Roger Payne

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For other people of the same name, see Roger Payne (disambiguation).
Roger Searle Payne
Born (1935-01-29) January 29, 1935 (age 80)
New York City
Residence South Woodstock, Vermont
Nationality USA
Ethnicity Caucasian
Citizenship USA
Education AB 1957; PhD 1961
Alma mater Harvard U., Cornell U.
Occupation Zoologist, researcher, science administrator, conservationist
Employer Ocean Alliance, President
Known for Whales
Home town South Woodstock, Vermont
Height 6'2"
Spouse(s) Katharine (Katy) Boynton, 1960 (div. 1985)
Lisa Harrow Aug. 17, 1991
Children John, Holly, Laura Sam (with Katharine Boynton Payne)
Parent(s) Edward and Elizabeth Payne

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.


Payne was born in New York, New York, and received his BA degree at Harvard University and his Ph.D. at Cornell. He spent the early years of his career studying echolocation in bats (and how their food, moths, avoid them) and auditory localization in owls. Desiring to work with something more directly linked to conservation he later focused his research on whales where, together with researcher Scott McVay, in 1967 they discovered the complex sonic arrangements performed by the male humpback whales during the breeding season.

Payne describes the whale songs as "exuberant, uninterrupted rivers of sound" with long repeated "themes", each song lasting up to 30 minutes and sung by an entire group of male humpbacks at once. The songs would be varied slightly between each breeding season, with a few new phrases added on and a few others dropped.[2] Payne has led many expeditions on the world's oceans studying whales, their migrations, cultures and vocalizations.[3]

Payne was also the first to suggest fin whales and blue whales can communicate with sound across whole oceans, a theory since confirmed.

Some of Payne's recordings were released in 1970 as an LP called Songs of the Humpback Whale (still the best-selling nature sound record of all time[4]) which helped to gain momentum for the Save the Whales movement seeking to end commercial whaling, which at the time was pushing many species dangerously close to extinction. Commercial whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.

In 1975 a second LP was released, and in 1987 Payne collaborated with musician Paul Winter putting whalesong to human music.

Whale recordings by Frank Watlington (with commentary by Roger Payne) were released on a Flexi disc soundsheet inside the January 1979 National Geographic Magazine. This issue, at 10.5 million copies, became the largest single press run of any record at the time.[5][6]

In addition to whale recordings Payne has also published books and worked with film crews on many television documentary productions and on the IMAX movie Whales.

In 1971, Payne founded Ocean Alliance, a 501(c)3 organization working with whale and ocean conservation. It is based in Gloucester, Massachusetts. He still heads the organization. He was also an assistant professor of biology at Rockefeller University and, concurrently, a research zoologist at the Institute for Research in Animal Behavior, run by Rockefeller University and the New York Zoological Society.[1]

From 1960-1985 Roger Payne was married to noted elephant researcher Katharine Payne, who performed similar research on the vocalizations of elephants (and Humpbacks).[7]


Payne has received a United Nations Environment Programme Global 500 Award (1988) and a MacArthur genius award (1984) among other awards for his research. He is a Knight in the Netherlands Order of the Golden Ark (1977). He was a co-recipient of the Albert Schweitzer medal, Animal Welfare Institute (1980). The Humane Society of the U.S presented him the Joseph Wood Krutch Medal in 1989. The Lyndhurst Foundation conferred its Lyndhurst Prize on him (1984).[1] He received Honorary membership of the Society for Marine Mammalogy (2010).

Cultural influence[edit]

  • Singer Judy Collins released her best-selling album Whales & Nightingales in 1970, which featured some of Roger's whale recordings on the track "Farewell to Tarwathie."[8]
  • Singer Kate Bush's debut album The Kick Inside in 1978 features a portion of 'slowed-down solo whale' (from Songs of the Humpback Whale) as an intro to the opening track "Moving".
  • Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home (1986) features Payne's recordings, in a plot about rescuing Humpback whales from extinction by moving a breeding pair from 1986 to three hundred years in the future.
  • In 2010, the band Glass Wave included Payne's whale recordings in the first track ("Balena") and last track ("Moby Dick") of their album.


  • Producer, Songs of the Humpback Whale, a 1970 LP
  • Producer, Deep Voices, a 1975 LP of more Humpback songs as well as blue and Fin whales
  • Co-Producer, Whales Alive, a 1987 LP collaboration with musicians Paul Winter and Paul Halley
  • Host, In the Company of Whales, 1992 TV documentary
  • Author, Among Whales, a 1995 book
  • Host, Finite Oceans, 1995 TV documentary
  • Co-Writer/co-director, Whales, 1995 film


External links[edit]