The father of whale song passes away: saluting our friend, Dr Roger Payne

June 13, 2023

Pioneering scientist and friend of whales, who changed human culture by showing us whale culture, Roger Payne,
died on June 10th. Here Mark Simmonds, OceanCare Director of Science remembers him.

There was a quality to Roger that is hard to define but he radiated calmness and kindness and always took time to speak to those who wanted to speak with him. He had many fans and I was among them. There is no doubt that his was a life well spent and he must have known that he had made a real difference through his remarkable work.

Put simply, his greatest achievement was that Roger brought whale song into our lives and changed the way that our species views theirs forever. This changed perception and helped to ignite the ‘Save the Whales’ movement in the 1970s, forming part of the foundation on which many of the major conservation initiatives of the twentieth century were built, including the USA Marine Mammal Protection Act, similar protective legislation around the world, the Resolution passed at the 1972 Stockholm Convention and the IWC’s global moratorium on commercial whaling.

Of course there were others who played a role in this societal change that a new appreciation of whales as extraordinary social animals constituted, and they included people like Jacques Cousteau who brought images of the marine world into our living rooms though our TVs, but Roger’s understanding of the significance of whale songs lifted a veil on a world we had never before appreciated. Not only were we able to hear the eerily beautiful undulating songs of the humpback whales, but we could now appreciate that their extraordinary voices meant that, before we filled the seas with our clouds of noise, the great baleen whales could address each other across entire ocean basins. Roger’s research meant that whales could no longer be seen as dumb giants constituting masses of blubber, meat and bone to be exploited for our financial gain but emerged from our ignorance as vibrant beings worthy of our respect and protection. Roger’s contributions undoubtedly helped lead to many nations hanging up their harpoons for good.

He described humpback whale song as “exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound”, noting that they included long repeated ‘themes’, in songs that lasted up to 30 minutes and sung by an entire group of male humpbacks at once. Some of Payne’s recordings were released in 1970 as an LP called ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ and this is still a best-selling nature sound record of all time.  Many of his other recordings have also pervaded our culture, including in the movie ‘Star Trek IV – The voyage Home’.

Roget’s studies on whales started in 1967. Since then, and more than 100 expeditions later, he has studied ever species of large whale and pioneered many of the benign research techniques used throughout the world to help better understand them. Among other things he also established the longest continuous study of baleen whales based on known individuals recognised by their individual markings (almost 4,000 individual Argentinian right whales are now known) and he also founded the conservation group Ocean Alliance. Latterly Roger worked on marine pollution and brought his skills and passions to bear there again striving to open our eyes to an unseen and little appreciated issue.

If you want to see Roger (and hear the humpback whale song) – there is a Tedx talk here:

There is also a famous 2014 documentary which captures Roger in conversation with that other great conservation champion, the primatologist Jane Goodall: ‘Jane and Payne’, which is available on Netflix and probably elsewhere.

Roger was born in New York City in 1935, he died on June 10th 2023. We shall miss his gentle wisdom and send heartfelt condolences to his family and friends, but we also celebrate all that he achieved and thank him for the all the inspiration.



Photo: © / Ocean Alliance