A Pioneer in Whale Acoustics Leaves a Lasting Legacy

By Lauri deGaris
Dr. Roger Payne recording songs of whales. Photo courtesy of Ocean Alliance, Inc.

Dr. Roger S. Payne, biologist, born January 29, 1935, passed away this month. For more than 50 years, he poured his life into recording the songs of whales and fighting for the health of our ocean. Dr. Payne earned his doctorate at Cornell University as a research zoologist. He studied bioacoustics in bats, owls and moths. In the 1960s Dr. Payne was introduced to whale songs recorded by U.S. Navy – Soviet sub chaser, Dr. Frank Watlington. Dr. Watlington had a decade’s worth of valuable whale recordings that he kept secret. He worried commercial whalers might benefit from his discovery and he did not want that to happen. Eventually, Dr. Watlington shared his recordings with Dr. Payne thus igniting his lifelong passion for the study of whales.

Off the coast of Bermuda, Dr. Payne wrote, “Far from land, with a faint breeze and a full moon, we heard these lovely sounds pouring out of the sea.” Dr. Payne began to listen and record whales with a hydrophone. He presented recordings to fellow whale researcher Scott McVay and his wife Hella. Hella, a mathematician, realized that the sounds emanating from whales were songs like birds sing. Hella observed that there were six octaves repeating in stanzas concluding that whales are indeed singing songs.   

In the journal, Science, Payne and McVay declared that “humpback whales create a series of surprisingly beautiful sounds.” The sounds emitted were rhythmic repeated sequences and therefore properly called a song according to Payne. McVay and Payne described the whale songs as a chorus of “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.” In the strict scientific world words like “beautiful” are not published in papers very often. This was revolutionary and instrumental in promoting the “Save the Whales” conservation movement of the 1970s. McVay and Payne went on to author many scientific papers, lecture around the world, create films and record whale songs. The work of Dr. Payne and his colleagues supported the creation of the Marine Mammal Protection Act, ending large-scale commercial whaling in the United States.

“Recordings we captured of the beautiful, evocative songs of the humpback whale captivated people all over the world,” wrote Dr. Payne. National Geographic magazine ordered more than 10 million copies of “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” They placed the flexible vinyl record in the January 1979 edition of National Geographic. Folk artist, Pete Seeger wrote “Song of the World’s Last Whale.” The Paul Winter Consort pioneered a new genre of “earth music,” interweaving jazz and earthly elements such as “Songs of the Humpback Whale” to create what Winter calls “the greatest symphony of the earth.” Listen to “Songs of the Humpback Whale.”

In 1971, Dr. Payne founded Ocean Alliance, Inc. with the mission to protect whales and their ocean environment through research, scientific collaboration, public education, and the arts. Ocean Alliance, Inc., is a 501(c)(3) not-for-profit organization.

As it turns out, one of the largest problems for the plight of whales is toxic pollution. By sampling the sperm whales, a worldwide apex predator, Dr. Payne discovered not a single sperm whale in the entire ocean is free from pollution. Not one. Dr. Payne found that pollution is not only threatening whales, it is threatening you and me, too. Through the process of “biomagnification,” we are becoming more toxic with each new generation. This applies to all apex predators of which humans occupy a top-row seat.

Persistent organic pollutants (POP) created for use as insecticides, herbicides, plasticizers, flame retardants, food and drink containers and hundreds of other chemicals by industrial chemists, are hazardous to life. Dr. Payne explains in his Ted Talk “The Whale Song” whatever can be moved by gravity, wind or water ends up in the sea. POPs are no exception to the rule. Chemical companies promote that the solution to pollution is dilution. But, as Dr. Payne explains, this is a false narrative with harmful consequences.

Biomagnification works like this: a plant organism (phytoplankton) contaminated with a POP is consumed by an animal organism (zooplankton), which is eaten by a larger animal and so on. Because POPs are new to the environment many organisms have not evolved to transmute or process these chemicals. POPs build up in the tissue of mammals that have consumed contaminated plants and/or animals. Mammals pass along toxins to the next generation through their mother’s milk. As our young grow, they are exposed to additional POPs in their environment. They give birth and the cycle continues all the way up the food chain with each generation more toxic than the last.

POPs disrupt the endocrine system and cause numerous health problems in humans and animals alike. There are 7,719 published scientific papers related to POPs in the environment and available for review at the National Institutes of Health online Library of Medicine.

Just days before his death, Dr. Payne penned an essay entitled “I Spent My Life Saving the Whales. Now They Might Save Us.” This was published in Time magazine. In his essay, Dr. Payne states:

“The way I see it, the most consequential scientific discovery of the past 100 years isn’t E = mc2 or plate tectonics or translating the human genome. These are all quite monumental, to be sure, but there’s one discovery so consequential that unless we respond to it, it may kill us all, graveyard dead. It is this: every species, including humans, depends on a suite of other species to keep the world habitable for it, and each of those species depends in turn on an overlapping but somewhat different suite of species to keep their niche livable for them.”

Dr. Payne realized that the challenge of our time is motivating fellow humans to make species preservation a priority. It should be our highest humanitarian calling. How do we get this idea across to the whole world asked Payne. His answer was, “inspiration is the key.” Dr. Payne quoted Antoine de Saint-Exupery, the author of The Little Prince, “If you want to build a ship, don’t drum up the men to gather wood, divide up the work and give orders. Instead, teach them to yearn for the vast and endless sea.”

Dr. Payne reminded us that humanity finds itself in its present predicament, in major part, because we put the needs of humans before the needs of all other life. We seem to have forgotten all other life supports the needs of humans.

Rest peacefully Dr. Payne, knowing your love for the beauty and health of our world continues to be “bio-magnifying” around the globe.

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Candis Whitney
Active Member
Candis Whitney(@candiswhitneygmail-com)
8 months ago

Thank you, Lauri deGaris! Beautifully written and well researched.
We have been truly blessed to have Roger Payne researching and passionately publicizing our whales for a lifetime!

Richard Timm
Trusted Member
Richard Timm(@rtimm-ontheislandgmail-com)
8 months ago

Lauri … Thank you for this tribute to Dr. Payne.

Mark Tomes
Noble Member
Mark Tomes(@mtomes)
8 months ago

Thanks so much for sharing this article. The message that we must see beyond our selves and know that we are intimately connected with all other life and parts of the earth is critical to our survival.

8 months ago

Beautiful story! And a good reminder that there are things today, about the complex world of Mother Nature, that we don’t even know we don’t know! It’s our job to have a growth mindset and continue to learn and to be open to new scientific findings!

[email protected](@patricia-burke4gmail-com)
8 months ago

We owe so much to Roger Payne’s lifelong commitment to the study of whales. I was fascinated to learn so much more about more about him.
My thanks to you, Lauri deGaris for such an informative post.