A whale in the ocean might seem very different from the proverbial canary in the coal mine. But a team of leading scientists, including two from Maine, is setting out to prove that whales might be our best warning of the global extent of pollution.

The Lincoln, MA-based Ocean Alliance is leading a research project to analyze toxic chemicals found in sperm whales from all over the globe. The opportunity to take part in the project is the result of a five-year journey by Dr. Roger Payne, best known for discovering, with Scott McVay in 1967, that whales communicate with songs.

Since then, Payne has set out to share the music and majesty of whales through his research, his involvement with the International Whaling Commission, and his founding of the Ocean Alliance.

For the past five years Payne has been sailing around the world in the Odyssey, a 93-foot steel-hulled ketch, obtaining samples of skin and blubber from 960 sperm whales. The voyage is being touted as the first-ever global expedition dedicated to collecting baseline data on ocean contaminant levels.

“Nobody knows the background levels of these chemicals in the ocean,” says Payne, who thinks contamination might be one more reason why whale populations are dwindling. “The whales aren’t the problem, we are the problem,” he says, hoping that the study will be a wake-up call for humans, so many of whom depend on ocean resources for survival. Because whales are wide-ranging marine mammals that feed in the same food web as commercially important fish species, they make excellent indicators of the health risks that all animals, including humans, face by eating food from the sea. This October, Iain Kerr, Vice President and CEO of the Ocean Alliance and manager of the project, received a Chevron Conservation Award for his efforts to improve humanity’s understanding of the threats facing whales and their ocean environment.

Just knowing the levels of contamination in whales doesn’t provide any indication of whether those amounts are in fact toxic. Traditional toxicology experiments, such as giving rats gradually increasing doses of poison and recording when they react, get sick and die, are impossible with whales.

Instead, fresh living whale tissue is used to culture cells in the lab; in this case, the lab of Dr. John Wise, Director for the Maine Center for Toxicology and Environmental Health at the University of Southern Maine and guardian of what is probably the largest repository of marine mammal cell lines in the world. Wise exposes the cells to the amounts of chemicals detected in the whales and looks for DNA damage. Since working on the sperm whale project, Wise has joined Ocean Alliance as its Director of Toxicology.

Payne has said of the Odyssey’s journey, “In retrospect, it was an exhaustively foolish project.” But Wise says that Payne is just being modest. “It is a very important collection because it’s probably the only global dataset on marine life, and will allow us to look at questions that would be very difficult to address otherwise.”

“I think what Ocean Alliance has put together is a golden opportunity for other such globally-oriented research,” agrees Dr. David Evers, director of the BioDiversity Research Institute in Gorham and another partner in the project.

What makes the information obtained during the Odyssey’s journey so valuable is that the whales were sampled by the same crew and will be analyzed with the same methods and equipment, allowing for direct, statistical comparison of pollutant levels around the world, according to Wise. “Few species of animals have global distributions and there are even fewer opportunities to have samples in hand to measure mercury in a comparable way around the world,” says Evers.

So far, the whales have been tested for heavy metals, including mercury. “Results from over 60 whales representing several locations around the world indicate that this species is a good global indicator of mercury exposure,” says Evers. “We’re finding high levels of metals in areas far from civilization. Now we can go back to some of these remote areas and try to figure out why pollution is so high,” says Wise.

In the meantime, the scientists are drafting a research plan for the remaining 900 whales, including analysis of persistent pollutants like brominated fire retardants, relatively new chemicals that are being found practically everywhere people look. More results are expected in the coming months.

Roger Payne will speak at 7 p.m. Thursday, Nov. 16, at the Hannaford Lecture Hall, University of Southern Maine, Portland, at a free event sponsored by the Natural Resources Council of Maine.