• Determine baseline levels of pollutants in the ocean environment
  • Investigate sperm whales’ diving, feeding and migratory behavior using multi-beam scanning sonar and satellite tagging
  • Conduct bioacoustic research and develop methods of acoustic census taking
  • Create a digital database of photo-identified whales to share with cetologists and oceanographers worldwide


Research is crucial!Research is another word for gathering information. The more information we gather, the closer we get to answering important questions. Research forms the basis for all other scientists and allows us to implement appropriate policies and actions to conserve the oceans and whales. Research also plays a crucial role in educating people about their marine environments.

As an example, six stone harpoon heads have recently been found in living bowhead whales. As stone harpoons have not been used for between 135 to 150 years, we will therefore need to observe and study whales for over 200 years. This means researching a species for at least one and a half times the duration of its life expectancy in order to begin to understand its life cycle.


Dr. Payne’s discovery with colleague Scott McVay in 1967, that the eerie sounds made by the humpback whale were actually complex, recognizable songs, jumpstarted biouacoustics research. He determined that these songs often include rhyme and meter, and he developed a system for transcribing them. Recent data from the US Navy confirms Dr Payne’s 1971 theory (with Douglas Webb) that some whale species make sounds that can be heard over hundreds or even thousands of miles. Recent analysis of low frequency sonar data has proven that Payne and Webb were correct – by utilizing the special acoustic properties of deep water the sounds of whales can carry for great distances. Such long-range signals may serve as beacons when whales are trying to find each other or their isolated breeding grounds. Unfortunately, the invention of propeller-driven vessels has probably interfered with whales’ long-range communications.

From our Research Vessel Odyssey, Ocean Alliance is extending its study of whale bioacoustics. Using hydrophones and two acoustic arrays towed beneath the vessel, Institute scientists digitally record whale vocalizations. With software developed by the Laboratory of Ornithology at Cornell University, each vocalization will be converted to a spectrogram and catalogued in a database. These spectrograms may then be compared to those of whale vocalizations recorded in regions throughout the world. The towed arrays make it possible to count the number of vocalizing whales heard from the vessel. Comparison of this number with the number sighted will enable Ocean Alliance researchers to calibrate the technique of acoustic census taking by comparing the number of whales heard with the number sighted.


A hallmark of Ocean Alliance’s long-term survey program has been the continual development of benign research techniques now utilized by marine biologists worldwide. Traditional techniques for assessing populations of whales have relied on whale carcasses provided by the whaling industry. Even though this method continues to be used in some parts of the world, it does not yield much of the information needed for management of stocks, such as critical habitat and social behavior patterns. Observations of individuals are required over several years in order to gather such data. With Dr. Payne at the helm, Ocean Alliance has revolutionized cetacean research, by introducing and refining benign research techniques, thereby avoiding the need to harm whales in order to study them.


With DNA fingerprinting Ocean Alliance scientists will be able to determine unambiguously the identity of right whales and other focal animals, as well as their relatedness to other individuals. This relatively inexpensive technique using small samples of tissue will make it possible to determine how closely related whales from different oceans are. Such information gives the strongest insights into stock boundaries. The tissue samples will come from the same samples used for research on ocean toxins.


In addition to Benign Research methods, Ocean Alliance monitors individual whales with photo–identification. Photo IDs are used for comparison studies and will eventually be contributed to identification catalogues for each species. Ocean Alliance created the main southern right whale catalogue of photo-identification shots. This information is readily available to other researchers.

Ocean Alliance, under the leadership of world-renowned marine scientist Dr. Roger Payne, embodies an extraordinary combination of innovative scientific research and focused, informed environmental advocacy.

Joel Reynolds, Senior Attorney, Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC), 2009