Roger Payne is best known for his discovery that humpback whales sing songs, and for theorizing correctly that the sounds of fin and blue whales can be heard across oceans. Dr. Payne has studied the behavior of whales since 1967. He has led over 100 expeditions to all the Earth’s oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales, and has trained many of the current leaders in whale research in America and abroad. He directs longterm research projects on the songs of humpback whales, and on the behavior of 1,700 individually known Argentine right whales — the longest such continuous study.
Read an article about Dr. Payne in The Scientist. Read some of Dr. Payne’s writings below.
Punishable by Death: Part 1
I started writing this the day the world lost Ruth Bader Ginsberg to cancer (I wept when I heard the news). So how is it possible that less than a day later, when I heard that COVID-19 had killed its 200,000th US victim, I found myself writing about the benefits of this disease—however tragic and unfairly distributed they may be, and in spite of the fact that in the next few weeks CCOVID-19 will have killed more Americans than the 287,000 US military deaths we suffered in World War II?
Losing Sidney: Part 1
Sidney Holt, the biologist who orchestrated the world-wide effort to save whales, died on December 22, 2019. He was 93. Several laudatory obituaries honoring his life have appeared, but I feel there is much more to add about his extraordinary contributions.
Losing Sidney: Part II
As I pointed out in the first part of this series, Sidney Holt was the natural leader of most aspects of the movement to end whaling. But I have not yet seen recognition of one of his many unique contributions — his willingness to work with organizations and individuals that most other scientists lacked the courage or imagination to engage with. In my opinion, this was, in a very basic way, the most important facet, the secret weapon, the leading role that Sidney Holt played throughout the 60 years his contributions guided and dominated the Save-the-Whales movement.
Losing Sidney: Part III
How do you measure the loss of a man such as Sidney Holt, a presence, a mind, a force?
Death of the Cryosphere
One of the devastating consequences of global warming is the loss of the so-called cryosphere—the frozen landforms and the ice that are present year ‘round in the Arctic, the Antarctic, and high mountains everywhere. One of the countries blessed with high mountains and glaciers is Iceland where the word for glacier is jökull. But now these precious stores of fresh water are thawing… fast—faster than anyone had hitherto predicted.
Using the Internet to Promote Interspecies Communication
On July 15, 2019, a meeting was held at MIT on the subject of using the internet to promote interspecies communication. It was the brainchild of Neil Gershenfeld, Peter Gabriel, Vint Cerf, and Diane Reiss. Among those present at the meeting who gave presentations were Sue Savage-Rumbaugh, Irene Pepperberg, Penny Patterson, Aza Razkin, Brett Selvitelle, Patricia Grey, Con Slobodchikoff and many others of equal impact. I only had time to present about half of what is shown below.
Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 3
Hi Dear Luna,
It was so late last night [4:00 AM] when I sent my email to you that I forgot to include the very essence of what I had wanted to say, which was to send you a short article and video about Greta Thunberg, a Swedish, 16-year-old girl who is changing the world. Rather than hear me rehash her successes, please have a look at this video:
Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 2
This blog takes up where the previous one left off. It is the second part of what I wrote to my granddaughter when she asked me to answer two questions that her school had assigned for her to ask of a grandparent.
Letter to My Granddaughter: Part 1
I wrote the following blog in response to a beloved 14 year-old granddaughter, wise beyond her years, who emailed me to say that her latest school assignment was to ask a grandparent to describe two of the most memorable, historical, world or national events that they had encountered in their lives. With minor edits, this is what I wrote:
Overpopulation, the key to the human predicament
At the root of humanity’s biggest problems is the fact that there are too many of us. Yet there seems to be an unwritten law against even discussing how to find ways that are fair to stop the population explosion and to work towards a human population that the planet can sustain. Whenever I’ve raised this point, the standard objection has been that any step that reduces the world population will put most of the stress on the poor—those who have only just become poised to experience an improved standard of living. We don’t have the right to diminish their opportunity to enjoy the same sized families that we’ve had and that have enriched our lives so much.
A point that Japan Misses which Costs Her the World's Respect
On the day after Christmas, Japan made an announcement that she would be quitting the international Whaling Commission (IWC) and that this year would be her last year of whaling in the Antarctic. I wrote a blog about that but later saw one by Sea Shepherd founder, Paul Watson that made a point about which I wanted to comment. This blog is that comment.
Japan drops out of the fight
On Boxing Day of 2018 (the day after Christmas) Japan gave a late Christmas gift to the world by announcing that she will be withdrawing from the International Whaling Commission (IWC) starting July 1, 2019. Her move unleashed a storm of criticism by many NGOs and nations with a history of promoting whale conservation. They emphasized the problems Japan’s decision poses to the world. However, like most major steps it has both positive and negative consequences. Or, more accurately, in this case, every one of its negative consequences is matched by one or more positive consequences.
The Biggest Threat of All
It is generally accepted by scientists that the worst threat humanity faces, and has ever faced, is global warming. So widespread is this assumption that I suspect anyone suggesting a different worst-threat would be dismissed out of hand. Nevertheless, I have long believed that ocean acidification is a worse threat than global warming, simply because the time it will take for ocean acidification to reach a point where it can wreak its maximum havoc is apparently much shorter than the time it will take for global warming to raise the temperature of the earth enough to unleash its worst effects. (Ocean acidification is estimated to require decades to do its worst, whereas Global warming is estimated to require a century or centuries.) The reason for focusing on the oceans is that they are the principle force that stabilizes the conditions on this planet that enable life. So even if you live at the center of this continent, say, in Kansas, and have never even seen the ocean, it’s a fair bet that if the oceans die you will die too, because of the loss of stability in the natural world that surrounds you.
Fake News is the Winner, and the Winner Takes It All
Well… talk about things getting worse! On April 7, 2018, I heard a radio broadcast of the NPR show, Radio Lab which is the most terrifying, new development I’ve yet had to process. The segment is entitled: The Future of Fake News. Find it here . I have no words strong enough to express how important I think it is for everyone to hear. The program describes how close computer scientists are to perfecting the tools that will make it possible for anyone to change the words that anyone else says about any subject (e.g.: global warming; voter fraud; war crimes; politicians’ sex-scandals; etc.) in a way that is entirely believable, yet entirely devoid of the truth.
Gulls that Eat Whales Alive
The photo above shows a cape gull biting into the skin of on a South African, Southern Right Whale’s back—a behavior not previously reported in South African waters, though southern right whales are well studied in South African waters.
It is the same behavior we first observed in 1980 from kelp gulls in the waters of Argentina’s Península Valdés. Scott’s photo demonstrates that it has recently appeared on the opposite side of the South Atlantic.
The Embodiment of Beauty
What is the wild animal that is so prized for its meat that single specimens sell every day for enough to buy not just one, but two new cars, or even a small house?
Killed by a Whale
On July 10th, 2017, Joe Howlett, 59, father of two and a lobster fisherman from Campobello Island, New Brunswick, Canada was killed by a northern right whale he had just helped to untangle from a snarl of fishing gear. Mackie Green, Howlett’s partner in rescuing whales and a co-founder of the Campobello Whale Rescue Team, said that Howlett had previously participated in some two dozen disentanglements and was both highly experienced and skilled in doing it. He said the details of the situation are being investigated but all that is known so far is that just after the last line entangling the whale had been cut: “Some kind of freak thing happened and the whale made a big flip.”
No Place for a Mere Man
Back in 2010 I was invited by the filmmaker Jin Tatsumura, the dearest of men, to go to Japan and give a talk along with Daphne Sheldrick, founder of the David Sheldrick Wildlife Trust in Nairobi—a haven for orphaned, east African wildlife, particularly elephants. Our talks would take place at the Miho Museum—the dream of Mihoko Koyama, after whom it is named. She and her daughter Hiroko Koyama commissioned it, and it was designed by the architect I.M. Pei who called it his Shangri La. It is an architectural tour de force built in the wild, nearly vertical, mountainous, forested terrain that is near Kyoto.
Doing What Really Matters
Donald Trump’s nomination of climate change denier Scott Pruitt to head the Environmental Protection Administration is grotesque. Confirmation of Pruitt would threaten the world with the most disastrous and lasting damage that the Trump administration is likely to be able to create. This country needs an EPA Administrator whose rulings are based on science not on the lobbying agendas of special interests.
More Good News about the Oceans
‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers—
That perches in the soul
And sings the tune without the words—
And never stops at all.
I have lived through eight decades of bad news about the environment with good news always as rare as rain during a long drought. But after years of watching the oceans suffer blows at the hands of our species I suddenly sense that the world has arrived at a tipping point, and good news is starting to flow like water.
Our Ocean Conference — the Miracle of 2016
I spent last week in Washington, DC where I attended the Our Ocean Conference. I was surprised to see how consequential this meeting turned out to be. Although I have been to dozens of international conferences in my long life, no other meeting ever left me with such hope. To be blunt, I usually regret the time I spend attending conferences, as many seem to me to be a nearly seamless waste of time. But this was different—shockingly different!
Aerial and underwater drones
It was 46 years ago that I first saw right whales off Peninsula Valdes in Patagonia and started the study of their behavior that Ocean Alliance has continued without a break to this day (making ours the longest continuous study of a whale species based on known individuals). In that first year I watched the right whales from a high cliff and when they came beneath it could see through the water exactly what they were doing and in perfect detail. By filming the patterns of white markings (callosities) on their heads, I could also tell who they were. However, because they were almost always on the move the perfect views from above never lasted more than a few minutes. We could run along the rim of the cliff for a while, looking down at the whale but it was both exhausting and dangerous as any misstep would plunge you headfirst onto the rocks, 150 feet below.
Today Is World Oceans Day
Back in 1992, at the Rio Earth Summit (the United Nations Conference on Environment and Development—UNCED), Canada proposed that June 8th be celebrated around the world, in perpetuity, as World Oceans Day, so that humanity could honor and celebrate the ocean and become more aware of the need to conserve ocean life.
The Silver Bullet, Part 2 — Less Is More, Much More
In my previous blog I pointed out that if you accept the premise that overpopulation is the root cause of all of humanity’s biggest problems, then if we all work on having fewer children, we will also be helping to reduce all of the world’s major problems.
The Silver Bullet: A New Year's Resolution to Tackle Overpopulation
It’s that time of year when we decide on what New Year’s resolution to make. I suspect that the best ones are those that make the biggest differences, and to make a big difference you need to address a big problem. So… to make a good resolution: 1) identify the biggest problems; 2) choose one, and; 3) resolve to do what you can to reduce that problem.
By now, most people probably know that the carbon dioxide (CO2) that is generated by burning fossil fuels causes global warming. But fewer people know that the CO2 the seas absorb combines with seawater to make carbonic acid, which raises the acidity of the oceans. Since humanity started burning coal in earnest 150-200 years ago the seas have become 30 percent more acidic and it is now known that in some areas such species as oysters, and corals are already being prevented from retaining (or forming) their shells, simply because these animals can’t make their shells or their stone-like houses if the water is too acidic.
Japan's Latest Move
The recent sudden departure by Japan for the Antarctic is a particularly grim development on several counts. In spite of the ruling by the International Court of Justice in the Hague ordering Japan to cease their “Scientific Whaling Program” because it does not qualify as scientific research, they unilaterally awarded themselves a quota of 330 minke whales and slipped their moorings and left.
Roger Payne Dedicates His 80th Year to Changing the Fate of Our Oceans
Fifty years ago when I first became concerned about their fate, whales were being hastened towards extinction by whaling. There was no Save-the-Whales movement; in fact, whales seldom crossed anyone’s mind.
Please Buy Less Stuff
My organization, Ocean Alliance, has for years, distanced itself from the use of mass mailings, or as we call it…junk mail. As effective as it seems to be, it is no good for the environment to be mailing tons of paperwork, most of which gets thrown away. However, through this much more environmentally friendly message, I hope to reach you with an important message.
An Open Letter to Japan
When Christchurch, New Zealand was largely destroyed by a series of major earthquakes, the epicenters of those quakes lay along a fault line that runs very close to my house. Although we were exposed to the same violence that Christchurch was, and felt over 500 strong quakes, our house survived. That experience gave me the greatest empathy and concern for your country when on March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake triggered the tsunami that overwhelmed the nuclear reactors at Fukushima.
Three Inspirational Events
Woodstock was a watershed moment; it identified who made the music that changed the world. Those at the People’s Climate March will play the tunes that change the world.
Aboriginal Subsistence Hunting: A Voice from the Sea
An aboriginal subsistence quota for whaling is only supportable as a category if it is reserved for people who truly do subsist by hunting whales. The trouble is that it is largely used by corrupt claimants in notoriously crooked ways. Most outrageous is the aboriginal subsistence quota that the Russians have gotten in Kamchatka for their “aboriginal subsistence hunt” of gray whales (and that Paul Watson so memorably exposed when he invaded the Soviet Union and filmed frozen whale meat being used to feed mink and sable that were living in captive breeding cages on a soviet fur farm). The catcher boat used by the Soviets to kill those gray whales was a modern vessel and no true aboriginals feasted on the spoils of that hunt.
Are You Listening, Rex Tillerson?
On the RV Odyssey at the Deepwater Horizon Site, July 14, 2014
This evening we had a celebration over the fact that we got our 50th biopsy today. The goal from the start has been to get a minimum of 50 biopsies and with two more trips to go we anticipate that we’ll be well over that mark. We celebrated with a key lime pie made by Marc Rosenberg, our cook. It was all delicious: the pie, the sunset, the sense of accomplishment, the breeze, the billowy evening clouds. The celebration took place as we headed for our annual visit to the site of the Deepwater Horizon—the drilling platform where 11 people died during the 2010 BP oil blowout.
Offshore Chaos in the Gulf (Part 2)
Part two from Operation Toxic Gulf 2014, July 12, 2014
We are here to find out how those whales are reacting to the oil that got released during the oil blowout from Deepwater Horizon, and the dispersants that were sprayed on the oil to sink it out of sight (and out of mind) but that seem to be worse poisons than the oil itself. This is the fifth year of our research, and what we are already finding out is disturbing.
Offshore Chaos in the Gulf (Part 1)
Ocean Alliance President Dr. Roger Payne is currently on the RV Odyssey in the Gulf of Mexico for Operation Toxic Gulf, our joint campaign with Sea Shepherd USA, to study the effects of the Deepwater Horizon disaster on the whales of the Gulf. Here he gives an account of the man-made world in which the Gulf wildlife must coexist:
The Night that Changed the Course of My Life
I was a neurophysiologist at Tufts University and had never even seen a whale. I was in my laboratory one March night during a sleet storm when I heard through the local radio news that a dead whale had washed ashore on the beach. I drove out there. The sleet had turned to rain when I reached the place. Many people had come to see the whale earlier, but by the time I arrived there were only a few, and when I reached the tidal wrack where the whale lay, the beach was deserted.