Watcher of Whales: A Profile of Roger Payne
Watcher of Whales: A Profile of Roger Payne

Watcher of Whales: A Profile of Roger Payne

A love of music and science led the marine biologist to discover that whales sing songs, a discovery that he’s since used to convince the world the animals are worth saving.

Nov 1, 2019
Diana Kwon

ABOVE: © ISTOCKPHOTO.COM, ANDREA QUARTARONE

The first time Roger Payne heard a whip-poor-will, a nocturnal bird named for its distinctive calls, was as a child while visiting friends of his family in New Jersey. He sat captivated by the sounds for hours, deeply moved by the boldness of the bird, whose seemingly endless song rang out fearlessly into the darkness. “In the dead of night, when one would have thought of all kinds of reasons not to draw attention to yourself, it nevertheless did,” Payne recalls.

Now in his 80s, Payne still vividly remembers that night. He’s only heard whip-poor-wills on a few more occasions since then—and opportunities to hear them have become increasingly scarce. Populations of the bird have steadily declined in recent decades and are expected to continue falling as climate change destroys their already scarce habitats, which are primarily the forests of the eastern United States. For Payne, this is just one example of the degradation of the natural world. 

Whales are another example. Payne has spent decades studying these animals—their songs, behavior, and the harms caused to them by human activities. This work has taken him on more than a hundred expeditions in Bermuda, Argentina, and elsewhere. But the force that has driven him to conduct all this work can be linked back to the imperiled whip-poor-will, whose haunting song enchanted him as a young boy. “All my life I’ve seen the destruction of wild places and the destruction of beauty,” Payne says. “I became determined that I would try to do something.”

Bats, birds, and bugs 

Payne was born in New York City in 1935. With a mother who was a professional violinist and a father who was an engineer, both music and science naturally wove their way into Payne’s life. Though he chose science as a career, he has been a lifelong cellist, and his ear for music ended up playing a crucial role in his scientific discoveries. “Almost everything I’ve ever done traces back to music,” he says. 

Payne initially considered following in his father’s footsteps and applied to an engineering program at MIT. After getting accepted, however, he realized that he was more interested in animals. He chose to study biology at Harvard University instead. There, he met Donald Griffin, a zoologist who, with neuroscientist Robert Galambos, had discovered that bats echolocate at a frequency humans can’t hear. Griffin was one of the instructors of Payne’s introductory biology class, and as part of the course, students were invited to Griffin’s laboratory. There, Griffin eagerly played the group recordings of oilbirds, a South American bird that also echolocates, at a frequency that humans can hear.

“It was clear that [Griffin] was really interested in what he was doing,” Payne says. “He couldn’t hide that.” Intrigued, Payne joined Griffin’s lab, and then conducted his undergraduate thesis with the zoologist, investigating the directional sensitivity—the responsiveness to the location of sounds—of bat ears. Several years later, the pair would meet again and work together for almost two decades. “He became one of the two most important influences in my life,” Payne says. 

The other major influential figure for Payne was Cornell entomologist Tom Eisner. Payne met Eisner during his doctoral studies at Cornell, working in the lab of ornithologist William Dilger. Payne also worked as a lab assistant to Eisner, who took Payne on after seeing him biking through campus with a cello attached to his back. Eisner was a pianist, and the two would occasionally play together, bonding over music as well as science. Eisner “was the man who really taught me biology,” Payne says, and instilled in him a fascination for insect biology, so much so that he went on to investigate moths for his postdoctoral studies with Kenneth Roeder at Tufts University. As he had done with bats and owls, Payne studied the directional sensitivity of hearing in moths— specifically, how they identify the location of an approaching predator using an acoustic system that consists of only a few cells (J Exp Biol, 44:17–31, 1966).

Despite his success, Payne says he wanted to find more meaning in his work. “I was doing stuff that interested me—and some other people—but it did not serve the purpose of stopping the destruction of the wild world,” he says. He wondered: What animal that depends heavily on hearing could he study while also contributing towards preventing its destruction?

The answer, he determined, was whales. 

CAROLYN JENSEN//NPR


  • Founder and president, Ocean Alliance, Gloucester, MA
  • Member, Scientific Committee, International Whaling  Commission (1983–1989)
  • Adjunct Associate Professor, Rockefeller University (1971–1985)
  • MacArthur Fellowship (1984)
  • Research Zoologist, Institute for Research in Animal Behavior (1966–1983)
  • Scientific Director, Whale Fund of the New York Zoological Society (1970–1983)
  • Assistant Professor, Rockefeller University (1966–1971)
  • United Nations Global 500 (1991)
  • Dawkins Prize for Animal Conservation and Welfare (2008)

Listening to the sea

One afternoon while he was still at Tufts, Payne heard a report that a dead whale had washed ashore on a nearby beach. When he drove there after work, he beheld a distressing sight. A dolphin had been mutilated—previous visitors had cut the animal’s tail, carved initials into its side, and stuck a cigarette into its blowhole. “It was at that moment that I thought that if there was any way I could find a way of doing it, I would try to learn something about whales that would make it less likely that people would do that to them,” Payne says. 

Upon completing his postdoc, Payne received a job offer from Griffin, who had moved from Harvard to Rockefeller University in Manhattan. But Payne hated the thought of moving back to a big city, so he declined the offer and remained at Tufts as an assistant professor of biology. “The idea of ever having to return to New York was absolutely abhorrent,” Payne says. “I had four kids by then, and I couldn’t imagine trying to raise them in that environment.”

A few years later, Griffin managed to convince Payne to visit Rockefeller. This trip changed Payne’s mind. To his surprise, the campus was a green oasis hidden away from the hustle and bustle of the surrounding metropolis. At first, Payne’s family remained in Massachusetts, and he drove back to visit them on the weekends. But by a stroke of good fortune, Payne was eventually able to find the perfect home for his family near the city in a place called Wave Hill, a sprawling green estate in the Bronx. There, the Paynes lived in an unused underground gymnasium with four bedroom-size changing rooms, a kitchen, and a living room fitted with a massive glass wall of windows that looked out onto a stunning view of the Palisades, a line of steep cliffs along the western shores of the Hudson River. 

It was by this time the mid-1960s, and within a few months of making the move, Payne made the switch to studying whales. Commercial whaling was then at its peak—and unchecked hunting was causing several populations of whale species to steeply decline. However, other than the desecrated dolphin on the beach, Payne had never seen a whale up close, and he had no idea where to find one. Luckily, he received a tip from one of the New York Zoological Society’s trustees, the physician and millionaire Henry Clay Frick II. During one of the organization’s meetings, Frick mentioned to Payne that he and his family frequently sighted humpback whales at their estate in Bermuda.  

So Payne went to Bermuda, where he met a man named Frank Watlington, who was on a secret mission for the US Navy that involved listening to the ocean. While eavesdropping on the seas, Watlington had picked up some usual sounds that he suspected might have come from the humpback whales that would occasionally swim by the listening station. When Watlington played his recordings, Payne was awestruck by the sounds. “It was absolutely fantastic,” Payne says. “I had never heard anything like it.” 

Immediately, Payne realized that he had stumbled onto an invaluable tool. These sounds, he thought, were the key to making the public listen to—and care about—these creatures. “It was clear to me that nobody would be able to hear these sounds without having them deeply affect them,” Payne explains. Payne asked Watlington for a couple of his tapes, which he took home and played hundreds of times. As he listened to the recordings, he quickly realized that certain sounds would recur at regular intervals. This repetition suggested that the whales were singing structured songs. 

Several years later, Payne worked with Scott McVay, who was then an administrator at Princeton University, to create detailed visual representations called spectrograms of the humpback whale recordings. The pair confirmed that the animals were producing a series of sounds that would last for up to 30 minutes, then repeat, verifying that humpback whales do indeed sing songs (Science, 173:585–97, 1971). 

Greatest Hits

  • Discovered that humpback whales sing songs
  • Proposed that whale songs can be heard across oceans, a hypothesis that was later confirmed by one of his former students
  • Developed numerous research techniques for studying whales in the wild
  • Coproduced records of his whale songs and compositions that incorporate whale songs

This discovery “opened the world’s eye to the notion that [these whales] are not just swimming bags of blubber, that they have these extraordinary communication features, which, even then, hinted at complex social interactions,” says Scott Kraus, the chief scientist for marine mammal conservation at the New England Aquarium, who met Payne while studying right whales off the coast of Argentina in the 1970s. “I would say that this was his most important contribution [to science].”

In 1971, Payne founded the Ocean Alliance, an organization dedicated to the protection of whales and their environment, and while continuing his research, spent time spreading the word about whale songs to anyone who would lend him an ear. “I figured that if you could build these sounds into human culture, you could maybe get a movement going to save the whales,” he says. Payne’s plan worked. Several musicians, including the singer Judy Collins and the saxophonist Paul Winter, incorporated Payne’s recordings into their own music. 

Payne also coproduced his own records of whale songs and has written, directed, and featured in numerous television and film documentaries about his work. This activity spurred many conservation organizations to action. It helped spark Greenpeace’s “Save the Whales” campaign, which raised the public’s awareness of whale hunting around the globe. After facing pressure from the global community, the International Whaling Commission voted to place a ban on commercial whaling in 1982. 

Later that decade, Payne left the Rockefeller University to focus his research on conservation through Ocean Alliance.

Whales in the wild 

Payne’s first trip to Bermuda was one of more than a hundred field expeditions that followed. His research on whales brought him back to Bermuda on numerous occasions, as well as to Hawaii, Mexico, Alaska, Argentina, and other destinations.

Payne’s family joined him on almost all of his voyages. His former wife, Katy, assisted in his research. She created numerous spectrograms of whale vocalizations and coauthored papers about the animals. According to Payne, one of Katy’s most important contributions was discovering how whale songs change depending on the season and location. (Later, Katy herself became famous for discovering that elephants use low frequency “rumbles” to communicate.) “I was determined that I wasn’t going to have to go into the field without my family,” Payne says. “It worked out beautifully in the end—the kids were good company to everyone, and that improved how people got along, which was the absolute essence of whether an expedition would be a success or not.” 

The hair still goes up on the back of my neck when I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, Roger’s right.’

—Christopher Clark, Cornell University

Payne’s work didn’t come without controversy, however. Together with Douglas Webb, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, he calculated how far whales’ songs could be heard using variables such as the loudness and frequency of their vocalizations. The duo postulated that the songs of baleen whales, which are very loud and very low-frequency, could travel thousands of miles in the deep waters of a quiet ocean  (Ann NY Acad Sci, 188:110–41, 1971). “That came closer to destroying my whole career than anything else I did,” Payne says. “People said, ‘This guy is just a whale enthusiast and of course you can’t hear them that far.’” 

Payne was certain of the calculations, though, and two decades later, Christopher Clark, a bioacoustics researcher at Cornell University and one of Payne’s former students, experimentally confirmed this theory using data collected from the US Navy’s undersea microphones. “I was listening to a whale singing in Ireland, and I was listening to it off of Bermuda,” Clark says. “The hair still goes up on the back of my neck when I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit, Roger’s right.’”

The function of these ultra-long-distance songs remains a mystery, but Payne has a hypothesis: it allows whales to spread over entire oceans and still communicate with each other when necessary. For example, certain whale species, such as blue and finback whales, don’t have any known mating grounds. One potential reason for this, according to Payne, is that they can call to each other across vast distances, making it unnecessary to have a designated meeting spot. This skill could also come in handy when hunting. Schools of krill, the main prey for some whales, pop up in unpredictable locations—so whales may also use their ability to transmit information about the location of food to relatives across the ocean. 

Payne is currently working on three books, two about his research on whales, and one on the importance of wildlife conservation. All three are aimed at a broad audience. “I’m trying to write in a more general way about the world, because I feel heartbroken as to the current direction that everything seems to be headed,” he says. “I think the biggest mistake we make now is failing to recognize that we are totally interdependent on the rest of life. That’s the message I’m trying hardest to get across to the world.”

Diana Kwon is a Berlin-based freelance journalist. Follow her on Twitter @DianaMKwon