Allison Payne is a researcher at the Marine Mammal Center, a naturalist for San Francisco Whale Tours, and a Masters student at San Francisco State’s Estuary and Ocean Science Center. She also runs WhaleGirl.Org, where she posts regular sightings reports and provides information about research, conservation, and more. Her research interests are centered around cetacean brains and behavior; in particular, she focuses on the humpback whales of the Gulf of the Farallones. Find out more on her website, WhaleGirl.Org, or follow her on instagram @whalegirlorg.
Where did your whales love start?
I grew up in Dana Point, California – a place that recently trademarked the phrase “Dolphin and Whale Watching Capital of the World.” Growing up so close to the ocean meant that there were tons of opportunities for me to interact with the ocean from a young age. I have a journal entry from when I was in kindergarten where I talk about seeing dolphins while walking at the harbor and how it made me want to be an “oshin ograffer”.
As I got older, I started to focus on other things. I was particularly interested in brains, cognition, and consciousness. I started my undergraduate degree in Cognitive Science at UC Berkeley, but wasn’t sure exactly what I wanted to do until I took a class called Animal Cognition.
I was engrossed by the research, theories, and stories presented to me in that class. I couldn’t stop thinking about how other animals might perceive the world and how the differences might manifest in their experiences, communications, and relationships. I got involved with Cal Squirrels to study the abundant fox squirrels on campus and realized that field research was definitely for me. I loved solving tactile problems, being outside, and hanging out with animals.
While studying squirrels, I started thinking about what animals I’d like to study long term. Pondering this led me to think about all the mysteries of whale brains and behaviors. Cetaceans have been evolving separately from us for over 60 million years, but in many ways we are very similar. The fact that I could see parallels between us in everything from neuroanatomy to culture was thrilling. That’s when my love of whales came full circle and I decided to pursue whale research as a career.
What current ocean conservation issue do you feel most strongly about?
I feel strongly about encouraging and regulating ecotourism in a way that is healthy for animals and viable for people. Whale watching can be an amazing way to connect people to nature, contribute to research, and educate the public. Unfortunately, whale watching and other wildlife tourism can also have a hugely detrimental effect on the quality of life for the animals being observed. I want more operators and tourists to be educated about safe practices for interacting with animals and I want them to be committed to doing what’s best for the animals.
I also want people who see wildlife out on their own to be cognizant of wildlife viewing guidelines. I see many whales with propeller scars on their bodies; it’s entirely preventable.
What have you changed in your life to help save whales?
I started WhaleGirl.Org to raise awareness for the whales living here in the Gulf of the Farallones. I’ve tried to use my platform to engage both people who see whales every day and people who will never see a whale in real life. I educate the public as a part of my trips with San Francisco Whale Tours. I also try as much as I can to reduce my single use plastic consumption.
What advice would you give to others to take steps in their lives to help whales?
I strongly believe that the best thing you can do for the world is dedicate your life to conservation. However, that’s not an easy path and it isn’t for everybody, so the next best thing you can do is vote with your dollar. Voting with your dollar works whether you’re picking out seafood, choosing a whale watching company, buying slow fashion, or even donating to deserving organizations. You can check out the Take Action section of my website for more ideas on what you can do to help whales!
Any Whale Tales to share?
I remember at one point last year I was on the San Francisco Whale Tours vessel Kitty Kat, and we were watching several humpback whales just outside the Golden Gate Bridge.
When we first saw the whales, they were several hundred yards west of us. I knew we had an incoming tide, a western wind, and lots of anchovies underneath us, so rather than approach the whales, I chose to have the captain put the boat in neutral and wait for the whales to come to us.
This wasn’t a popular decision with some of the passengers, several of whom demanded to be brought closer to the whales. I started to explain to them that whales should be treated just like any other wild animals – the best way to gain their trust is to be quiet and not make sudden movements. However, I was interrupted by the giant sneeze-like sound of a humpback whale spouting only feet from our boat!
It was pretty satisfying to see the same passengers who had been pouting become excited and awed as they got faces full of whale snot. The humpback circled around our boat, eventually giving us a beautiful fluke dive only 10 yards away. Choosing to give the whales the opportunity to come to us gave us a beautiful, safe, and ethical encounter with these gentle giants. And it all happened with the iconic Golden Gate Bridge in the background – pretty special!