Humpback Group Feed

Research is crucial for implementing appropriate policies and actions to conserve whales and educate people about them.

The Alliance's Ocean Research Program has the following objectives:

  • 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

Why research is crucial – an example:

We need to study 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. For 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.

Benign Research

A hallmark of OA'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. Ocean Alliance will continue to develop new research methodologies. In addition to biacoustics, Ocean Alliance has also developed satellite tracking and DNA fingerprinting as two important research techniques.


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 the RV 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 OA researchers to calibrate the technique of acoustic census taking by comparing the number of whales heard with the number sighted. To read more about Biocoustics Research click here.

DNA Fingerprinting

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 2003, the Ocean Alliance plans to use satellite transponders to track the movements of right whales when they leave Peninsula Valdes. The whales are believed to travel from the nursery grounds at the Peninsula to their summer feeding grounds. There has been only one re-sighting of a whale from this Peninsula; that was on a feeding ground off the island of South Georgia in the middle of the southern Atlantic. Satellite tracking will allow OA researchers to follow right whales along their migration routes. In this way we will learn what clues whales may be following to find their feeding grounds.

Photo Identification

In addtion to Benign Research methods, Ocean Alliance is moniters indivdual 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 available to other researchers.

Oceans Matter
Did You Know

Ocean Alliance has a state of the art lab on board the RV Odyssey in the aft cabin.

Odyssey lab
Whale Safety

The research that is conducted aboard the Odyssey abides by the laws that protect whales under the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Our team is committed to the use of non-lethal and wherever possible non-invasive techniques to collect data. Our goal is to protect whales and their environmnet.