Interview with Roger Payne: A life dedicated to the world’s whales and oceans

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Photo: Caroline ChadwickPhoto: Caroline Chadwick
By Jimmy Langman
Editor’s note: Roger Payne, the American biologist who sparked a worldwide movement to save whales in the 1970s with his recordings of whale songs and conducted groundbreaking research of the southern right whales off the coast of Peninsula Valdes, Argentina over many decades died on Saturday, June 10. In remembrance of his life and works we publish here the interview Patagon Journal did with him in 2015 for Issue 10 of the magazine. 
During the past five decades, Roger Payne has been at the forefront of global whale conservation. Starting his career with academic degrees from Harvard and Cornell, he first studied the acoustics of bats, owls and moths before making a formative decision to do something “relevant to the problems faced by the world” by focusing his research on whales. “The moment I made that decision, I decided that’s probably what I’ll do the rest of my life and that’s what I have done.”
The decision was momentous for whales and environmentalism, too. Payne’s subsequent 1967 co-discovery (with Scott McVay) that whales sing was groundbreaking. And his early recordings of whale songs, perhaps best known through his album “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” considered the most successful natural history recording ever, spurred a new appreciation for the world’s largest mammals. A “Save the Whales” movement was born, and soon after it became the signature issue of the nascent, worldwide environmental movement that arose in the early 1970s.
Patagonia also played a major part in Payne’s career. In 1970, with support from the National Geographic and New York Zoological societies (the latter is now the Wildlife Conservation Society), Payne started what is the longest continuous study of live whales based on known individuals, observing southern right whales off the coast of Peninsula Valdes, Argentina. In 1971, he founded Ocean Alliance, a non-profit that “strives to increase public awareness of the importance of whales and ocean health through research and public education.” Since then, Payne, now 80, has received a shelf full of awards and honors for his research achievements, conservation advocacy, and film projects. Patagon Journal executive editor Jimmy Langman interviewed Payne in December. Excerpts:
Langman: When you started studying whales in 1965, there wasn’t nearly as much environmental concern about whales. How did things get turned around? 
Payne: Basically, whales were headed for extinction. Humans were killing 33,000 a year when I first started. Working through the International Whaling Commission -- and getting people to fall in love with whales, which is the only role I can really claim in helping found the “save the whales” movement -- made a difference. Then organizations like Greenpeace stepped in with their tactics of intervention, and that really got the whole thing going.  Ultimately, we were eventually able to get whaling down by 99%, to about 330 whales per year. But now we have lost absolutely everything to Japan. 
What is Japan doing to get around whale protections?
They have won control of every method of regulating whaling. There is not even a mechanism in place whereby any country can officially comment on the killing that Japan does. There’s nothing anyone can do to save whales from Japan because of the International Whaling Commission’s exception that allows for scientific whaling. Using that excuse, the Japanese have taken thousands of whales since the moratorium came into effect. They are currently even defying the International Court of Justice in the Hague which ruled that their so-called scientific whaling was not collecting information significant to conserving whales as they claimed they were doing.
So Japan could even kill whales in the whale sanctuary that Chile created in 2008 off its coasts claiming their whaling is for so-called “scientific” purposes?
I don’t think they’d dare, and I don’t think they’re interested. There are lots of sperm whales off the coast of course, but you would need big populations for them to bring their whole fleet over and start hunting.  I think it would also cause deep unpleasantness between Japan and Chile. But yes, although it’s a useful thing to have a sanctuary designation, I don’t think it would stop Japan. I don’t think anything will stop Japan until we can somehow break through the barriers of silence so the Japanese people finally get to hear that what they’re being sold by their leaders is a misrepresentation of what is a purely commercial hunt.
Photo: Ocean AlliancePhoto: Ocean Alliance

“There is not even a mechanism in place whereby any country can officially comment on the killing that Japan does.” 

Some people credit your recordings of whale songs as being the catalyst for the “save the whales” movement.
All I did was put out a record; but what did it was the sounds. They are incredibly evocative and beautiful. To advance conservation, I figured that here was a way to get whales into human consciousness. I played the sounds for musicians, composers, dancers, priests, anybody I could who was in the public eye. Several musicians used them in their own recordings—Judy Collins most famously. In 1979, the National Geographic Society included a flexible phonograph record of whale songs in an article I wrote for their magazine. At that time, National Geographic Magazine had 10.5 million subscribers, so the Society ordered 10.5 million records. It remains to this day the largest single print order in the history of the recording industry.
Why do whales sing?
The simple answer to your question is I don’t know. But my theory is that they sing for the same reasons male birds sing; to threaten other males and to attract females.  We do know that only male humpback whales sing.  Others who were working in Hawaii at the same time we were there discovered that. There’s a large population of humpbacks that comes through Hawaii.
Some of your most important early whale research was done in Argentine Patagonia, at Peninsula Valdes. What kind of research were you doing there?
Well, I had been told by the leading U.S. whale researcher of that period that the only way to learn anything was to look at corpses provided by the whaling industry.  But I thought there must be ways for studying live whales at sea that would be valuable, so I went to Patagonia in 1970 where we then developed a bunch of techniques that are now used all over the world. For example, we learned how to tell right whales apart from patterns on their heads and we identified all sorts of behaviors, from mating to how they care for their young. Our research in Argentina is still active. It is the longest continuous study of any species of whale based on recognized individuals.
You recently were the subject of a video documentary (“Jane and Payne”) in Argentina together with anthropologist Jane Goodall.
Yes, she’s an extraordinary person.  She’s amazingly effective in interacting with animals. For example, there are armadillos near our Argentine whale camp, and you can feed them by hand. But when it is me doing that it takes the armadillos about an hour just to get up enough courage to approach . However, Jane had them climbing up onto her lap and feeding out of her hand in about 10 minutes.
Payne’s recordings of whale songs helped spark the “Save the Whales” movement.Payne’s recordings of whale songs helped spark the “Save the Whales” movement.


“I went to Patagonia in 1970 where we then developed a bunch of techniques that are now used all over the world.” 

Does her research have similarities with what you do with whales?
Very much so.  In fact, she was the inspiration for my leaving experimental biology and going into field observation studies. When I first read the articles in National Geographic about Jane I was in grad school.  Those articles by this extraordinary woman working with chimpanzees were a viscerally powerful message for me. They said that if you really wanted to learn about an animal, you should go live with it.  And that’s why I tried to do it with whales. It’s also why I ended up in Patagonia in Peninsula Valdes.  You are so close to the whales there that you are wakened at night by the sounds of their breathing, because they’re only about 100 meters away from you in the sea.  The whale camp that we built is just above high tide, so you do hear them. Furthermore, you really can’t even look out to sea from the porch of the field station without seeing right whales—something  that goes on for about 6 months of the year.
In some of your most recent research, you now cite pollution as the greatest threat to whales, why?
Oh yes, I do.  Whaling, even though it’s been responsible for killing a thousand or more whales each year since the moratorium started in 1986, is nowhere near as serious as pollution. Pollution affects all whales; there’s no way they can avoid it.
What kinds of pollution are affecting whales?
Their names form a kind of alphabet soup of chemicals. They are called PCBs, PBBs, DDT, DDE, and PAHs, among others. However, collectively they are called POPs (Persistent Organic Pollutants). There is an insidious process by which food chains amplify the concentrations of these POPs and feed them back to us in the fish we catch and eat.  These toxic substances accumulate in oil droplets in microscopic diatoms–the single-celled plants in the ocean that produce a half to two-thirds of the oxygen on the planet. Anything that feeds on the diatoms collects several diatoms before it dies, and because the substances that are accumulating in the diatoms are synthetic and have never existed on earth before, animals have no way to break them down and get rid of them. The only thing they can do is to store them in their bodies.  So the poisons are passed on to predators at every step of a food pyramid and at each step there is about a ten times concentration of POPs. In the end, it means that top predators like whales and humans end up with toxin concentrations as high as a million or more times what was in each diatom.
How bad are these problems for whales? The federal government has a restriction on selling fish, any seafood, which has more than 2 parts per million of PCPs—polychlorinated byphenyls. Killer whales get about 400 parts per million.  Beluga whales in the Gulf of St. Lawrence have concentrations as high as 3,200 parts per million.  And the bottle-nosed dolphins off the east coast of the United States, flipper, have over 6,000 parts per million.  So the rule is 2 parts per million, and these animals have 3,000 times that.  So, it’s a really serious problem. 
But whales have a second problem from POPs. Because whales are mammals they nurse their young and that means the high concentrations of POPs get passed down from a mother whale to her infant. If the calf is a female she will get her mother’s full concentration of pollutants. As she matures she will add to her own load of poisons and pass a double dose on to her own infant. The result is that with every generation the concentration of poisons goes up by a factor of about ten. The concentrations of poisons seem bound eventually to become lethal, and that means extinction is the fate of the species.
Roger Payne listening to whales on a boat. Photo: Ocean AllianceRoger Payne listening to whales on a boat. Photo: Ocean Alliance

“If the oceans die, we’ll die too.” 

The oceans are dumping grounds for almost everything nowadays.
My institute, Ocean Alliance, took a trip around the world with our research vessel, Odyssey during which we used biopsy darts to collect tiny samples of skin and blubber from almost 1,000 sperm whales, from every ocean. We analyzed the toxic metals in these animals, and you really don’t want to know what we found. It’s terrible. Did we get mercury and lead—you bet we did, we never found a whale that had less than several times the acceptable dose of mercury in it. But we also found that sperm whales are storing vast amounts of chromium. Nobody knew that.  And in the Kiribati archipelago in the central Pacific, about as far from industrialization as you can get on this planet, in those remote waters we found sperm whales which have more chromium in them than workers so who have worked in chromium plants for 20 years and died of lung cancer that they contracted because of that work. 
How is climate change also affecting whales? 
Because climate change is a result of carbon dioxide (CO2), and because a lot of it is going into the ocean, the oceans are becoming acidified (adding CO2 to water makes carbonic acid). I believe that ocean acidification is a bigger problem than global warming. Global warming is predicted to take centuries before its full effects play out, but with acidification it’s more like decades. For whales, ocean acidification is destroying some of their main sources of food. It’s already destroying coral reefs in many places, and when it’s done its work there, there will be no more coral reefs.  As you can imagine, that is a complete disaster for nations whose total land area is just a few coral atolls. 
I have been asked: what is the single most consequential scientific discovery of the last 100 years? I think it is the interdependence of life.  We cannot possibly make it alone as a species.  We depend for our survival on the services of hundreds of other species each of which depend in turn on its own circle of species. Even if we eventually succeed in synthesizing the food we eat, if our activities kill off enough species, life in the oceans will die. And if the oceans die, we’ll die too, because between ½ and 2/3 of the oxygen we breathe is made by ocean plants. We’ll just eventually run out of oxygen.
So overall the news is pretty bleak.  Do you have any hope at all for the future?
I do have hope, lots of hope, actually—but only because the only alternative to hope is giving up and I guarantee that would be fatal. The bottom line is that we all simply need to change our minds. Avoiding the destruction of our species is a solvable problem. We can do it by reading, becoming informed, then acting. The only question is whether as a human race we’ll be smart enough to recognize how urgent it is to act before it is too late.

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