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Our tribute to Dr Roger Payne

We celebrate Dr Roger Payne - the man who heard whales sing and shared their songs with the world to save them. The whale biologist and lifelong whale advocate has died at the age of 88.

Only five days before his death, Roger published an essay in Time magazine, reflecting on his life’s work. He wrote: ‘As my time runs out, I am possessed with the hope that humans worldwide are smart enough and adaptable enough to put the saving of other species where it belongs: at the top of the list of our most important jobs.

'I believe that science can help us survive our folly. Fifty years ago, people fell in love with the songs of humpback whales and joined together to ignite a global conservation movement. It’s time for us to once again listen to the whales — and, this time, to do it with every bit of empathy and ingenuity we can muster so that we might possibly understand them.’

J2N22R Roger Searle Payne (born January 29, 1935) is an American biologist and environmentalist famous for the 1967 discovery (with Scott McVay) of whale song among humpback whales. Payne later became an important figure in the worldwide campaign to end commercial whaling.

More than 50 years ago, Roger played humpback whale songs above the ocean surface for the world to hear. At the time, unbeknownst to most people, whales were dying in their millions at the hands of the unregulated global commercial whaling industry.

In playing their incredible songs, Roger gave the whales an opportunity to speak for themselves and ask for help … the result was both breathtaking and groundbreaking. The whales’ beautiful, musical voices stole the hearts of people and Roger’s genius propelled efforts to save the beleaguered great whales from extinction.

Roger described the whales’ songs as a chorus of ‘exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound.’ In 1970 he released the chart-topping album ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ which played a vital role in rallying gigantic support for the ‘Save the Whale’ environmental movement. Whale song recordings were even taken into space onboard NASA’s Voyagers 1 and 2 space probes for alien ears to hear.

Roger worked tirelessly to end commercial whaling and played a crucial role in exposing this inhumane practice and the disastrous environmental consequences of allowing it to continue. Commercial whaling was finally banned in 1986 when the global moratorium on commercial whaling was announced.

Forever curious Roger wanted to learn more about whales. In the early 1970s he and his wife Katy and their four young children moved to Patagonia in southern Argentina. They set up home ‘Whale Camp’ and started the first southern right whale photo-identification project. They discovered individual whales could be recognised by unique markings on their heads and that made it possible to learn about and follow each whale’s life.

Roger was a generous and compassionate individual who was always willing to share his time and knowledge with fellow scientists, students, and enthusiasts, particularly when it came to discussing whales and what he had learnt about them. He continued to give whales a voice throughout his life, working to protect them and their ocean home. He founded the Ocean Alliance, an organisation dedicated to researching and protecting whales and their environment. Additionally, he served as an adviser to WDC's US branch during the early 1990s.

Roger Payne has been instrumental in helping us understand and appreciate whales. He encouraged everyone to love and protect them for their sake and ours. We will always remember him as a true inspiration and beacon of hope for all who love whales. Thank you, Roger.