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A Whale of an Activist

A Vermont conservationist helped Americans hear songs from the deep


Published March 12, 2008 at 9:37 a.m.

Roger Payne
  • Roger Payne

For one Vermont resident, the key to environmental awareness and our place on Earth is . . . whales.

“If the only thing you know is acoustics, and you see the world falling apart around you, what can you do?” That’s the question Roger Payne asked himself in the mid-1960s, after completing a post-doc at Tufts University on the miraculous hearing of moths. He had already studied bats at Harvard and owls at Cornell, but, interesting as those animals might be, they didn’t answer his conservational conundrum. He wanted to save the Earth from human destruction. He just didn’t see it happening one bat at a time.

Then he heard the whales. Not the sperm whales of Moby Dick fame, but the lesser-known humpbacks. In 1967, he went to Bermuda and recorded their strangely affecting sounds, listening to them for days, over and over. He had never heard anything like it, but he knew he was on to something.

“This speaks to people,” says Payne, 73, sitting in the airy, light-filled living room of his house, high on a maple-dappled hill in Woodstock, as he recalls the epiphany that struck him more than 40 years ago. “This thing has a strong emotional message, and that’s exactly what we needed. So I thought, ‘This is the way to get the attention of the world.’”

Eventually, he did. Once Payne had proved that the sounds were indeed made by humpback whales — massive mammals recognized by their dramatic breaches — he realized something staggering: The noises weren’t just random utterances, but songs. “It’s like a river of sound,” Payne relates. “It goes on and on and on.”

The songs are marked by a combination of high-pitched moans, guttural grunts and quick volleys of tapping sounds. They are thought to be the most complex compositions in the animal kingdom, often displaying the A-B-A sonata form commonly found in classical music. The purpose? The generally accepted theory is that male whales sing to woo potential mates.

Astounded, Payne and his colleague Frank Watlington — who first turned him on to the sounds — made the recording Songs of the Humpback Whale in 1970. It became the best-selling natural history record ever. National Geographic included Songs in flexible format in its January 1979 issue, ordering 10.5 million copies of the recording at one time. “That remains the single largest print order in the history of the recording industry,” Payne notes. He’s quick to discount the honor, though, since pop musicians routinely sell more than 10.5 million records; the recording companies just don’t order them all at once.

Still, just as Payne hoped, Songs of the Humpback Whale had a unique and powerful effect on listeners. “People heard these things and were just blown away by them,” he says. Something about the solemn sounds seemed to spark concern about whales and the environment as a whole, and they helped launch the Save the Whales movement in the early 1970s. Payne had found a way to make conservation cool.

It was the fulfillment of a childhood desire. As a boy in New York City, Payne recalls, he learned about the imminent extinction of the peregrine falcons that nested on the New Jersey Palisades. Research showed the birds were being decimated by DDT, but few people knew or really cared. “I remember being absolutely heartbroken that you couldn’t go and see these magnificent animals,” Payne says. The experience taught him that, to make an animal’s existence matter to humans, you had to make it interesting. You had give the creature captivating — better yet, human-like — characteristics.

“Let’s say there’s a Florida wood rat on the brink of extinction,” Payne posits. “If nobody knows anything about it, they don’t care. But suppose you found out that they sang songs, had some special care that they gave to their young, built intriguing nests and had all sorts of fascinating means of avoiding predation from owls and hawks. The more you know about it,” he says, becoming excited — “ooh, you start to get interested. If you tried to bring dogs and cats to extinction, you’d have a war on your hands.”

Payne left the Palisades peregrines — they’ve since made a nice comeback — for Harvard, where he studied bio-acoustics, which he saw as a good subject for a music lover without the chops to be a professional musician. (He plays the cello.) Conservation remained his other passion. In 1963, eager to protect a piece of a world he saw “being completely slashed and burned,” Payne and a few roommates paid $8000 for 460 acres in Tinmouth. They shackled it with rigorous development restrictions, some of the first of their kind in Vermont. “The principle behind it,” Payne says, “was to make sure nobody could ever afford to wreck it.” Though he wasn’t able to move here full-time until 1997, he professes, “I’ve been in love with Vermont for 44 years.”

Still, Payne had to go where the whales are. He founded the Lincoln, Massachusetts-based Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit whale and ocean conservation advocacy group, in 1971. Since 1991, he’s been doing most of his fieldwork from the mobile laboratory on the Alliance’s 93-foot ketch, the Odyssey. The latest voyage, which was tracked and filmed by PBS starting in 2000, spanned five and a half years and took Payne and his crew around the world to study background pollution in sperm whales.

Though he picked sperm whales because they’re found all over the globe, Payne says pollution is the biggest threat facing all species of whales today — worse than whaling and fishing nets. As a biologist who believes “we’re utterly dependent upon nature,” he also says marine pollution has direct and noxious consequences for humans.

The research is still underway at the Wise Laboratory of Environmental and Genetic Toxicology at the University of Southern Maine. But Payne says, “We know that what we’re finding is absolutely shocking — I mean, beyond anything I had ever imagined we would come back with.” The preliminary but reliable data, culled from small, benignly gathered blubber samples, show the whales are polluted with high levels of toxins, such as PCBs, mercury and chromium.

As the whales go, so go the oceans. “People used to think that the solution to pollution is dilution,” Payne says. But those people didn’t know about the insidious, non-water-soluble chemicals that get absorbed at the base of the marine food chain and bioaccumulate as they move upward. According to Payne, those chemicals’ effects are amplifed tenfold at each level of the food chain. “So if you have a six-step food chain,” he instructs, “you get a 10-to-the-sixth amplification. That’s a million times.”

Humans can avoid the toxins, for the most part, by eating organic food and staying away from apex-predator fish, but whales are not so lucky. If nothing changes, Payne predicts the massive mammals’ extinction. “I see no alternative,” he says matter-of-factly.

Over 30 years ago, Payne made whales loom large in the public consciousness. Now he’s trying to make the plight of the environment resonate with preoccupied human beings in a way that appeals even more directly to their imaginations — through art. Payne and his wife, stage and film actor Lisa Harrow, have devised a lecture performance called “SeaChange: Reversing the Tide,” in which he reads scientific information and she performs relevant poetry and prose. “The power of it is Lisa,” Payne readily admits. “It gets people into a mood where they’re willing to hear what they otherwise aren’t willing to hear.” The hour-long show has been performed in such farflung places as New Zealand, Mexico and Wyoming.

Payne’s favorite poem from the piece is “Riveted,” by Montréal poet Robyn Sarah. He says it likens humans to spectators at a show, and that show is the story of the natural world: “ . . . Now / we are being given tickets, and they are not / tickets to the show we had been thinking of, / but to a different show, clearly inferior . . .”

Much of Payne’s activist work is directed toward reminding humans they “aren’t the star of the show,” he says. “We’re just another pretty face; one species among billions.”