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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Scientist who discovered whales can sing dies at the age of 88

Roger Payne, the scientist who spurred a worldwide environmental conservation 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 in which a Navy engineer provided him with a recording of curious underwater sounds documented while listening for Russian submarines. Payne identified the haunting tones as songs whales sing to one another.

He saw the discovery of whale song as a chance to spur interest in saving the giant animals, who were disappearing from the planet. Payne would produce the album “Songs of the Humpback Whale” in 1970. A surprise hit, the record galvanized a global movement to end the practice of commercial whale hunting and save the whales from extinction.

Payne was cognizant from the start that whale song represented a chance to get the public interested in protecting an animal previously considered little more than a resource, curiosity or nuisance. He told Nautilus Quarterly in a 2021 interview that he first heard the recording in the loud engine room of a research vessel and knew almost instantly that the sounds were indeed whales.

Payne had four children from a previous marriage to zoologist Katy Payne, with whom he collaborated. The two used primitive equipment in the late 1960s to record the sounds of humpback whales, which sometimes sing their eerie, complex songs for longer than a half-hour at a stretch.

The impact of the whale song discovery on the nascent environmental movement was immense. Many anti-war protesters of the day took on saving animals and the environment as a new cause, and the words “save the whales” became ubiquitous on tote bags and bumper stickers.

Roger Payne

Roger Payne is shown on board Ocean Alliance’s research vessel RV Odyssey during a groundbreaking toxicology study circumnavigating the globe in 2002. Payne, the scientist who discovered that whales can sing, died at the age of 88. (Christopher Johnson/Ocean Alliance via AP)

Whale songs would enter the popular imagination via everything from a 1971 episode of “The Partridge Family” to a 1979 issue of National Geographic that included a flexi disc with excerpts from “Songs of the Humpback Whale.” It remains the best-selling environmental album in history.

“He had a presence and a way of connecting to people that led them to dedicating their lives to protecting whales and our planet Earth,” Kerr said.

Payne was born in New York City and educated at Harvard University and Cornell University, where he received his doctorate. Early in his career as a biologist, he studied bats and birds.

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