ROger Payne has reproduced the sounds of humpback whales to thousands of people – “more than thousands,” he corrects himself – in the last 50 years. He has acted in sections in schools, in churches, on television programs, at the UN; he has played them for singers, musicians, politicians, and other scientists. The answer is always the same. For the first 30 seconds, there are murmurs, sometimes awkward giggles as the audience gets used to the deep, rumbling moans and high-pitched squeaks (this is when TV shows usually cut it off).
But leave it longer, at least five minutes, ideally half an hour, and Payne discovers that something strange is happening. “At that point, the audience would be totally silent,” says the 85-year-old, in a video call from rural Vermont. “You didn’t know there was someone in the room and then when I killed him, there would be this… inhalation. You would hear people basically come out of a kind of trance. That was the clue that ‘This is changing these people’s lives.’ And that’s how I think we have it to make a difference. “
In 1970, Payne led a team that released a five-track, 34-minute album called Humpback whale songs. To everyone’s surprise, Payne was a bioacoustics expert, not a musician, it became a hit – it sold over 125,000 copies, making it the most popular nature recording of all time. Pete Seeger and Judy Collins, superstars at the time, wrote songs inspired by the album.
When NASA released its Gold Record aboard the Voyager spacecraft in 1977, one of Payne’s songs was included on the 12-inch gold-plated record, along with music by Bach, Mozart, and Louis Armstrong. Then, in 1979, an excerpt from the album was sent to National Geographic’s 10.5 million subscribers. This made it the largest single release in recording history, a record it holds to this day.
On the 50th anniversary of Humpback whale songs, it can be difficult to understand how much our appreciation of the species has changed. In the 1960s, tens of thousands of whales were euthanized each year, primarily for soap, oil, and pet food. Humpback whales, which numbered around 100,000 in 1900, had been mercilessly hunted and fewer than 7,000 remained. “They were heading towards extinction, without question,” says Payne.
Payne’s own experience supported this depressing image. The first cetacean he saw was a dolphin that had washed ashore and died off the shore near Boston, when he was teaching at Tufts University. It was late at night and raining when he found the body. “Some idiot had cut off his fins and someone else had put a cigar butt in his blowhole,” he recalls. “I thought to myself, ‘Is this the only interaction that can occur between people and the wild world?’ I sat there, soaked to the bone, and decided it would be wonderful to do something about it. I had no chance of that at the time, but an opportunity slowly appeared. “
That “opportunity” was an encounter in 1967 with a man named Frank Watlington, a Bermuda-based United States Navy engineer. Since the 1950s, Watlington had been monitoring a large collection of hydrophones (microphones designed to record sounds underwater) 30 miles off the island’s coast, mainly in hopes of spying on Soviet submarines. “I never knew what his job was,” says Payne. “It was a secret thing: the state-backed deception in the ocean.”
There is no record of how effective Watlington’s official assignment was, but hydrophones proved to be the perfect tool for listening to humpback whales. We now know that while many whales use sound to communicate, humpbacks are the only ones that “sing” – at first glance, it might sound like an endless moan, but Payne, his first wife Katy, and a partner, Scott McVay, proved that there is purposeful rhyme, repetition, and structure to the noises.
Humpback females sing softly, but the loudest and most cheeky song comes from the males during the six-month breeding season. “I guess it’s a publicity song, an invitation to women: ‘Hey, I’m a handsome guy ready to mate. Where are you baby? ‘”Payne says. “And the other function is that the sounds they are making would mean a threat: ‘Stay back, buster or I’ll break your ass!'”
Either way, Payne knew from the moment Watlington put on the tapes he had made that they had something special about them. He also knew, as he listened with tears in his eyes, that he potentially had the secret to stopping the slaughter of these creatures. “It was obvious to me from sound number two or three that this was the most extraordinary thing that had ever been heard in nature,” says Payne. “All I was interested in was trying to get the world to think, ‘Hey folks, we’re killing the biggest animals that ever lived in the history of the planet. This is crazy! So here comes this fabulously beautiful thing. Suppose the oak trees sang astonishingly beautiful songs and you were concerned that the oak forests were being washed away. “
Humpback whale songs It consisted of three from Watlington’s tracks, and two made by Payne. Payne sent copies to The Beatles, Joan Baez, Bob Dylan – he heard that Dylan would sometimes stop his concerts and play a section of the recording. He met Welsh singer Mary Hopkin, one of the first people to be signed to the Beatles’ Apple label, best known for the No. 1 single, Those Were The Days. After initial confusion in what she thought were “the songs of Wales”, Hopkin listened raptly. “She said, ‘That’s the most beautiful sound I’ve ever heard. I wish it could sound like that. ‘ And of course she had a very beautiful voice. “
Payne’s album inspired a movement, as much as I expected. Support came with the founding of Greenpeace in 1972, and in particular its Ahab Project in the mid-1970s, in which activists parked their boats in front of whalers’ harpoons. David Attenborough and Jacques Cousteau made popular creature-centered documentaries.
In 1986, the International Whaling Commission banned commercial whaling for all species, although Iceland, Norway and Japan still grant permits for scientific and commercial whaling. The song of the whales entered popular culture and became the main plot point of the 1986 film. Star Trek: the journey home and a gag on The Simpsons, where a college professor tries to woo Marge. And the number of whales has rebounded. Humpback whales have returned to pre-whaling populations, perhaps as many as 100,000. (Not all cetaceans have been so lucky: blue and North Atlantic right whales remain in danger of extinction.) “All my thinking was that if we could incorporate whales into human culture, then we can save them,” says Payne. And I think that happened. OMG, it’s certainly not me who made the whole building. There are thousands, literally thousands of other people who did huge and wonderful things. “
Half a century later, Payne continues to write and lecture, and has become involved in a pioneering group trying to use machine learning to decipher what whales are actually saying, and perhaps even, eventually, to communicate with them. It’s an outlandish concept, but there are some high-powered people involved, like Britt Selvitelle, one of Twitter’s founding team, and Aza Raskin, who designed the now ubiquitous “infinite scrolling” on web pages.
Payne calls the effort “a wonderful madness,” but adds, “I think we have a good chance of doing it. Where you do things is where you start mixing fields and discover that these people are very close to knowing something that they wish they had known 25 years ago. “
Covid-19 has hampered any plan for a proper celebration of Humpback whale songs50th birthday. But Payne thinks the record, not so hot these days, still resonates. “I hear it frequently and always It hits me hard, ”he says. “What is the main conclusion that whales build in your mind? My feeling is humility. Giant hurricanes create humility and so do tornadoes, but there is nothing that does it better than a whale. And humility is something we need more experience of. It’s just: Almighty God, what a fabulous world exists around us and how completely we are destroying it. “
Digsmak is a news publisher with over 12 years of reporting experiance; and have published in many industry leading publications and news sites.