Roger Payne, the scientist who spurred a global environmental conservation movement with his discovery that whales could sing, has died. He was 88 years old.
Payne made the discovery in 1967 during a research trip to Bermuda during which a naval engineer provided him with a recording of curious underwater sounds documented while listening to Russian submarines. Payne identified haunting tones as songs whales sing to each other.
He saw the discovery of whale song as a chance to stimulate interest in saving giant animals, which were disappearing from the planet. Payne would produce the album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” in 1970. A surprise hit, the record galvanized a worldwide movement to end the practice of commercial whaling and save whales from extinction.
Payne was aware from the outset that whale song represented a chance to interest the public in the protection of an animal previously considered a mere resource, curiosity or nuisance. He told Nautilus Quarterly in a 2021 interview that he first heard the recording in the noisy engine room of a research vessel and knew almost instantly that the sounds were indeed whales.
“Despite the din, what I heard overwhelmed me. It seemed clear that there was a chance here at last to get the world interested in preventing whale extinction,” he said. to the magazine.
Payne died of pelvic cancer on Saturday. He lived in South Woodstock, Vermont, with his wife, actress Lisa Harrow. Funeral arrangements have not yet been made, Harrow said.
Payne had four children from a previous marriage to zoologist Katy Payne, with whom he collaborated. The two used primitive equipment in the late 1960s to record the sounds of humpback whales, which sometimes sing their eerie, complex songs for more than half an hour at a time.
The impact of the discovery of whale song on the nascent environmental movement was immense. Many anti-war protesters of the time took up animal and environmental advocacy as a new cause, and the words “save the whales” became ubiquitous on tote bags and bumper stickers. .
Whale songs would enter the popular imagination via everything from a 1971 episode of “The Partridge Family” to a 1979 issue of National Geographic that included a flexi disc with excerpts from “Songs of the Humpback Whale”. It remains the best-selling environmental album in history.
Payne founded Ocean Alliance in 1971 to advocate for the protection of whales and dolphins. The organization currently operates in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He played a role in defining moments in the history of whale protection, such as the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 by the United States Congress and the moratorium on commercial whaling in 1982. adopted by the International Whaling Commission.
The world lost a giant in environmental conservation with Payne’s death, said Iain Kerr, CEO of Ocean Alliance and longtime Payne collaborator. Payne retired two years ago.
“He had a presence and a way of connecting with people that led them to dedicate their lives to protecting whales and our planet Earth,” Kerr said.
Payne was born in New York and educated at Harvard University and Cornell University, where he received his Ph.D. Early in his career as a biologist, he studied bats and birds.
He met Harrow, his widow, in 1991 at a rally for the protection of whales in London’s Trafalgar Square. They got married within 10 weeks of meeting.
“The way his mind worked was a constant joy,” Harrow said. “He was constantly looking for answers, to seemingly constant questions.”