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Remembering Roger Payne, whose recordings of whale songs changed the world

 A man in a rowboat looking at a yellow box, wearing headphones
Ocean Alliance
Biologist Roger Payne is best known for his discovery (with Scott McVay) that whales sing songs. In 1970, he released an LP called "Songs of the Humpback Whale.” It played a key role in igniting the modern environmental movement, and helped bring whales back from the brink of extinction.

Lisa Harrow met Roger Payne at a rally for whale conservation in London. She was an actress and had been asked to speak at the event. When she was leaving the stage, she ran into Roger at the foot of the stairs. His voice was warm and his eyes were good-humored. He asked her, “Have you ever seen a whale from close quarters?”

She said she hadn’t. Three hours later, they were still talking — and quickly realized they’d fallen in love.

“I felt as if I were at the edge of the ocean, ankle deep in the incoming waves staring out at the vast expanse of sunlit possibilities,” she said. “That's when I met him.”

Ten weeks later, they were married. This was in 1991, and Roger had already changed the world.

The renowned biologist and conservationist died at his home in South Woodstock on June 10 at the age of 88.

Born in New York in 1935, Roger Payne studied biology at Harvard University and got a PhD in Animal Behavior at Cornell. After some early work on hearing in bats, owls and moths, his attention turned to whales in the mid-'60s.

Roger studied whales for decades, and later in life was involved in efforts to translate their sounds for humans to understand.
Ocean Alliance
Roger studied whales for decades, and later in life was involved in efforts to translate their sounds for humans to understand.

On a research trip to Bermuda, a U.S. Navy engineer named Frank Watlington gave Roger a recording he’d made of humpback whales. At that point, nobody knew much about the sounds whales made, and Roger was intrigued. He took the recording back to his office in New York and listened to it, over and over.

He realized the whale was repeating itself — which meant its sound qualified as a song. A complex, beautiful, haunting song.

At the time, whales were near extinction. And Roger thought that if people heard their song, they might be compelled to do something about it. So he handed out recordings to anyone who would take them. As he told NPR in 2014, "What I wanted to do was build them into human culture. Anything. Any damn thing that anybody wanted to try, hey, that seemed fine to me."

And it worked.

In 1970, Roger released an LP called “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” which became one of the most famous nature recordings in American history.

Whale songs ended up on a Judy Collins record; Greenpeace used them on TV and radio; and a recording was included in the Voyager Golden Record that was sent out into space.

In 1972, Congress passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act. In the '80s, the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium on commercial whaling.

“Roger really helped jumpstart the modern environmental movement. By making people care about whales, he made them care about the planet,” said Iain Kerr. He’s the CEO of Ocean Alliance, an organization devoted to whale research and conservation that Roger founded in the 70s. “He spoke softly. But I think his words reverberated around the world.”

Those who knew Roger Payne remember him as charming, humble, creative and deeply curious. He was a friend to students, other scientists, and people around the world. He was a good listener, and would talk to anybody.

“Whether you were a Nobel laureate, or somebody sort of, you know, cleaning up the docks, Roger was very generous across the board,” said Iain.

That’s the man Lisa Harrow fell in love with that day in London. She says Roger relished life at all levels.

 A man in a blue polo and khakis leans against the railing of a sailboat.
Ocean Alliance
Roger Payne died at home in South Woodstock on June 10th, at the age of 88.

“I mean the botanical, the biological, life on earth, not you know, drinking and having parties and stuff like that," she said. "Not the swirl of human life, but he was never happier than just being out on the ocean, under the stars.”

The couple moved to Vermont in 1997. While Roger was a whale biologist, he thought a lot about the interconnectedness of nature — the fact that we exist in a profoundly interdependent web.

Near the end of his long career, he turned his efforts to translation, as part of an initiative aimed at deciphering the meaning of whale sounds. He continued to work through the last months of his life, even while bedridden.

“His mind was still actively probing solutions for how humans could accept and support life on earth, not for humans, but for all the species on Earth,” said Lisa.

Five days before his death, Roger published an essay inTimemagazine, reflecting on his life’s work. He wrote, “As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs. I believe that science can help us survive our folly. Fifty years ago, people fell in love with the songs of humpback whales, and joined together to ignite a global conservation movement. It’s time for us to once again listen to the whales — and, this time, to do it with every bit of empathy and ingenuity we can muster so that we might possibly understand them.”

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Anna worked for Vermont Public from 2019 through 2023 as a reporter and co-host of the daily news podcast, The Frequency.

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