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Ocean Alliance and Gloucester find a new purpose

Iain Kerr of the Gloucester-based Ocean Alliance examines a humpback whale vertebra with Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

Lisa Poole for The Boston Globe

Iain Kerr of the Gloucester-based Ocean Alliance examines a humpback whale vertebra with Gloucester Mayor Carolyn Kirk.

Clad in an orange rain jacket and canvas hat, Iain Kerr gently eases a skiff out into Gloucester Harbor.

He steers through the choppy waves, salty breeze blowing and seagulls wheeling overhead, toward a large structure looming on the nearby shore.

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The salty barrage of sea and weather has taken its toll on the neglected building perched at the water’s edge: broken windows, missing clapboards, paint eaten away, rotted wood exposing interior studs, and the once bright-white giant letters proclaiming “copper paint” and “manufactory” faded to a dirty gray.

It certainly doesn’t look like much now, but this building is part of what many hope will be a renaissance – and, at least in part, a repurposing – of the Gloucester waterfront. The once prosperous but long-contaminated Tarr and Wonson Paint Manufactory is the new headquarters of Ocean Alliance, a 42-year-old nonprofit that researches whales and the health of the oceans.

“We bought this because it was an iconic site,” Kerr, the alliance’s chief executive, said through a Scottish lilt. “Here we have a group that studies pollution that bought a polluted site.”

Ocean Alliance, founded in 1971, has conducted research in 21 countries and all the world’s oceans, collecting volumes of information on whales related to toxicology, behavior, genetics, and bioacoustics. (Founder and president Roger Payne made the legendary whale song recordings that were launched with NASA’s Voyager I interstellar exploration spacecraft 36 years ago.)

Payne said in a prepared statement from the alliance that acquiring and restoring the factory is the biggest challenge the nonprofit has faced.

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Formerly located in Lincoln, the alliance moved to its Gloucester headquarters in April. It has so far invested more than $3.25 million, raised through grants and donations, into restoration of the site, which it purchased in 2008 with the help of a grant from the Annenberg Foundation.

According to Kerr, the alliance hopes to raise $8 million to completely refurbish the buildings, so it needs roughly $4.5 million more to get the job done.

The finished complex is slated to have a state-of-the-art oceanographic research and education center, complete with a green chemistry lab, robotics lab, situation room with live feeds from its worldwide marine projects, as well as a community and conference center, educational labs and study spaces, a museum and art gallery, and media center. A public deck would allow access to the water, and the entire ground floor would be open to the public during office hours.

The site comprises several buildings constructed between 1863 and 1900 — former mills, boiler/engine rooms, manufacturing floors, warehouses, and paint laboratories. In the 1800s, James Tarr and Augustus Wonson created the country’s first antifouling copper paint, which repels barnacles, grass, and other marine life that can attach to, or damage, vessel bottoms. The paint was manufactured and sold all over the world, and also won numerous national and international awards.

“It changed the course of many a nation’s history,” said Kerr, who started as a volunteer with Ocean Alliance 26 years ago.

But in the 1980s, the site was abandoned, and after 150 years of operation, was found to be contaminated with various metals and solvents, while its interior also contained lead paint. Five buildings are to be restored; two brick buildings have been in progress since late 2011, and are expected to be completed this fall.

Initial planning and design started in 2009, with cleanup and remediation beginning the following year. Two wooden buildings were beyond repair and razed, Kerr said, while some toxic contaminated areas were capped and other materials removed.

The remaining wooden buildings will require substantial work; during a walk-through of the dank, low-ceilinged spaces, Kerr pointed out beams stained with streaks of hardened blue, yellow, white, black, and gray drippings from numerous chemicals, as well as hardened antifouling paint four inches thick on one part of the floor.

Kerr stressed that the manufacturer wasn’t being “malicious,” but that they “just didn’t know what we know nowadays.”

Ultimately, he said, the goal is to introduce a new use to the waterfront, but also to maintain the historical significance of the landmark.

“It’s an opportunity for Gloucester to redefine the working waterfront in the spirit of innovation,” Mayor Carolyn Kirk said while seated in a refurbished loft office at Ocean Alliance, seagulls often circling into view in overhead skylights.

With an eye to the 21st century and beyond, she said, the goal is to leverage the port’s assets in varied ways — and not with what she called the “restaurant, T-shirt, taffy” solution.

The ultimate question is, “What is the opportunity that the ocean itself represents?” she said.

An immense one, according to Kerr.

Ocean Alliance — which has nine full-time staff members, as well as affiliations with universities and other organizations around the world — has recently been focused on capturing and studying whale DNA through biopsies to determine what compounds have been absorbed and at what toxicity. Whales — of which there are 82 different species, Kerr explained — are a good “bio-indicator” of the health of the oceans, and the organization is most interested in what compounds and toxins damage whale DNA, and at what level.

This summer, the alliance’s ship, Odyssey, will embark on an expedition to the Gulf of Mexico to study the impact of the massive BP oil spill in 2010. The nonprofit also educates, advocates, and lobbies for ocean health.

As Kerr noted, there’s an initial challenge in getting people to understand about ocean pollution, because on the surface, the water looks beautiful.

But “oceans are downhill from everything,” he said, “and gravity never sleeps.”

At the rehabbed Gloucester facility, the first project he would like to embark on is creating plastic that is biodegradable in oceans. Another interest is drone-like craft that can go out in bad weather when boats can’t, and can provide information and eyes above, below, and on the surface of the water.

Then there’s the aptly named “snotbot.”

Drew Bennett, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Franklin W. Olin College of Engineering in Needham, is working on that project with Ocean Alliance. Essentially, it’s a flying robot with a spring-loaded cup that collects the detail-rich mucus expelled from a whale’s blowhole.

“It’s like doing a biopsy without ever having to touch the whale,” he said, explaining that mucus samples contain information about anything from gender to compound toxicity levels.

“They’re just shedding goo all the time,” he said. “We want to capture the goo.”

Ultimately, as far as Kerr is concerned, the ocean’s the limit.

“Some people are upset that we know more about the moon than our oceans, but I’m excited about that,” he said. “There is a huge adventure ahead of us.”

Taryn Plumb can be reached at tarynplumb1@gmail.com.

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