Roger Payne, the biologist who discovered that
humpback whales sing, has spent a lifetime fighting for the
survival of the planet's largest creatures. He tells Andrew
Stone, of The New Zealand Herald, that New Zealand must soon
act to protect two of its endangered mammals.
Roger Payne, biologist and environmentalist, famous for the
1967 discovery of whale song among humpback whales. Payne
later became an important figure in the worldwide campaign
to end commercial whaling. Photo from NZ Herald.
Of all the thousands of whales Roger Payne has encountered,
he has a special place for a female right whale he knows as
Payne has spent countless hours on a windswept clifftop in
southern Argentina, high above the settled animal lying
placidly in the southern Atlantic swell, rising and falling
as the sea rolls over her. You do not tire, says Payne, of
such a sight. The biologist even confesses to an affection
for the elderly whale, mother to many calves.
But Troff has not returned the feeling. Forty years ago the
American scientist paddled quietly up to the leviathan,
unintentionally giving her the shock of her life. Startled,
she fled in a panic, noisily protesting at the intrusion.
The great creature is still around, her identity confirmed by
unique markings on her head called callosities. Payne's
conservation and research group, Ocean Alliance, has
catalogued more than 2300 of the endangered Patagonian right
whales - singular individuals all bearing their own stamp.
Some of the females have been around long enough to qualify
for a pension. In their migratory lifetimes they have
travelled the equivalent of seven or more times around the
world, consumed thousands of tonnes of food and produced
thousands of litres of milk to raise hungry offspring.
As he approaches 78, Payne retains the same grand passion for
whales that led in 1967 to his discovery that male humpbacks
sing. In Auckland, where he is spending the summer with his
actor wife Lisa Harrow, Payne recalls the moment when he
first listened through headphones to whalesong.
He was on a research boat near Bermuda with a US Navy
engineer who had recorded ocean sounds.
''I was down in the engine room and the noise was
overwhelming. The guy gave me some earphones and said `listen
to this' ... sounds he had recorded and thought, correctly as
it turned out, came from humpback whales.
''It was the most astonishing, extraordinary thing I'd ever
heard in the wild. It still remains that way.''
Payne borrowed a copy, analysed the sound with colleague
Scott McVay, and published the findings in the journal
A ''lousy, but enthusiastic amateur cellist'', Payne had
enough of the musician in him to know the sounds he heard
could stir human feelings.
''The thing that made it exciting was that the sound was
utterly beautiful. A lot of people react by weeping. I don't,
but others do. The sounds have an extremely emotional
For a few years in the early '70s, the sonic arrangements of
humpbacks got a lot of airplay. Whales were hip. Payne
produced three albums of humpback songs.
Folksinger Judy Collins sang over a layer of whalesong while
Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young protested against their open
slaughter. National Geographic issued whale sounds on vinyl
and sold 10 million copies. Even Nasa got in on the act,
pressing a disc from gold which included 55 human languages
and the sound of one whale. The LP is hurtling into the
cosmos on board the Voyager spacecraft.
BY 1986, with whales dug in as stars of the conservation
movement, the International Whaling Commission declared an
end to commercial hunting. Except, as Payne notes with
undisguised anger, the killing hasn't stopped.
About 2000 whales are killed each year by crews from
countries that either work around the ban, or just ignore it.
Iceland and Norway hunt 600 between them.
Native hunters collect 350 for subsistence. Japan - pursued
into Antarctic waters by the conservation group Sea Shepherd
- has resumed its annual ''scientific'' hunt for 1000 whales,
shot with harpoons, dragged drowning behind catcher vessels
and jabbed with electrodes.
The methods disgust Payne: ''If you killed cows that way
you'd be in jail before you could catch your breath''.
''Yet this industry is based on doing these vile things.
You'd have to really work at it to find a more horrible way
''The entire `scientific' programme just appals me. It's
commercial whaling under a different name. They call it
scientific whaling. I can say that as a scientist I am
utterly offended by it. It's a lie, and a rather boring
For the past decade, Ocean Alliance has studied the quality
of the seas themselves. From its New Zealand-built
steel-hulled ketch Odyssey, the group has collected samples
from 955 sperm whales which, sitting at the top of the food
chain, absorb organic pollutants and metals.
The most disturbing finding was high levels of chromium in
all 955 whales, with those living near Kiribati in the
central Pacific having the highest chromium concentrations.
''That was a complete shocker,'' Payne observed.
''Here we are, with samples from whales living about as far
from any big agricultural or industrial sources as you could
get and they had concentrations as high as humans who have
died of lung cancer after working 20 years in chromium
He is uncertain how the whales absorbed the chemical but
suspects the source may be toxic dumpsites left over from
World War 2.
''Unless we can do something to reduce the entry of
pollutants to the sea there's basically no hope for a lot of
More distressing research by the Ocean Alliance is due to
emerge from samples collected from whales exposed to
dispersants used to break up the catastrophic BP oil spill in
the Gulf of Mexico. Payne suspects that the results will not
be good news for whales.
The implications for the planet rest on the fact that a
billion people rely on seafood for most of their protein.
Whales, as an indicator species, offer us clues to the health
of the seas. If the big animals are being slowly poisoned by
unnatural levels of contaminants, their DNA disrupted by
pollutants that are passed to offspring by nursing mothers,
then humans too are at risk.
Payne's Ocean Alliance is doing its bit to make the future
better for whales - and the rest of us. It has teamed up with
John Warner, co-founder of ''green chemistry''. The aim is to
create products which do the job of existing chemicals but
don't end up in the food chain killing the ocean life on
which humans and the rest of life on Earth are dependent.
''Think of it this way: If you produce chemicals that cost
more to transport and store and discard; that incur greater
security costs, and cause you to hire more and more lawyers
to defend your corporation against fines and class action
suits, all of which might damage your reputation in the long
run and affect your ability to hire the best and the
brightest, you'd be crazy not to consider benign chemical
alternatives. Industries would welcome such alternatives -
it's just that they need to make inventing them their top
priority, and that is what we are promoting with John
With Harrow, Payne is a not infrequent visitor to New
Zealand. The couple own a farmhouse on Banks Peninsula and
the scientist keeps a weather eye on marine matters around
our shores. He cannot resist putting in a plea for the
endangered Hector's and Maui dolphins, whose days appear
numbered because they are caught in nets set by coastal
''Your Government has world-class research results available
to it that show it needs to protect these beautiful animals.
There is no rational excuse for hesitating. If we lose these
species then no-one will forget.
''There is no more enduring mistake this country could make
than to allow the extinction of Hector's and Maui dolphins,''
''Nothing is harder to forgive than extinction. No country
has yet outlasted the perpetual censure for having made that