect all the data required in that short period of time, and brings to the fore a familiar question in the scientific world. Data: more or less? Collect too little and you could miss out on crucial information, a seemingly innocuous data point which forms the vital piece of the puzzle. Collect too much, and every extra piece of information becomes more time-consuming, more complex and leaves more room for error (and if you are too busy with your head down recording information, you risk not even seeing the whales in the first place!).

One of the major advantages of SnotBot is that it allows us to collect a high number of samples: a good sample size. Small sample sizes are major bottleneck to most data collection techniques which involve collecting physical, biological samples from large whales. SnotBot changes this, by allowing the researcher to race over to a whale, collect a sample/multiple samples from the same whale, race back to the research vessel, wait for the sample to be removed and appropriately stored before flying off to the next whale and repeating the process. Of course, if I had my head down recording every single variable of each flight, this would considerably slow the process. So where does the balance lie?


This was a conundrum we had to figure out, to decide what was important and what wasn’t. With well-established measures of data collection, many scientists live by the expression, ‘less is more’. Collect only the vital pieces of information, making for a more efficient and more easily analysed data set with far less room for error. SnotBot is not a well-established measure of data collection. Indeed much of the value of these early expeditions is about testing different drones and collection devices in an effort to determine the most effective and practical ways of collecting as much exhaled breath condensate, or ‘blow’, as possible. As we take these first steps into the world of SnotBot, we don’t know what the most important factors will be in shaping whether or not we get a sample and how large that sample will be. As we look to establish SnotBot as a mainstay of marine mammal research, it is imperative that we collect as much data as possible. In 5 years’ time we don’t want to look back and say, ‘if only we had collected this piece of information or that on every SnotBot flight’. We will be able to look back at mountains of data and determine what the most important factors really are. Then, and only then, will we be able to look up a little more often and get to enjoy the experience of being in the company of whales.

Having said that, it might be a stretch to say that we didn’t have many good encounters with whales…


SnotBot Sea of Cortez Blog #1 from John Graham

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

OK, so stop me if you heard this one….

A German, two Brits, and a Yank are in a small wooden Panga boat off the coast of the Baja Peninsula using a drone to collect whale snot….

Doesn’t sound familiar? Well why should it? This one was written just weeks ago, but in the making for several years. Although this opening screams for a side-splitting punch line, I have none, for this is no joke. After reading this, you may want to store it away under the category of “You were doing what?” as part of the Bizarro Files.

This blog is just Part One of a series in which I intend to take you on a journey as seen through my progressive-corrective lenses. All of us who participated in this expedition were given the task of writing down their own individual experience. I’m the tech guy/ engineer on this mission, but my goal in writing these blogs will be to “focus” more on the trek with smatterings of geeky, techie stuff sprinkled in. I’ll try to keep it fresh and not to be too redundant of past articles.
The Ocean Alliance SnotBot crew consists of what is fondly referred to by its fearless leader as the A-Team. Not unlike the popular ‘80s television series, the group consists of characters in their own right; Iain Kerr (group leader and drone pilot), Andy Rogan (scientific researcher), Christian Miller (photographer/ documentarian), and me, John Graham (engineering tech). The mission is to perfect the technique in which we collect data rich, liquid exhalation, also known as “snot”, from our cetacean subjects. Spoiler Alert…….. It was a resounding success!! But I’m getting ahead of myself.

Following up our “blow-catching” drone debut last September in Patagonia, Act 2 finds our ragtag team in the Sea of Cortez, and for those of you who are geographically challenged, such as me, that is off the Baja Peninsula in Mexico. Our gear consisted of 16 very heavy and oversized waterproof shipping containers, also known as Pelican cases, and personal backpacks. The night before our departure, my wife Rebecca was pulled into the madness that was my packing process. I stood on the bathroom scale, straining to hold the over-stuffed equipment trunks in my hands, and due to my obstructed view, Rebecca recorded the results. I than subtracted my own weight to get the final poundage of the gear. 50 pounds is the cut-off for check-ins without incurring a huge surcharge. It was the first and only time in my life that I wish I weighed more, because in my mind, the more I weighed, the less the bags weighed. This was my feeble attempt to get the luggage to be within the TSA limits. All this research gear was necessary because you never know what you’ll encounter while doing research in remote locations. Small hand tools, check. Battery powered tools, check. Panty hose, check. Wait…What? (I’ll explain later.) We started our journey by leaving from Logan Airport in Boston and landing in Los Cabos San Lucas, you know, the place where the Love Boat would “set a course for adventure”. And indeed it was truly to be an adventure. After a brief overnight stay and having the Mexican Customs Department graciously lighten our load of Pesos as “payment” for allowing us to bring our plethora of gear into their country, we headed out on a 10 hour road trip.

Desert drive

Desert drive

The vistas were ever-changing with diverse terrain ranging from deserts replete with huge prickly cacti standing like silent sentinels strewn across the landscape; to its counterpart, the oases, with fields of lush green farmland and small ponds used for irrigating the crops. This is followed by mountainous roads so windy that the famous “crookedest street in the world”, Lombard Street in San Francisco, should hand over its crown and admit defeat. I would consider it one of the most beautifully diverse drives I have ever taken. Apart from the confusing and dangerous road rules, like random stop signs on the main highway or having to play a game of “chicken” with a tractor trailer in order to pass, the drive was quite enjoyable. There were however, the occasional sheer cliff drop-offs void of all those pesky guardrails with near-by asphalt adorned with the skid marks of vehicles not so lucky to negotiate the turn. This served as a not so gentle reminder to keep our eyes on the road and not be seduced by the scenery.

Ocean view

Ocean view

Just as the sun was setting, we arrived at our destination, San Ignacio. It is an amazing little town, whose image is easily conjured up by anyone who may have seen a Clint Eastwood spaghetti western. Passing multi-colored buildings of stucco and a beautifully crumbling old church in the center of town, we made our way to our hotel. It wasn’t difficult to find, being it was the only one around for miles. Upon our arrival in town we were also exposed to the amazing aromas that wafted in through the van’s open windows. The drive there had provided us little in the terms of substantial nutritional intake, just the usual road trip fare of cookies, chips, and candy bars. We quickly unpacked all our gear into the two rooms that served as a brief respite to recharge our batteries after the long drive, than we headed off on foot into town to find the source of the delicious food bouquet. The sounds and smells of fajitas with chicken and beef grilling pulled us towards a little cafe with outdoor seating. These sensory cues draw me back to that place in time as I sit to write this. After sampling the local cuisine, we headed back to the hotel for some much needed sleep. We were informed by the hotel manager that on that very night of our stay, the annual Miss Baja Pageant was to take place. Sounded interesting until we discovered that right outside our rooms was the runway for the eager contestants and the festivities didn’t get started until 10:00p.m… This made it difficult for all of us to get sleep, but poor Christian must have drawn the short straw when it came time to choose roomies. The blaring music being emitted from the huge speakers outside was probably a welcome distraction compared to the noises from within his room. He showed great fortitude by not smothering me in my sleep with a pillow in pursuit of muffling the snoring bear in the adjacent bunk with only a night stand and Gideon’s bible as a barrier.
Morning came quickly, as we repacked up the car, grabbed a quick breakfast of huevos, jamon, y frijoles (eggs, ham, and beans) from a roadside tent stand and hit the road for San Ignacio Lagoon. The remote camp was to be our home for the next 5 days. After shooting some “B roll” (that’s movie lingo for the clips that act as filler between the actual action and help set the mood), for our cameraman/ documentarian, Christian, we were on our way. It was a bright sunny day, dirt roads, more cacti, vultures, and a van full of gear and eager SnotBot crew members. The only thing left behind was our memories in a cloud of dust as we made our way to what brought us to this country in the first place, to research Grey Whales by use of our drone platform.

San Ignacio Church

Next blog: Salt, eggs, and rice…..Hint: it’s not a recipe.

John A. Graham
SnotBot Technician/ Engineer

Helping Sea Shepherd Capture Nighttime Drone Footage

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Earlier this year, Ocean Alliance CEO and resident drone expert Iain Kerr helped Sea Shepherd Conservation Society put together a drone package to support Operation Milagro II in the Sea of Cortez.  Operation Milagro II was launched in November 2015 with the objective of stopping the extinction of the endangered vaquita porpoise, principally through entanglement in gill nets.  The vaquita are one of the world’s smallest cetaceans, and only inhabit the northernmost part of the Gulf of California.  They are the most endangered marine mammal in the world, with the population suspected to be only a few dozen individuals.  Although all gill nets are dangerous for vaquita, the greatest threat is posed by the gill nets used to catch the Totoaba fish due to the size of the mesh.

Having set up successful daytime patrols and working closely with the Mexican government, Sea Shepherd believed that the poachers might be setting gill nets at night.  Sea Shepherd staff called Iain Kerr and explained the problem.  After a series of conversations, Iain suggested the DJI developer drone Matrice 1 and the FLIR Vue Pro night vision thermal camera. “The Matrice is a very adaptable platform.  Crucial for this project was reliability of the DJI product, the 40 minute flight time, 3 mile range, and plug and play capacity of the FLIR Vue Pro Night Vision camera,” said Kerr.

Just this week, Iain received an email from Sea Shepherd thanking him for the support and success of this collaboration.

“We are over the moon with these results,” said Kerr. “So often we hear bad news about drones.  This project proves the enormous potential of drones as wildlife conservation tools.”

Chemical Pollution Threatens Marine Life, by Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In a rare move, the EPA (Environmental Protection Agency) have tried to revoke their temporary approval of a new pesticide on to the market.

The decision has sparked fear amongst the industry which creates these pesticides over concerns that this might represent a more long-term shift in policy, whilst offering hope to activists who have long been pushing for more stringent safety protocols which all new pesticides must pass.

The EPA are basing this move on evidence that suggests that the pesticide under question, flubendiamide, bio-accumulates in fresh and salt water ecosystems, inhibiting the ability of key environmental drivers to perform necessary biological functions. This can ultimately lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems.

At Ocean Alliance, we cannot claim to fully understand the regulations which the EPA and industry must conform to regarding the release of new pesticides on to the market. What we do understand are the potential risks of pesticides and other pollutants, and how incredibly important it is that robust safety measures must be implemented and carefully adhered too before a product is deemed suitable for the open market. Whilst this might be costly to the industry, the risks of not doing so are potentially catastrophic.

The January 1979 National Geographic magazine included an article written by our Founder and President Dr. Roger Payne, an article famous for featuring a song sheet of Roger’s whale recordings, which was at the time the most produced song sheet in history. What fewer people know is that in the same article Roger made the following statement:

‘Pollution has replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales, and in its way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination, and simple human carelessness, then nothing can save the whales.’

38 years later, we can definitively say that Roger was correct. Chemical pollution is one of the greatest threats marine mammals face: in my opinion it is one of the three greatest dangers together with the growing threat of climate change & ocean acidification, and bycatch in global commercial fisheries, which is estimated to result in the mortality of well over 600,000 marine mammals every year. We are constantly releasing a suite of new chemicals into the ocean environment, many of which can take some time to bio-accumulate and begin negatively affecting the marine ecosystem. By the time robust evidence exists to prove this, the damage is already well and truly done. At the most recent Marine Mammal Conference in San Francisco, Ocean Alliance scientists sat in on a lecture in which NOAA scientists discussed the findings of their latest research in which they were monitoring toxicants in the waters off of California. Of the number of toxicants detected, between 30-40% were entirely unknown. This is an incredibly worrying statistic.

The threat of organic pollutants (which includes many pesticides) has long been recognised and has resulted in many compounds, such as the insecticide DDT and the widely used industrial compounds PCBs, being banned across much of the world. In 2004 the international community came together to meet this growing threat, signing the Stockholm Convention on Persistent Organic Pollutants, an attempt to reduce or eliminate the release of POPs into the environment.

Recent studies however have suggested that some toxicants can have significant negative consequences to the marine environment even at low doses and many years after their use is banned. Researchers at The Zoological Society of London have one of the longest running data sets on PCBs in the world. Their research strongly suggests that PCBs today represent THE MOST SIGNIFICANT THREAT to marine mammal apex predators in Europe, a full THIRTY YEARS after they were banned. Indeed they are recognised as the most likely reason the last resident population of Killer whales (Orca) no longer have the capability to breed, meaning that population, with its unique culture and language, is functionally extinct. Levels of PCBs are similar in coastal waters of the United States and it is likely that they are having a similar effect on marine mammal populations there and all over the world in areas which PCBs were readily used.

Of these many thousands of new chemicals being released annually, all it takes is for one to be a new ‘PCB’, before enormous damage is done to life in our oceans. The economic costs of this would be colossal, not to mention the costs to the environment (though of course the two are very much inseparable). Certainly, they would dwarf the economic benefits of releasing a pesticide early without proper safety checks.

As above, we do not claim to know whether the EPA guidelines and safety measures regarding the approval of new chemicals are robust enough or not. But we do know that if they are not robust enough, we are likely causing harm to the environment which will make its effects known for many, many years to come. Since Roger made his statement in 1979, Ocean Alliance has been striving to save our oceans and marine mammals by studying this ever-growing threat, indeed at the Marine Mammal Conference in December 2015, four papers were presented using data collected during the 2000-2005 Voyage of the Odyssey and the 2010-2014 Gulf of Mexico program.

Here is the link to the original article on NPR.

Andy Rogan is Scientific Coordinator at Ocean Alliance.

Irish Documentary “Atlantic” to Premiere in US on March 19

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Launched in Ireland in recent days, ‘Atlantic’, narrated by Emmy Award-winning actor Brendan Gleeson, took Best Irish Documentary at the Dublin International Film Festival.  Its US premiere will take place at the Environmental Film Festival in Washington, DC on Saturday March 19 at 2.15pm at the Carnegie Institute for ScienceDiscussion with director Risteard Ó Domhnaill will follow the screening.

Shot across the North Atlantic over a number of years, the film follows fishing communities in Ireland, Norway and Newfoundland, who are losing their livelihoods as oil companies drill ever deeper into their waters, and “super-trawler” fleets fish their stocks to the brink.

A large part of the story involves seismic airgun mapping for oil and gas, and what the future holds for marine habitats faced with such invasive technology. As this is such a crucial issue along the eastern US seaboard at the minute, this would be a great opportunity to see what other communities further afield are facing with the same issue.

“How The SnotBot & 3D Printing Are Unlocking The Key To Whale & Ocean Conservation,” from our partner CAPINC

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

The following article first appeared on the CAPINC website on March 1, 2016.

Ocean Alliance, like the city of Gloucester, Massachusetts, has its origins in the bounty and fauna of the sea. Headquartered in the historic Tarr and Wonson Paint Factory, Ocean Alliance, Inc. is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization that was founded in 1971 by renowned biologist Dr. Roger Payne. Ocean Alliance strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. Led by Dr. Payne, CEO Dr. Iain Kerr , Ocean Alliance works with scientific partners to collect a broad spectrum of data on whales and ocean life. Ocean Alliance uses this data to advise educators, policy makers, and the general public on wise stewardship of the oceans to mitigate pollution, prevent the collapse of marine mammal populations, and promote ocean and human health.

Innovation In Conservation

CEO Dr. Iain Kerr has spent years researching whales, and explained that the best way to understand the ocean and its inhabitants is through biological data. In the past, the only approach to attain physical samples from whales was through a biopsy crossbow. This method provided valuable specimens, but proved to be a large undertaking. Dr. Iain Kerr explained,

It seemed to me that there had to be an easier way to do this. Having been a hobbyist and a Maker for most of my life, and in watching the direction in which the hobbyist drone industry was going, I realized that there was a real opportunity to use drones to benefit whales and humanity.”

Dr. Kerr’s overall goal was to develop a research drone that could be used to collect non-invasive biological and photographic data from marine and terrestrial mammals. Using the collected samples of DNA, viruses, bacteria, stress and pregnancy hormones from whale blows, researchers could gather data to better understand whales, the oceans, and humanity’s effect on them in a benign manner. The team at Ocean Alliance believed that the drone design should be easily replicable and scalable, so that it could be adopted as a research tool around the globe. Using their design skills, Ocean Alliance created the first SnotBot.

What Is SnotBot?

SnotBots are custom-built drones created in partnership between Ocean Alliance and students from Olin College of Engineering. Guided by a remote driver, they hover in the air above a surfacing whale and collect the mist (blow) exhaled from its lungs on petri dishes. SnotBot then returns that “snot” sample back to researchers a significant distance away. This non-invasive technique not only collects substantial physical data from each specimen, but also leaves the whales undisturbed, allowing for a more accurate biological picture of the animals.

With over a dozen iterations of SnotBot, the designs evolved with the team’s better understanding of the machine capacity and payloads. The more they learned, the more they were able to push their designs and plans. With a natural hobbyist inclination to make, break and test things, Dr. Kerr believed in 3D printing as a tool to help further their ideas.

I like to think of Ocean Alliance as an ocean innovator. I sometimes joke with my friends and say we’re not on the cutting edge; we’re on the bleeding edge. It’s tough to be an innovator. And often it’s tough to express an idea, or realize an idea, and test an idea. It can be very expensive. And this is where I think 3D printing is changing the world.”

MakerBot Replicator Mini

MakerBot Replicator Mini

Using 3D Printing To Advance The Design Process

January of 2015, CAPINC donated a MakerBot Replicator Mini 3D printer to Ocean Alliance to help further their SnotBot and robotics designs. The addition of the 3D printer has allowed Ocean Alliance to brainstorm multiple iterations of designs, enabling them to test their ideas in the field.

This is where a company like CAPINC comes in because you can’t go down to Home Depot and say I need something to attach a FLIR camera to a drone that is light weight, adaptable, and adjustable. So the capacity for us to even build prototypes of what we think we need, or actually build the real thing, is very exciting.”

The MakerBot Replicator Mini is an entry-level 3D printer, ideal for new users interested in 3D printing, with minimal investment required. Dr. Kerr and his team have enjoyed having an in-house 3D printer.

The unit that we have, that CAPINC has been supporting us with, has been a MakerBot, which, I must say, has been a lot of fun. And I think as an entry-level machine it’s worked very well for us. I will admit we’ve done our prototyping with the MakerBot and then we’ve gone to a next-level machine to do the final products.”

One of the projects 3D printing was heavily used in was designing the SnotShot. The SnotShot was created by Olin students to simulate various whale blowholes & blow patterns, allowing Ocean Alliance to test the different types of blows they might encounter with the SnotBot. This gave the team a better understanding of how to capture the most snot possible, before they even set sail on the open ocean. By 3D printing simulated blowholes for different whale species, they were able to test their SnotBot designs and make updates, saving them valuable time on their expeditions & avoiding prototype testing over live animals.

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

3D Printed Right Whale Blowhole; Blowhole Attached To SnotShot; SnotShot Testing Out A SnotBot

Along with their ocean and whale research, Ocean Alliance has spearheaded the development of an on-site robotics program. The Applied Robotics Club meets every Wednesday evening, providing an opportunity for people in the community young and old, to learn and explore anything from coding to design & construction, giving them to get hands-on experiential learning. Dr. Kerr has not only enjoyed the MakerBot 3D printer for SnotBot prototyping, but with the robotics club.

The 3D printer has been invaluable! Not only in building unique parts that we need, and silly things that we might not need, but were fun to do, it has also helped us develop our thought and design process. It also encouraged both students and staff to explore ideas of building components that otherwise would almost be unimaginable.”

SnotBot Expeditions

Since it’s first iteration, the SnotBot has been thoroughly tested and went on its first expedition this past fall in Peninsular Valdez, Patagonia. Ocean Alliance chose this location due to its enormous biodiversity. Since the 1970’s, they have been studying in Patagonia, with this last expedition being a great success.

We have just completed the first successful SnotBot expedition to Patagonia. We have proved the viability of these drones as useful and adaptable research tools. In the course of the next year we plan to run a minimum of two more expeditions, one to the Sea of Cortez and one to Frederick Sound, Alaska, to build up our data sets, get as many flights over whales and work with as many whale species as our budget will allow.”

These future locations were specifically chosen based on the species that frequent the habitat and drawing from the experience of Ocean Alliance’s previous research expeditions.

The Future Of SnotBot

Formulating innovative and new ideas like the SnotBot takes brainpower and a determination to try multiple iterations. Traditional manufacturing methods cost extensive time and money, two things that are precious to not-for-profit organizations like Ocean Alliance. Luckily, 3D printing breaks down manufacturing barriers by allowing intricate designs to be built in-house for a substantially lower cost. CAPINC is a proud sponsor of Ocean Alliance and their 3D printing needs.

The future is big for SnotBot and its upcoming designs. With the next two expeditions already funded through their Kickstarter campaign, Ocean Alliance is still in need of donors to help create future SnotBot iterations for new data sets. To learn more about Ocean Alliance and their projects, including the SnotBot, visit them at and explore their Kickstarter Campaign, where you can become a donor and get frequent updates on their research and expeditions.


“Thank you, FLIR!” from OA Scientific Coordinator Andy Rogan

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

During the summer of 2014, whilst studying the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on marine mammals in the Gulf of Mexico, thanks to the FLIR Corporation we had the opportunity to test a night vision (Infrared) system aboard our research vessel Odyssey.

How these cameras work is complex, involving the range of light which they detect. Whilst not technically accurate, they essentially detect heat. This means that they are commonly used in night vision applications as they do not require the same visible light which allows us to see the world around us. Since they display an image based on temperature differentials they actually have daytime and night-time uses.

At Ocean Alliance we are always looking for new tools and technologies which might help us better understand whales. One problem with studying whales (and indeed many animals) is that we do not have a good understanding of what they do at night, simply because we cannot see them. Are they searching for and eating food? Are they mating? Socialising? Resting? Does their behaviour even change much during a day/night cycle? Whales are acoustic animals, which means sound is very important in their everyday lives. By listening to them (via an underwater microphone or hydrophone) we can gain a better understanding of where they are and what they might be doing at night and during the day. But it often leaves us with a very incomplete picture.

This is where infrared cameras & the FLIR Corporation come in. FLIR is the world leader in the design, manufacture and marketing of thermal imaging infrared cameras. FLIR cameras are used for many military, commercial and recreational activities. The value of FLIR systems in search & rescue and disaster situations is incalculable. New products to the market include the FLIR One that fits on the back of an iPhone and the FLIR Vue which fits on a drone.

As you can see from the attached video, this technology is a game changer enabling us to study whales at night. Indeed you can often see where the whales have been simply by the wake and the footprint which they leave. When we did test studies on our vessel, the camera was so powerful that it could see where we had been standing because our feet had left residual heat on the deck! We even observed Sperm whales breaching at night, something which likely has never been seen before (sadly the only footage we have of this event was taken on a smart phone looking at the video display).

For us this is all very exciting, and leads to many possibilities. Along with our interest in new technologies we are very excited about our ‘SnotBot’ program, which is all about developing drones for whale research (you can read more about it here). In the future we will be merging these two technologies, mounting a FLIR Vue camera on SnotBot!

We also think that this tool has enormous potential for other industries which might come in to contact with whales. Ship strikes are a major threat to whales all around the world. If we could fit vessels with FLIR cameras which could detect whales at night, we could potentially stop many needless whale deaths. Oil and gas companies use seismic airguns when searching for hydrocarbon deposits beneath the seabed. These airguns are incredibly loud and potential harmful to whales. If they had FLIR camera they would have a better idea of whether there were any whales in the vicinity at night. These are just two examples of how FLIR cameras could help protect whales.

Many, many thanks must go to the FLIR Corporation for being an innovator in this field and for lending us this remarkable piece of equipment.

Andy Rogan is Ocean Alliance Scientific Coordinator.

CEO Iain Kerr Joins Advisory Board of Drone World Expo

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Ocean Alliance CEO Iain Kerr has been named to the Advisory Board of Drone World Expo, where “thought leaders, industry experts, and end-users gather in the heart of Silicon Valley to present real-world solutions to business and environmental challenges.”  The advisory board, comprised of several prominent industry leaders, will help set the direction of the education program for the 2016 event, to be held November 15-16 at the San Jose Convention Center in San Jose, CA.

During the 2015 event, our partner Yuneec Aviation proudly displayed how we deployed its drones in the first SnotBot expedition in Patagonia.


The complete press release from Drone World Expo can be found here.


The Silver Bullet, Part 2: Less is More — Much More, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

In my previous blog I pointed out that if you accept the premise that overpopulation is the root cause of all of humanity’s biggest problems, then if we all work on having fewer children, we will also be helping to reduce all of the world’s major problems.

I also noted that we need to get rid of the near-prohibition on even talking about overpopulation, because only when we get rid of it can we start applying what I’ll call the Two Step Program—a method that has been successful in the broadest possible variety of human cultures and that works its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. I.e. it is not like the policy China recently revoked which penalized couples for having more than one child—there’s nothing mandatory about the Two Step Program. It’s entirely voluntary. Here it is, in all of its complexity:

Step 1) Offer women a free education.
Step 2) Offer everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried, the rate of increase of the population has started to fall.

That means that the effectiveness of the Two Step Program has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. But most importantly: it lowers population growth rates voluntarily. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives; free contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

For many people, the big deterrent to having no children or only one is that it seems to be so purely negative. But a small family offers ENORMOUS advantages.

It is those benefits that are the subject of this blog.

Let me offer a list of some of the positive things that having one child or no children bring:

  • You avoid the astronomical costs to yourself and the environment of raising more  children… and grandchildren.
  • You can give one child your full attention.
  • You can give one child the best education.
  • You can give one child the most healthy diet.
  • You can give one child the healthiest and best lifestyle.
  • If you have one child and he/she follows the same principles that your child did you will have only one grandchild.
  • If you have only one grandchild you can give it your full attention and offer greater help in giving it the best education, most healthy diet, and best lifestyle.
  • You will have more time yourself for other things (and have more fun doing them).
  • Every street, every store, every public space, every space of any kind you occupy will be less crowded.
  • You will experience fewer traffic jams.
  • You will waste less of your life waiting in lines.
  • Your commuting time will be shorter.
  • The price of housing will be lower… everywhere.
  • Your world will be more tranquil.
  • You will see more stars, even when you are close to cities.
  • Your life will feature more encounters with more abundant, and more unusual wildlife. And if you live in the country the dawn and dusk choruses of birds will be richer and more enchanting.

But of most direct advantage to you and your child will be that if you and your friends have worked hard enough to persuade several others to follow your example, then every other problem the world faces will be starting to get smaller. E.g.:

  • Global warming will start to slow down and will eventually stop.
  • The oceans will start becoming less, rather then more acidic, and coral reefs and seashells will start to reappear (although, alas, extremely slowly).
  • Species extinction rates will slow down and will eventually return to their almost unimaginably slow normal—a rate between a thousandth and a ten thousandth of the current, Anthropocene extinction rate).
  • The air you breathe will become cleaner and less polluted.
  • The water you drink and in which you wash your food, your dishes, your clothes, your child and yourself will become less polluted.
  • The ocean in which you swim, and in which the fish you eat grow up, will become less and less polluted (as will, of course, the fish).
  • And you will have better luck fishing, because there will be more and bigger fish.
  • When you snorkel you will have better underwater visibility.
  • Hunger and homelessness will come to an end.
  • The rate of topsoil loss will slow to far less significance.
  • Aquifers will refill.
  • There will be fewer causes (and excuses) for wars.

But the best of all, “Oh my best beloved,” you will not have to apologize to your child or grandchild for having done nothing to help solve the world’s biggest problem. You can, in fact, boast about having participated in its solution. And you will not have to tell your grandchild what a tiger was.

Or an elephant.
Or a rhinoceros.
Or a panda.
Or a pink dolphin,
Or a cheetah.

Well, you get my point.
We have come to the really hard part: doing something to achieve these benefits. You and I must both stop postponing action—must stand up and do something about overpopulation. One thing we can do is to spread the word about how utterly important the advantages of having a small family are.

But that will only happen if take the time and the initiative to talk to, and write to, our friends and relatives, about this uncomfortable subject, all the while emphasizing the urgency of slowing overpopulation and the importance of keeping families small (for there is, unfortunately, only one way to lower population size humanely and that is to reduce family size).

Step one is getting the world to pay attention to how important small families are. And I believe that that will only transpire when people understand how enormous the advantages are of having fewer children.

So now comes the thing that is hardest for me, personally, to do: in the interests of full disclosure I must admit that although I love them individually, collectively, and in all of their combinations, I have four children. I realize that in the eyes of most people, that gives me no right to offer any advice whatsoever about family size.  However, my excuse is that all of my children were conceived before
The Pill became broadly known and broadly available (I realize that, like all excuses, that’s pretty weak).

Each child was a triumph of biology over whatever form of birth control my wife and I were practicing at the time, and always because some previous technique had failed. But it is because of that history that I think what I have to say does have value and may be something that should not just be discarded out of hand. For I have noticed that if someone who has failed at something is willing to be honest about why they failed, their advice is likely to be more valuable than the advice of someone who succeeded at it. For example: I would rather hear about driver safety from someone who has survived an accident than from someone who’s never experienced one. (The corollary to that is that because I am in the latter category I realize that I know less about what strategy is likely to fail than those who have suffered the consequences of such failures.)

During the time that has passed since the years in which I was busy failing at non-reproduction, contraception has experienced several game-changing advances. The one that finally saved my wife and me was my getting a vasectomy (I couldn’t find a people-doctor willing to risk doing it as it was an illegal procedure at the time so I got a veterinarian to do it). It was as clear then, as it is now, that in any partnership it’s the man who should have such an operation; for we men only require a local anesthetic, whereas the equivalent operation for a woman requires a general anesthetic, and that can be life-threatening.

My reason for offering this vivid example of too much information about one’s private life is to say that having personally experienced it I know that after a vasectomy sex is not less pleasurable, it is more pleasurable. You can’t detect any differences in sensations yet you now know there is no longer any danger that you’ll give your partner an unwanted pregnancy—something she appreciates as much as you do, and demonstrates by her reaction.

In summary:

Smaller families offer monumentally positive advantages, both for individuals and society. If enough people can be persuaded to experience those advantages, the problem of overpopulation can be solved—by advocating for the Two Step Program:

1) Offering women a free education.

2) Offering everyone free contraceptive materials plus free instruction in their use.

Given how many other problems will be lessened by ending overpopulation, I suggest that there is no greater mischief any dogma can create (religious, moralistic, or otherwise) than placing obstacles in the path of techniques whose goals are to reduce the human population without pressure.

The Two-Step Program achieves such a reduction and it is time for all of us to participate in promoting the goal of solving the population problem equitably by employing such techniques.

— Roger Payne

The Silver Bullet: A New Year’s Resolution to Tackle Overpopulation, by Roger Payne

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

It’s that time of year when we decide on what New Year’s resolution to make. I suspect that the best ones are those that make the biggest differences, and to make a big difference you need to address a big problem. So… to make a good resolution: 1) identify the biggest problems; 2) choose one, and; 3) resolve to do what you can to reduce that problem.

When I say the biggest problems I’m talking about REALLY BIG world problems: global warming, ocean acidification, extinction of species, overpopulation, air pollution, water pollution, ocean pollution, overfishing, destruction of coral reefs, hunger, homelessness, social injustice, overconsumption, loss of top soils, depletion of aquifers, and numberless wars.

The trouble with the biggest problems is that they are all so big and what causes them is so different in each case, that solving them involves dauntingly complex approaches. This results in a generally accepted belief that there is no such thing as a silver bullet for any of the world’s biggest problems.

I challenge that belief; let me be provocative: I agree that each of our biggest problems has a root cause but I believe that a root cause for every biggest problem is the same root cause—overpopulation. That means that if we could somehow reverse overpopulation we would be helping cure not just overpopulation, but all of our biggest problems.

Let me put all this another way; if you agree with me that overpopulation is a root cause for all of our biggest problems then the only valid conclusion to be drawn is: if we can solve overpopulation we will be helping solve all of our biggest problems. That makes solving the overpopulation problem a silver bullet.

But to start solving it we must first get rid of what seems almost like an embargo on even discussing overpopulation.

That is something that every one of us can help remove by giving every organization we are part of the strong message that overpopulation is the world’s number one problem, and that until we can reverse it there is no hope, but once we start reversing it there will be huge amounts of hope, because we will be reducing the severity of every one of the world’s biggest problems.

That step will show that there is a silver bullet that can help solve all of our biggest problems, and that silver bullet is simply having smaller families.

The most important thing about this is that we already know how to make the population get smaller without forcing anyone to do anything they don’t want to do.

The method has reduced the population of the most dissimilar imaginable human cultures. Furthermore it has worked its magic without anyone forcing anyone else to do anything. It is not like the recently revoked China policy which penalized couples for having more than one child. There’s nothing mandatory about the technique I’m promoting. It’s entirely voluntary.

Shooting this Silver Bullet involves two steps:

  1. Educating women
  2. Offering everyone free contraceptive materials, along with training in how to use them effectively.

Wherever and whenever both of these approaches have been tried the population has gotten smaller (as long as proper instruction in using the free contraceptives was given).

So the effectiveness of this silver bullet has already been demonstrated. We know it works and we know how to use it. And best of all, it works to reverse overpopulation voluntarily—not punitively. Reversal is achieved without anyone telling anyone else that they have to use contraceptives. Contraceptive materials are simply made available free, and each person is left to decide for herself, or himself whether they want to use them. If they don’t want to use them, fine. If they do want to use them, fine. If they want 10 children, fine. If they want one child or no children, fine.

The thing that makes this approach work is that it turns out that the natural inclination of women everywhere when they get an education is to do something with their lives in addition to bearing and raising children. So if they have access to free contraceptives it turns out that a significant number of women will use them to postpone or avoid pregnancies, with the result that the population gets smaller.

Some organized religions have major objections to solving the overpopulation problem. But even in countries where the dominant religion strongly opposes birth control, educating women and making contraceptives available free results in lower birthrates. For example, the populations of the two countries with the lowest birthrates in the EU are 90 and 99 percent Catholic. And Italy, the country that hosts the Pope, is an EU leader in reducing its population. (And I have seen the claim that Italy also has more women PhDs than any other European country.)

If I am right (or even if I’m only partly right) it means there is a silver bullet that can help cure all of our biggest problems. I say that’s reason enough for each of us to make our New Year’s resolution be: to devote our free time and energy to telling everyone we know everywhere about this silver bullet and asking them to help spread the word about the benefits of small families. If you, and I, and they do this we will all be helping shrink the world’s biggest problems.

And we will all be striking at the roots of these problems while everyone else is slashing at the branches.

In my next blog I will discuss some of the benefits of small families.

– Roger Payne

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

Seasons Greetings and Thanks from Ocean Alliance

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

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.

Snot Bot Patagonia Update #6: “Pack Your Bags, We Are Heading To Patagonia”

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

This update was written by John Graham, Ocean Alliance Robotics Coordinator.

It was less than one week ago today that I was standing on the seaside cliffs of Patagonia observing whales go by just below me. It feels very surreal to me to think back on the last two weeks as being more than just an amazing dream, but the photos I have from the trip provide me with proof that it was all very real. So let’s back up a little bit, back to August 25th. On that day I was at work when I got a text. No, THE text. The one that simply said “Pack your bags. We are going to Patagonia”. WHAT!!! Wait a minute. Where is Patagonia? (geography isn’t my strongest suit). Oh, Argentina. Oh, and we leave in less than 1 month. This is going to be awesome!

Fast forward about 3 weeks, 4 airports, 3 planes, 1 hotel, 4 cabs, 1 car rental, 3+ hours of driving, and more security checks than I could keep track of, and we have arrived in the small town of Puerto Piramides, Argentina. This is to be our home base for the next 2 weeks. It doesn’t take us long to convert our accommodations into what some would describe as a scene from a Spielberg movie in which drones have taken over our world. Well that’s what you get when you travel with 16 large cases of research equipment.

About Piramides: it is a wonderful little town whose main source of revenue is from whale watching. The people are very open and accepting of outsiders. Their patience even extended to my minuscule ability to speak Spanish. Most of my language training comes from my exposure in the healthcare field, but I don’t think asking if they are having any pain or need medication will get me very far. We managed to find a small restaurant called “Guanacos” that served up delicious meals and, more importantly, had wifi. Albeit the wifi was touch and go, and poor Iain would stay up late praying to the internet gods that the emails he painstakingly sent out, actually did go out. We witnessed a lot of the dreaded spinning wheel of computer progress that trip.

Every morning we would make the 45 minute drive down dirt and gravel roads to the whale camp. It was amazing to look around and see nothing but dry brush, sheep, and guanacos. (Side note: Guanacos are like llamas) Iain did his best to keep the anemic rental car on the route, all the while eating the morning’s meal of empanadas. I lost the challenge of “who can spot a guanacos first” game, so I had to unlock the 2 large wooden gates every morning that allowed us access to the whale camp.

The Camp: no modern conveniences; no electric except for the occasional generator to charge drone batteries; no running water except for collected rainwater used only for washing dishes. Very desolate and very beautiful. Surrounded by cliffs on three sides, this is what I would describe as my vision of Nirvana. The energy that is created from the union of sea, sky, and land is breathtaking. We are greeted by not only the science team from the whale camp but also by the sight of whales. Whales as near and as far as you can see. Breaching, tail lobbing, and most importantly to us, the nectar for which Snotbot thirsts for, whale blow!!!

The Whale Camp continues a long-running study of the southern right whale that Dr. Roger Payne started back in the ‘70s. Ocean Alliance conducts this study with the support and partnership of Instituto de Conservacion de Ballenas (ICB A hike up onto the cliffs high above the camp leads to the site at which a small outpost once stood on the edge overlooking the sea, which was the place where Roger & team would sit and observe whale behaviors. All that now remains is scattered debris, but the site still echoes of past optimism for a world that includes cetaceans playing a major role in the health of our planet. One can’t help but to feel that energy carrying over today. It was also very meaningful to be here with Iain at the location at which he and Roger first met.

The ICB crew at WHALE camp, led by Mariano Sironi, was one of the greatest group of dedicated oceanographic research staff I’ve ever met. Their eagerness to help with whatever task was placed before us was refreshing and much welcomed. Also, the camp may not possess any of today’s modern conveniences, but they sure do know how to cook with what they’ve got. I wasn’t going to return home any pounds lighter after Mariano’s bread pudding con Dulce de Leche.

We worked all day, every day, in the pursuit of succeeding in our missions. These included the collection of exhaled breath condensate from whales (aka SNOT), photogrammetry, and whale identification. It was slow going at first, but the team quickly adapted and devised a system that worked well and before you know it, we were putting our first samples into a minus 80 deg dewar (a giant vacuum flask) for preservation. It was both an honor and a thrill to be a part of such ground-breaking research technology.

The team consisted of Iain Kerr (team leader and primary drone pilot), Carolyn Miller (WHOI researcher and resident expert on the drone affectionately called “Archie”) and me (drone technician and backup pilot). We would take to the sea most days in a small inflatable Zodiac piloted by Marco, a guy that would do whatever was needed of him, which mostly consisted of the frequent pull starts of the boat’s aging and uncooperative outboard. Guys like Marco are a rare breed and my life is richer having had the opportunity to work along side of him.


Oh, I almost forgot to mention the famous outhouse. You would sit (as one does in an outhouse) leave the door open, and you would have the most spectacular view you’ve ever had while taking care of business. Talk about your perfect moments in time. Sadly, all future versions of this ritual will never be able to hold a candle to that point in time.

photo 5[6]

We set up a small workshop in the metal corrugated Quonset hut on the beach that usually would serve as the boat house. Here is where I was able to put all my skills learned while watching “MacGyver” to the test. When working in the field at such a remote location as this you learn quickly the value of preparing for the worst and making the most of what you have on hand. At one point we had run into an issue with one of the cameras on a drone. Some loose parts, a hacksaw, bits of wire and solder, and, of course, duct tape, and we were back up and running. We all proved our worth on this expedition, Iain flew near flawlessly, and Carolyn processed the specimens and data with the utmost of care. And I would also be remiss if I didn’t mention the tireless work and emotional support of the Ocean Alliance staff that helped make this trek even possible.

photo 3[7]

I would have to say that being in a small boat and having huge whales swim just feet to inches right underneath me, was an experience like no other. I was never scared, more at peace than anything else. This comes in at a close second only to being soaked straight in the face by a curious juvenile checking out what the heck we were doing. His thought process must have been something like: “What? You want whale blow? I’ll give you whale blow!” Well, thanks and gesundheit!!! (see blog The whales are Laughing)


The hardest part of being away in such a remote part of the world is the lack of communication that I had with my wife. No cell phone, no texting, no landline, just the occasional emails that we would write to one another and hope the other receives it within a day or so. New technology has spoiled us with a sense of instant gratification, and we’ve lost sense of the importance of patience.

As I sit back and reflect upon my own personal journey, I can feel the warmth in my soul glowing at the memories and friendships made. All in all, I would consider it to be a very successful expedition. I consider myself truly blessed.

In the future, if I am ever asked to think of a “happy place” it will be a toss-up between the high cliffs of Patagonia or the outhouse with the million dollar view.


Intern Spotlight – April Almeida

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Name: April Almeida
Studied: Biology with a Marine option
Studied at: University of Massachusetts Dartmouth

What brought you to choose to study this subject?
I have grown up on the ocean and I have always been interested in Biology and how different organisms can live together. In seventh grade I had the pleasure of swimming with dolphins and learning more about their lives. From that day on I knew that I wanted to work with marine life and trying to make their environment better.

What have been your major tasks at Ocean Alliance so far?
My major tasks at Ocean Alliance have been organization of the office and helping with events.

What have you most enjoyed about working at Ocean Alliance?
I enjoy the people here and I enjoy the work that we do even though I have yet to actually start working on actual research.

What’s been your biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance?
I feel that my biggest challenge working at Ocean Alliance has been learning about the buildings and being able to give people who walk in a nice tour. I feel like I don’t know enough about our buildings.

What have you learned about yourself and your subjects at Ocean Alliance?
I have learned that I am very quick to learn something if I am just thrown into it instead of being eased into it. For example, the baleen talk on the Seven Seas boat. I always knew that I had knowledge of baleen, but I didn’t know how much until I was put in the position of having to teach people about it.

What’s it like working for a non-profit compared to studying?
Working for a non-profit is more engaging than studying. I enjoy more hands on work than sitting at a desk and reading a textbook.

What’s your favorite marine mammal – and why?
My favorite marine mammal is the dolphin. This is because I find their intelligence intriguing and I always want to learn more about them. I also love how social they are.

What’s your favorite ocean film – and why?
My favorite ocean film is Dolphin Tales because it shows how some people are very willing to help animals in need and not give up on them no matter what.

What do you hope to become when you finish your studies?
I hope to go back to school to get my master’s in the near future and with that I hope to be able to teach people about what consequences our actions have on the ocean and work to give the creatures of the ocean a voice.

What are your hopes for the future as you look at our world today?
I hope that some day soon people will actually realize what harm they are doing to our planet and work to reverse the problem.

Producer of Documentary Film “Jane & Payne” Visits Gloucester

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

Argentine filmmaker Dylan Williams recently visited the Paint Factory to share a private screening of his film “Jane & Payne” with our staff.  Back in October 2013, Dylan and fellow filmmaker Boy Olmi arranged an historic meeting between our founder Roger Payne and the noted primatologist and anthropologist Jane Goodall.  The two scientists have admired each other’s work for decades, but had never met in person before.  Both were approaching their 80th birthdays.

The meeting took place at the Whale Camp in Patagonia, Argentina that Roger had established in the 1970s.  The cameras were rolling to capture their meeting and their subsequent conversations, both alone at the camp and in front of an audience in Buenos Aires.  

Up until this week, Ocean Alliance staff had only seen the trailer, which you can watch here.  A free public screening of the complete film will be held at Woods Hole Historical Museum on October 13th.

“Jayne & Payne” is a poignant film that chronicles not only the noted scientists’ historic meeting, their mutual admiration, and their decades of accomplishments, but also their shared passion for using science and advocacy to preserve and improve life on our planet.  It provokes viewers to think about how they can contribute to helping the planet themselves.

Jane-and-Payne-2Coincidentally, our CEO Iain Kerr had just returned from the same Whale Camp in Patagonia, after conducting the first (and very successful) SnotBot field expedition.  Iain shared some of his dramatic footage from the expedition with Dylan.

In the top photo, Dylan presents Iain with a signed book of photographs that he and another photographer shot in the Argentine National Parks.  Dylan was accompanied by his nephew Christofer Schillachi, who is a Fishery Biologist for the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries in New Bedford.   Our staff had a fascinating conversation with Christofer about his work with clams.

Roger Payne Receives Sierra Club’s 2015 EarthCare Award

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments


Dr. Roger Payne has received the Sierra Club’s 2015 International EarthCare Award for his unique contribution to international environmental protection and conservation. The award was presented in San Francisco on September 12.  The Sierra Club noted Dr. Payne’s many accomplishments over the past 50 years, as well as his ongoing research and advocacy, in its news release on the award:

Payne is perhaps best known for his discovery (with Scott McVay) that humpback whales sing songs. One of his National Geographic magazine articles 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 led more than 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research, both in America and abroad.

In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, which strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whale and ocean health through research and public education. A major project of Ocean Alliance was the Voyage of the Odyssey, a five-year program designed to gather the first-ever baseline data on levels of synthetic contaminants throughout the world’s oceans, ending in 2005. The crew of the Odyssey collected more than 900 tissue samples from sperm whales in all of the world’s oceans and visited 20 countries to speak with thousands of students, teachers, government officials and members of the general public.

Still fully active in this, his 80th year, Payne has recently written a Declaration of Interdependence, modeled on the 1776 Declaration of Independence which he is asking people to sign. He hopes it will encourage people everywhere to demand that their government recognizes the critical importance of granting rights and values to non-human species.

“We are extremely pleased to honor Dr. Payne for his dedication to whale and ocean conservation. I can recall listening to his recordings of whale songs many years ago, and I know that the songs and his work have inspired many others to recognize the importance of marine mammals and oceans to our efforts to care for the Earth and its wild places,” said Richard Cellarius, Sierra Club International Vice President.

Payne’s many previous honors include a Knighthood in the Netherlands, a MacArthur Fellowship, an Emmy for Best Interview: One on One with Charlie Rose, and a Global 500 Award from the United Nations Environmental Program (UNEP). His films have received seven major awards and two Emmy nominations.

In the photo above, Sierra Club International VP Richard Cellarius presents Roger Payne with the EarthCare Award, with Executive Director Michael Brune looking on.

Dispatch from Patagonia: 2015 Southern Right Whale Survey

By | Ocean Alliance News | No Comments

We received the following dispatch from John Atkinson on Friday, September 11.  John has been the primary aerial photographer for our annual survey of Southern Right Whales since 1988, and has participated in numerous expeditions and documentaries worldwide.

Hi all, John Atkinson here, writing to you from Peninsula Valdez in Patagonia, Argentina, We have now finished our 2015 annual aerial survey of the southern Right whales that gather in nearby waters to mate and give birth to their calves. This is an ongoing survey that was started by Dr. Roger Payne back in 1970.

Our survey was a tremendous success. This year we flew with a new pilot, Peter Dominguez, and he deserves a big shout out for getting us up and over the whales and back on the ground safely. Also, thanks to everyone in the offices and all of the volunteers in Gloucester at the Ocean Alliance and at the Institute de Conservacion de las Ballenas in Buenos Aires for all of the advance preparations and organization.

In the photo above is a whale that we photographed, and if you look closely, you can see the baby alongside the mother.

In the photo below is our aerial survey team, which includes, from the left, Dr. Mariano Sironi, myself, our pilot Peter and Marcos Ricciardi. Not included here is our other member of this year’s aerial team, Alejandro Fernandez. Thanks again to everyone for keeping us safe and for loving the whales as much as we do.


In closing, I want to say that today, September 11th, is Mariano’s birthday so Feliz Cumpleanos (Happy birthday in Spanish) Mariano!!