Remembering Dr. Roger Payne: A champion of whale conservation

Posted on June, 16 2023

On June 10, 2023, Roger passed away at his home in Vermont at the age of 88. Today, on behalf of WWF, I pay tribute to his remarkable life and the invaluable contributions he made to our understanding of whales and working tirelessly for their protection.

By Chris Johnson, Global Lead, WWF Protecting Whales & Dolphins Initiative.

In the realm of wildlife conservation, there are few figures as revered and impactful as Dr. Roger Payne, a distinguished biologist whose unwavering dedication to the science of whale communication and their conservation has left an indelible mark on the world. On June 10, 2023, Roger passed away at his home in Vermont at the age of 88. Today, on behalf of WWF, I pay tribute to his remarkable life and the invaluable contributions he made to our understanding of whales and working tirelessly for their protection.

In the late 1960s, Roger, along with first wife Katy Payne and Scott McVay, made the groundbreaking discovery that humpback whales sing songs. These recordings were released in 1971 as an LP called Songs of the Humpback Whale, which is still the best-selling nature sound record of all time. In 1979, National Geographic Magazine contained a flexi-record of whale sounds of which 10.5 million copies were printed — still the largest single print order in the history of the recording industry. 

This new awareness and care for whales helped fuel the “Save the Whales” movement that resulted in the 1972 Marine Mammal Protection Act and inspired a generation who campaigned for a global moratorium on commercial whaling. The moratorium was passed by the International Whaling Commission in 1982 and entered into force in 1986.

Roger led over 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. He pioneered many of the non-lethal research techniques now used throughout the world to study whales, and has trained and inspired many of the current leaders in whale research worldwide. He co-founded long-term research projects on the songs of humpback whales, and Southern Right whales in Argentina — the longest such continuous research study on whales. Roger was also the first to suggest fin whales and blue whales can communicate  across whole oceans using sound, a theory confirmed in 2007.  

Beyond scientific discovery, Roger was a vital voice for global whale conservation. In 1971, he founded the Ocean Alliance, a non-profit organization dedicated to the preservation of whales and their marine environment.  Some of Roger’s honors and awards including a knighthood in the Netherlands; a MacArthur Fellowship; a WWF Member of Honor; a UNEP Global 500 award; and Oxford University's Dawkins Prize.  He was incredibly artistic and creative, evidenced by his book, "Among Whales" (1995) and was a passionate filmmaker.

Roger was also one of the earliest voices warning against marine pollution, advocating tirelessly against the rampant disposal of plastic waste and toxic pollutants into the ocean. This is where our paths crossed and my journey in whale conservation began.

In the late 1990s, Roger invited me to join his team on an extraordinary multiyear expedition studying whales —the Voyage of the Odyssey. This transformative proposition led me to work with Roger and his team studying sperm whales and ocean pollution for five and half years surveying over 87,000 nautical miles working in 22 countries and the high seas. It was supported by many partners, including WWF. We spent many nights at sea, in some of the most remote places on Earth, searching for whales and designing new ways to engage local communities and the public. To this day, the data collected by the RV Odyssey is helping uncover the secrets of whale communication to inform conservation efforts.

Roger was more than just a mentor; he was an inspiration and a dear friend. I will forever cherish the opportunity he gave me and the impact it had, and continues to have, on my life.

Roger’s life was one of discovery, advocacy, and unyielding passion for the natural world. WWF supported many of the projects he led over the years. His passing is a loss to science and conservation, yet his influence lives on. He transformed our understanding of cetacean communication and intelligence, inspired generations of scientists and conservationists, and taught us to listen more closely to the natural world. Recently, Roger has been advising Project Ceti, an international initiative to understand the communication of sperm whales using advances in artificial intelligence. Only five days before his death, his final article about it appeared in Time magazine - I Spent My Life Saving the Whales. Now They Might Save Us.

Like so many others, I will cherish the many incredible moments we shared while documenting and conserving whales over the years. May you find eternal peace, with fair winds and a following sea.

 

 
Remembering Dr. Roger Payne: A Champion of Whale Conservation
© Ocean Alliance