Ocean Alliance Research

Ocean Alliance was founded by Dr. Roger Payne in 1971 as one of the world’s first whale research non-profit organizations. We were founded during an era of commercial whaling on the premise that we could learn more from a live whale than a dead one. Ever since we have striven to develop innovative and non-invasive tools that can be used to collect data on whales.

Over the past 50 years, we have played a key role in marine mammal science: helping to bridge the boundaries between rigorous science, effective policy change, and dynamic science education.

At present, much of our focus is on drone technology. In 2013 Ocean Alliance CEO Dr. Iain Kerr identified drones as having enormous potential in marine mammal science. Then in 2015, Ocean Alliance helped usher in a new age in marine mammal science through our drone-based SnotBot program. SnotBot is a modified consumer drone that flies through the blow of a whale and collects exhaled breath condensate, or “snot,” on petri dishes. Whale blow contains a trove of biological information, including key indicators of whale health/ecology. Fast forward six years and SnotBot has not only moved whale science and conservation further into the 21st century, but it has also captured the public’s imagination with hundreds of media stories, viral videos, and features in National Geographic and BBC documentaries.

Behind the tongue-in-cheek name, the science communication, and the innovative use of emerging technology with a great deal of attention in the public eye; is a program built upon credible, rigorous science which fulfills a desperate need in this field.

SnotBot Expedition Infographic

The Critical Need

Whales face more threats today than ever before, and these threats are increasing and intensifying. The IUCN lists 20 species of whale as either critically endangered, endangered, or vulnerable. While it might be too late to save the vaquita porpoise, we need to better understand the threats facing whales and how to mitigate them so that more species are not lost forever to extinction.

The key threats which face whales are the long-term ones that are difficult to understand, play out over long periods, and have implicit chronic impacts on the animals: such as climate change, chemical pollution, and noise pollution.

To save whales in a rapidly changing ocean, it is crucial that we understand these daunting and complicated threats. Our lack of understanding of these threats and what we can do to mitigate them is the number one threat facing whales.

The only way to understand these threats is to collect data. More data, and better data.

The problem is that more and better data rarely go hand in hand. Traditionally, collecting more data requires inexpensive techniques, while collecting better data requires expensive equipment. This is where drones come in.

The Solution: drones

We believe that drones offer the solution to this problem. Drones:

  • Are field-friendly and can be used with minimal training
  • Can be used under a broad range of environmental conditions
  • Are non-invasive: we can study whales without them even knowing we are there
  • Are inexpensive: significantly lowering the entry barriers for whale researchers globally

Action: Applied Conservation Biology

Potential is nothing without use. We have conducted well over 1,000 flights over 9 species of marine mammals during 13 expeditions in 5 different countries. We have collected over 400 respiratory samples, hundreds of images for photogrammetry analysis and pushed the use of other technologies such as infrared thermography and fixed-wing survey planes. We have presented our work at numerous conferences through talks, abstracts, posters, and scientific publications.

A more important part of the program is sharing what we have learned. In 2020, we either led on or contributed to a combined total of 20 different programs across the globe. Every one of these programs below is a fully-fledged research program, making its own contribution towards marine mammal science and conservation.

This is something we are very proud of. It speaks to our SnotBot program’s objective: to advance whale conservation by facilitating the widespread adoption of drone technology in this field. It also speaks to how highly regarded we are, with so many groups coming to us to ask for advice and protocols. All 20 of these programs have benefitted from the innovative approach Ocean Alliance has taken in developing our SnotBot program. While our own work’s impact is high, the impact of all of these research programs combined is enormous.

Science Communication

The program has also proven a remarkable tool of science communication. Education has always been at the forefront of Ocean Alliance’s mission. Our education approach has focused on sharing the research we are doing on conserving whales and our oceans. We believe that learning and discovery happen best when they occur together and when students and the public can participate in an authentic scientific adventure. Our objective is to educate and engage the public to take an active role in ocean and whale conservation. Recently this has been done through school presentations, art and science collaborations, and TV programs like BBC’s Blue Planet Live and National Geographic’s One Strange Rock. These programs have reached millions of people, inspiring them to protect whales and their habitat. Dr. Iain Kerr has even spoken about the program on three occasions in the UN General Assembly hall (2015, 2016, 2018).

Transformative changes are needed to restore and protect nature. SnotBot gives scientists the tools they need, policymakers the information they crave, and educators the authentic story of inspiration and hope that they want to engage people, change behaviors and save wildlife.