Our History

Ocean Alliance’s mission is to protect whales and their ocean environment through research, scientific collaboration, public education, and the arts.

Dr. Roger Payne discovers that humpback whales sing songs. He makes the discovery alongside fellow scientists Katy Payne and Scott McVay.

Dr. Roger Payne begins studying Southern right whales. This study would go on to be the longest continually running program on a great whale in existence.

In the same study, Dr. Payne recognizes that individual animals can be identified by the unique marks on their bodies. This is an important milestone in photo-ID, a technique that forms the bedrock of whale science.

Dr. Payne hypothesizes that blue and fin whale sounds can be heard across entire ocean basins, a theory that is later corroborated.

The January 1979 edition of National Geographic magazine includes a sound sheet of Dr. Payne’s Songs of the Humpback Whale. This is one of the most produced records in history. In the article, Dr. Payne is referred to as, “the dean of modern whale research.”

Dr. Payne wins the MacArthur Genius Award in the area of Ecology and Evolutionary/Environmental Biology/Conservation.

Dr. Iain Kerr implements an education drive to support Ocean Alliance’s programs. This includes a whale study curriculum for elementary schools in Massachusetts, “Looking at Whales,” the CETA (Cetacean Education Through Awareness) program, the Education Today program developed in partnership with the Discovery Channel, the Pacific Life WHALE Education program and the Ocean Encounters multimedia education program.

Ocean Alliance is involved in the production of more than 40 documentaries studying whales, including In the Company of Whales and the IMAX film WHALES. Our research vessel, the Odyssey, is the setting and/or platform for many of these documentaries and is featured on PBS, National Geographic, Discovery Channel, BBC, Canal Plus, NHK, Network Ten Australia, Australian Broadcasting Corporation, Television New Zealand and many others.

Under the stewardship of new CEO Dr. Iain Kerr, Ocean Alliance turns its attention to studying chemical pollution and begins preparing for a massive global undertaking to uncover the extent of this poorly understood issue.

The Voyage of the Odyssey is launched from San Diego, California. This is the first ever study on pollutants throughout the world’s oceans. The Odyssey will travel 87,000 nautical miles and visit 121 ports in 22 countries.

The Voyage of the Odyssey ends in Boston, Massachusetts. Over 5 ½ years the Odyssey’s crew collected more than 950 skin/blubber biopsies from sperm whales from every major ocean. In the Executive Summary of the voyage, Dr. Payne states that, “The Voyage of the Odyssey has proven irrefutably that ocean life is becoming polluted to unacceptable levels by metals and human-made contaminants.”

Ocean Alliance purchases the iconic Tarr & Wonson Paint Manufactory on the harbor in Gloucester, Massachusetts. The site, where marine bottom paint was produced from 1870 to 1980, was polluted by copper, arsenic, and other contaminants. Over the next five years, Ocean Alliance spends over $1.7 million USD site remediation and building improvements.

The Deepwater Horizon oil rig explodes in the Gulf of Mexico. In response, Ocean Alliance spends five summers in the Gulf of Mexico in an attempt to determine the long-term toxicological impacts of the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

Ocean Alliance moves its headquarters from its longtime home in Lincoln, Massachusetts, to the Gloucester Paint Factory.

During a research program in the Gulf of Mexico, the first sea trials of SnotBot are conducted.

The five-year Gulf of Mexico program comes to an end. It demonstrates the unusually high levels of heavy metals, particularly chromium, in these waters, which could already be damaging the environment in significant ways. During 2014 and 2015 we partner with direct-action environmental group the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, bringing a new level of public awareness to the program.

Dr. Iain Kerr is asked to give a talk at the United Nations General Assembly on World Energy Day. He is invited back to speak on World Oceans Day in 2015, 2017 and 2018.

After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the first ever SnotBot expedition is launched. The trip, to Patagonia Argentina, is a major success.

The team makes major progress developing the SnotBot protocols during trips to the Sea of Cortez and Alaska. The team has now sampled Southern right whales (Patagonia), gray whales (Mexico), blue whales (Mexico) and humpback whales (Mexico and Alaska).

Ocean advocacy group Parley for the Oceans becomes the primary SnotBot partner. SnotBot goes to Sea of Cortez, Mexico, and Frederick Sound, Alaska. The Alaska expedition is featured on the National Geographic Channel special Earth Live.

SnotBot returns to the Sea of Cortez, and expeditions are also mounted to Stellwagen Bank (off the Massachusetts coast) and Gabon, West Africa.

SnotBot is featured on major National Geographic series One Strange Rock, narrated by Will Smith.

Ocean Alliance was founded in 1971 by biologist Dr. Roger Payne. Roger’s discovery in the 1970s that humpback whales sing songs was not only a landmark moment for the birth of modern whale biology, but also for the global save the whale movement. The haunting and beautiful song combined with its presumed role in courtship connected the public with these animals in an emotional and heretofore unseen manner, raising the public opinion which led to the global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. Some of the whale song recordings Roger made were inserted in a 1979 National Geographic magazine article, making it the largest single press run of any record in history at the time. In addition, these sounds were part of the payload onto the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft, which scientists now believe have left our solar system and entered interstellar space. CEO Iain Kerr likes to jest that this makes us the only non-profit with an interstellar space program!

As whaling ended, interest in these animals in the public and scientific realms grew exponentially, and Ocean Alliance focused on satisfying these interests by conducting truly ground-breaking research whilst focusing on showing people whales in ways which they had never seen before. In the 1990’s Ocean Alliance moved into documentary production hoping that, by showing the people of the world images of these beautiful animals that had never been captured before, they might be inspired to save them. We were involved in over 40 documentaries during this time, including the IMAX movie Whales.

In the 1980s Roger suggested that chemical pollution was set to replace the harpoon as the greatest threat to whales, and as we moved into the 1990s Ocean Alliance set about trying to determine just how polluted our oceans were, and how this pollution might be affecting whales and other marine life. This was a tremendous challenge: ocean pollution was a relatively unexplored scientific field, and our oceans are huge. In 2000 the Voyage of the Odyssey program was launched, a wildly ambitious program, particularly for a group of Ocean Alliance’s size, but one which was desperately needed. This was a 5-year study which gathered the first ever global data on pollutants from every ocean on the planet using just a single indicator species, the sperm whale. The expedition was a massive success, and showed to the world how dangerously polluted our oceans had become, including the most remote waters on the planet, and thus dispelling the previously held excuse for ocean dumping: ‘the solution to pollution is dilution’.

The Voyage was followed by the five-year Gulf of Mexico program, an effort to determine the extent of marine pollution from both the 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil spill and run-off from the Mississippi River on ocean life in the Gulf of Mexico.

In 2008 Ocean Alliance purchased the Tarr & Wonson  Paint Manufactory, a historic building and key landmark on the Gloucester waterfront. The building was both toxic and dilapidated, and renovations continue to this day. In 2013 we moved our offices to the site. Ever since, we have strived to be part of the local community and have set up multiple programs serving Gloucester, Cape Ann, and other North Shore communities and the whales that live in the waters of the Gulf of Maine.

In 2014 CEO Dr. Iain Kerr recognised that a quickly emerging field of technology could hold the keys to the future conservation of marine mammals: drones, and with this Ocean Alliance’s research activities switched. The Drones for Whale Research (DFWR) program (with the flagship SnotBot program at its core) aims to facilitate and accelerate the use of drones in marine mammal science. We believe that drones have immense potential in cetacean science and conservation as cost-effective, scalable, adaptable and non-invasive tools which have significant implications for management strategies and policies of worldwide. Over the past year or so, the fruits of our efforts have been rewarded, and drones are rapidly becoming key components of whale research programs all across the planet.