Roger Payne

After fighting to protect whales for 30 years, the biologist who discovered that humpbacks sing still feels nothing but awe for the huge "impossible animals."

Topics: Environment, Whales,

Roger Payne

In 1971, biologist Roger Payne and his family embarked on what would be the first of many trips to Argentina. Sleeping in tents and eating at a wooden picnic table, the six Paynes spent three months living high above the Patagonia coast. Roger, his then wife, Katy, and their four children spent their days in the ocean, paddling the waves in kayaks, or above it at camp, peering out through binoculars. And at night, sleeping in army tents pitched a few yards from the cliff, the Payne family could hear the leviathan snore of southern right whales who had migrated there to mate.

It was on one of these trips that Payne, swimming in the shallows beneath the family’s lookout, came across a female right whale and moved in closer. “She was asleep,” he recalled recently in a phone conversation from his home in Vermont, “but after a while she opened her eye and looked me all over. You could see her eyeball rolling in her head — the eyes move very well — and then she closed her eye again. Basically, the whale was just saying, ‘Well, if you’ve seen one of these, you’ve seen them all.’ And I thought, Oh, that’s the greatest compliment I’ve ever been paid by a whale.”

Payne, tall, toothy, rumpled, windblown, is the kind of environmentalist for whom indifference can be flattering. Born in 1935 in New York, he’s been studying whales, all kinds of whales, their migrations, sounds, behavior and mating patterns, for 34 years. And through it all, what’s kept him ocean-bound is the thrill of being overwhelmed and humbled. Payne has built his career on science and activism, but ask him what it’s like to swim with a whale and what you hear in his voice is awe.

“It’s like nothing you’ve ever done. You’re absolutely out of your element and the whale is absolutely in its. And this huge blubbery animal — when you swim with them, you discover that they are the absolute ultimate in grace. And they can turn and maneuver and so forth in ways that leave you stunned. I mean you can’t imagine that an animal that big could be so graceful.”

Payne decided to study whales without ever having seen one. With degrees from Harvard and Cornell, he had spent much of his career studying the acoustics of bats, owls and then moths, all of which use echolocation to chart their way through the dark. But the work, Payne felt, was starting to feel too academic.

“[I wasn't] doing anything that was directly related to problems that I, as a biologist, am deeply and bitterly aware of,” he recalls, “which have to do with the destruction of the wild world by people. So I thought, If all you’ve had in training is the chance to work on the acoustic worlds of animals, what animal could you work on that needs help, for which the acoustics are important?”

Payne chose whales. He was becoming an environmentalist at a time when there wasn’t much of an environmental movement to join in the United States. Greenpeace was just getting started in Britain and Canada, and the commercial whaling industry was still very much alive. The popular image of whales was the one Melville had left us with: “portentous and mysterious monsters,” “undeliverable, nameless perils” every bit as ominous and unknowable as the ocean itself. Whales were menacing leviathans to be conquered and harvested, for food, oil and ambergris, an ingredient in perfume.

Payne’s first trip to Argentina, and the ones that followed, would prove to be just as effective as publicity stunts as they were as research trips.

“During that first season, we discovered extraordinary evidence of right whales’ restraint towards humans,” Payne wrote in National Geographic in October 1972. “We had become convinced that the true disposition of the right whale is at variance with its centuries-old reputation for smashing boats and men.” The whales Payne introduced the world to were playful and nurturing. They spoke to each other with a broad range of sounds, what Payne described as “grunting, mooing, moaning and sighing.” And even if whales were big and strong enough to kill a person, chances are they were too mild-mannered to bother.

“One of the standard things that they do is take a swat at you with their tail,” Payne explained to me. “Which, if it connected with you, would break you in half. And they’ve probably done that to, oh guessing wildly, 10,000 to 15,000 people and nobody’s ever been hit with it. And it never misses by more than a few inches. So it’s a threat; they’re just telling you who’s boss. But they know exactly where their tail is and where you are, even if they’ve swum past you and their eye is not on the mark, they know where everything is.”

While Payne didn’t coin the term “save the whales,” which gave birth to millions of bumper stickers, buttons and derivative products, his work on whale conservation laid the foundation for the save-the-whales campaign, one of the first popular environmental movements to take hold in mainstream America.

The Payne family’s photogenic Argentina trip was widely documented, but what really made Roger Payne famous was his 1967 discovery, along with researcher Scott McVay, that male humpback whales in their breeding season produce long sonic arrangements that could only be called songs. These songs, Payne and McVay announced, repeated long “themes” and lasted up to 30 minutes. Sung by an entire group of male humpbacks at once, the “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound” (as Payne later described them) varied from year to year, with a few new phrases added each breeding season, and a few others dropped. Hinting at what Natalie Angier in the New York Times later called “the music instinct,” the whale songs contained many elements — rhyme, rhythm and structure — found in human music. The humpback songs suggested a trend in nature toward composition. Music, Payne claimed, was not the exclusive province of human culture. Already, he was beginning to chip away at the notion of human specialness.

Even with hindsight, it’s hard to say what came first, a budding New Age movement or Payne and McKay’s humpback music. Either way, the strange yet vaguely familiar songs became an anthem of the post-Vietnam era, like some primordial message of peace from the deep. Whales went pop. Judy Collins laid a bed of whale music behind her voice in “Farewell to Tarwathie.” “Over the years you have been hunted,” lamented Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young in 1975, “By the men who threw harpoons/And in the long run we will kill you/Just to feed the pets we raise/Grow the flowers for our vase/And put the lipstick on your face.”

But scientists were less enthusiastic. “When it first came out it very near ruined my career, to suggest that whales could hear each other across oceans,” says Payne, whose findings were ridiculed by other scientists, making it increasingly hard to get government grants for his research. Even today, Payne describes the period with the bitterness of someone who’s been vindicated. “Eventually, it’s discovered and pointed out that it’s not baloney. At which point, of course, it turns out that all the people who were against you, well, they knew that all along, and they were just being extra careful. So it’s very tiresome.”

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By the time his fellow researchers had come around to the idea of humpback songs, Payne had already transformed whales into the poster animals of the conservation movement. And it worked: In 1986, the International Whaling Commission declared a “zero quota” on commercial whaling — a term coined to appease Japanese objections to a moratorium.

Payne has never stopped studying whales — both as mascots for environmentalism and as research subjects in their own right. Along the way, he has been knighted in the Netherlands, received a MacArthur grant in the United States, helped produce IMAX films and television series, founded an advocacy group called the Whale Conservation Institute and trained a generation of whale researchers. One such protégé was his first wife, Katy Payne, who studied as an apprentice and research assistant to her husband’s whale studies. It was Katy who, one day in 1984, felt a “shudder” in the air of an Oregon zoo and guessed, correctly, that the elephants nearby were communicating in a “silent thunder,” a tone low enough to be inaudible to humans but capable of traveling great distances. Her own account of that discovery, and of her years of studying elephants and lobbying against the ivory trade and the practice of culling, is documented in her book “Silent Thunder: In the Presence of Elephants.”

After the Paynes divorced, Roger married Lisa Harrow, an actress from New Zealand, whom he met at a Greenpeace rally. “There was this tall, slightly shambolic figure, coming up to ask me something or other,” recounted Harrow to the Australian magazine the Age. “I just knew, right away, that I had found my man.” Six weeks later, the couple married. It’s to Harrow (along with writer Cormac McCarthy) that Payne’s book “Among Whales” is dedicated.

There is a similar quality to the accounts of whale watchers, astronauts, monastics and mountain climbers: a desire to be overwhelmed, to experience an extreme feeling of smallness in the face of something almost incomprehensibly huge, a sensation that philosophers have called “the sublime.” “Whatever is fitted in any sort to excite the ideas of pain and danger,” wrote Edmund Burke in his essay “On the Sublime and Beautiful,” “whatever is in any sort terrible — is a source of the sublime; that is, it is productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

There’s pain, both real and potential, in whale watching, as there is in mountain climbing or spending one’s days in a hair shirt. But also the pleasurable pain Burke wrote about, “productive of the strongest emotion”: Whales dash hubris, reminding us of our own vulnerability and smallness. It’s this that keeps Payne coming back to the ocean.

And like the mountain climber or the astronaut, Payne is always scheming to get closer to his subject. It is, he says, “something I’m working on.” “To become a part of a whale, by which I mean to attach something with suction cups, which are harmless, for example, to a whale, which would allow you to be pulled along in a sort of torpedo-like device, something that contains you, is a dream come true.”

Payne may not get to attach himself to a whale — there are, he says, “a few hundred million people” who’d be happy to take his place — but he is hopeful that if it doesn’t work out, he still has an environmental movement to attend to.

Three decades after its inception, the save-the-whales campaign has lost some of its luster, and whale populations continue to decline under human incursions. The International Whaling Commission has little power to enforce its ban, which is slowly being undermined by a renewed interest in whaling around the world. According to Greenpeace, both Norway and Japan are still in the whaling business, while Iceland has dropped out of the Whaling Commission altogether. Meanwhile, chemicals from agriculture and industrial manufacturing pollute whale habitats, while a proposed Navy submarine detection program known as Low Frequency Active Sonar has been shown to distress and often kill whales by bombarding the oceans with sound that reaches 215 decibels, a level that is millions of times more intense than what’s known to be safe for human divers, and is believed by scientists to cause hemorrhages in the ears of whales.

“The Save the Whales movement was an important first step,” Payne writes in “Among Whales,” “but now I think we need to mature by making it into a saved by the Whales movement — I have come to believe that if the whales can’t save us, nothing can.”

There’s an element of pragmatism to Payne’s words. A report by the International Fund for Animal Welfare suggests that looking at whales may be as profitable as hunting them. Nine million whale-watching tourists created a $1 billion industry last year, and interest is growing faster than world tourism overall. On the other hand, there’s still research to be done: A study of orcas off the Washington state coast suggests that whale-watching boats may be disturbing the feeding and mating behaviors of the very animals tourists come to admire. Between 1990 and 1997, the number of whale-watching boats in the area increased fivefold and some scientists suspect that the boats may be polluting the water and interfering with the orcas’ sonic communication.

This is all, roughly speaking, Payne’s work: The man who popularized whales among the nonscientist masses, and who pioneered studies of whale behavior and ecology, is now seeing one legacy bite the tail of the other. But if researchers are actively working to find a balance between whale celebrity and whale conservation, their dedication can also be traced back to Payne. Whale watchers may learn to keep a distance from their subjects, but they won’t lose their interest.

Payne studies whales out of a simple desire to be awed. “A whale is, in many ways, an impossible animal. It’s one that lives in a world that we hardly touch or know anything about. And it has, I suspect, attributes in its life that are completely unexpected and different than anything we would imagine.”

Which brings us back to that compliment paid by the right whale in Patagonia. If anything can remind us of our smallness, of the relatively brief stay we’ve had on this planet, and the life or death importance of preserving it and its species, it’s whales. And as sublime or spiritually profound a realization as that may be, it is, essentially, a conservationist ethic. Payne, the biologist turned conservationist, may have been the first to understand, and was certainly one of the first to devote a lifetime to trying to show the rest of the world, that the secret to our salvation may be in grasping our own relative insignificance.

Amy Standen is a writer living in Oakland, Calif.

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