Roger Payne, the scientist who started a global environmental movement with his discovery that whales could sing, has died. He was 88.
Payne made the discovery in 1967 during a research trip to Bermuda, when a naval engineer provided him with a recording of strange underwater noises he had documented while listening for Russian submarines. Payne identified the haunting tones as songs that whales sing to each other.
He saw the discovery of whale song as an opportunity to spark interest in saving the giant animals that were disappearing from the planet. Payne produced the 1970 album Songs of the Humpback Whale. A surprise hit, the album sparked a global movement to end commercial whaling and save whales from extinction.
Payne knew from the start that whale song represented a chance to generate public interest in the conservation of an animal that had previously been little more than a resource, curiosity, or nuisance. In a 2021 interview with Nautilus Quarterly, he said he first heard the recording in the noisy engine room of a research vessel and knew almost immediately that the sounds were indeed whale sounds.
“Despite the noise, what I heard blew my mind. It seemed obvious that here at last was a chance to get the world interested in preventing whales from becoming extinct,” he told the magazine.
Payne died of pelvic cancer on Saturday. He lived with his wife, actress Lisa Harrow, in South Woodstock, Vermont. No funeral arrangements had been made, Harrow said.
Payne had four children from a previous marriage to zoologist Katy Payne, with whom he worked. The two used primitive equipment in the late 1960s to record the sounds of humpback whales singing their eerie, complex songs, sometimes 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 groups of the time saw animal and environmental protection as a new concern, and the words “Save the Whales” were ubiquitous on tote bags and bumper stickers.
Wall songs entered the popular imagination through everything from a 1971 episode of “The Partridge Family” to a 1979 issue of National Geographic that included a flexi-CD with excerpts from “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” contained. It remains the best-selling environmental album in history.
Payne founded the Ocean Alliance in 1971 to work to protect whales and dolphins. The organization is still active today in Gloucester, Massachusetts. It has played a role in turning points in the history of whale protection, such as the passage of the Marine Mammal Protection Act in 1972 by the US Congress and the 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling passed by the International Whaling Commission.
“The world has lost an environmental giant in Payne’s death,” said Iain Kerr, CEO of the Ocean Alliance and a longtime Payne associate. Payne retired two years ago.
“He had a presence and a way of connecting with people that made them devote their lives to protecting whales and our planet Earth,” Kerr said.
Born in New York City, Payne was educated at Harvard University and Cornell University, where he received his PhD. Early in his career as a biologist, he studied bats and birds.
He met Harrow, his widow, in 1991 at a whale protection rally in Trafalgar Square, London. They married within 10 weeks of meeting.
“The way his mind worked was a constant delight,” Harrow said. “He was constantly searching for answers to seemingly constant questions.”