This biologist has been listening to humpback whales for decades. What he heard helped save the species

Five decades ago, the album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” hit record stores, introducing the world to haunting whale sounds that most people had never heard before.

The iconic album – produced by biologist Roger Payne and recorded with his then-wife Katharine Payne and engineer Frank Watlington – was a surprise hit, eventually becoming the most popular nature recording in the world. story. The album energized the “Save the Whales” movement, which led to a 10-year moratorium on whaling around the world, and pushed Congress to pass the Marine Mammal Protection Act.

As the landmark act turns 50 this year, WBUR sat down with Roger Payne, 87, at his home in Vermont, to talk about the birth of the album and why he still listens to whales. .

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Interview Highlights

How did you become interested in animal sounds?

“I started as an undergrad. I did my work on bats. I was interested in the directionality of bat ears, how they are able to localize sounds with the precision that And then when I got a Ph.D. at Cornell, I was studying how owls locate their prey in complete darkness, and then I did a postdoc at Tufts University, where I worked with an insect physiologist studying the directionality of moth ears.

“As a friend of mine said at the time, ‘Roger went from one night organization to another.’ I guess that’s exactly what happened.”

Roger Payne listening to whales on a boat. (Courtesy of Ocean Alliance)

Can you tell me about the first time you saw a whale?

“The first time I saw a whale, up close, I was working at Tufts University and I heard an announcement on the air that a whale had washed up on Revere beach, and I decided I wanted to see her. By the time I got there, someone had cut her flukes and they were missing. Someone else had carved her initials into the side and someone else had poked a cigar butt in the vent.

“It was abundantly clear to me that nature was taking its most terrible onslaught, and most people didn’t seem to know anything about it. And I thought to myself, what could I do, if the only thing I know, those are the sounds that animals make and respond to? And I thought – whales! That’s what I could do.

What did people know about whales back then, in the late 1960s?

“People knew back then that a whale was a big fat animal, and that’s about it. There was no behavioral work on the whales other than an indication that they were able to migrate over long distances. Back when we were killing – humanity was killing – 33,000 great whales every year, it was pretty obvious that the whales were on the brink of extinction.”

Other scientists had already started recording whale sounds. How did you connect with them?

“There was this guy in Bermuda named Frank Watlington, who was working for the navy doing something secret, and he had heard sounds that he thought were whales. And so I went with my ex-wife, Katie Payne, and we went for a ride.

“As we boarded the boat, Frank led us through the engine room and took a tape out of his pocket, a magnetic tape. And he threaded the tape over the recorder heads, and he pressed on the switch then, leaning forward and putting the earphones on my head, he said: “I think they are humpback whales!” And what I heard completely shocked me.

“I had never heard anything in nature that was remotely such an amazing performance. …I decided I wanted to make a record almost immediately. I just decided the world had to hear this. This record took off and it became the most successful natural history sound recording of all time.”

(Courtesy of Ocean Alliance)
(Courtesy of Ocean Alliance)

Can you describe the sound?

“It’s a direct emotional exchange. It’s like what happens if you look at a photo and it totally moves you. There you go, and it hits you really hard.

“A lot of people cry when they hear those sounds. It gets to them emotionally. And I’ve never cried hearing them, but I’m damn near.”

You are still involved in a whale communication project – the Cetacean Translation Initiative (CETI). Can you tell me about it?

“The CETI project will attempt to track whales for long periods of time. There is a pod of sperm whales off the island of Dominica in the Caribbean, and we are installing hydrophones so we can record these sounds and hopefully possibly find out who said what and what they were doing at the time.

“What we are trying to do at CETI is to translate the language of whales. Do I think it will be the same type of rich language as humans? No, definitely not complex and interesting things. “

Whale songs have this emotional impact on people. If you found a way to translate the songs into lyrics, would they lose anything? What if they just said, “Hey, how are you?” “Hi, how are you doing?”

“Just the fact that you knew he was saying something as banal and mundane as that would be fascinating. You know, ‘Oh my God, that’s what they say? Who knew?’

“In humpback whales, you see a fantastically complex, fascinating, and cooperative behavior in which they herd schools of fish together. And some do one thing and some do another, and they use tools, they weave a net bubbles underwater. And I think they actually change the size of the meshes of the net, depending on what prey they’re after. And that kind of behavior leads me to believe that these animals really do have brains sophisticated and can probably think that on some level it would be of great interest to the world.”

Roger Payne working on the acoustics.  (Courtesy of Ocean Alliance)
Roger Payne working on the acoustics. (Courtesy of Ocean Alliance)

Listening to you describe them makes me not want to know what they’re saying, because what if they turn out to be as bad as us?

“But just think how important it is to know!”

If you found a way to communicate with the whales, what would you tell them?

“I would love to ask them simple things, you know. ‘Is your mother faithful to your father?’ “

It’s not a simple question! Maybe you should start with something less personal.

“It’s a very simple question – that’s the essence of the questions.”

I feel like I’d like to apologize, I guess.

“Yes, of course. ‘Sorry’ would be a good word to say.

“But I would say, you know, ‘Sing!’ or “Again!” And there are all sorts of other things.

“Once a whale speaks to humanity, no matter how simple its message, it has a chance, I think, to get the world’s attention in a way it desperately needs. And once that this is happening, i think all kinds of change will happen, once this starts then i am hopeful.

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