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Whale Songs

I’m listening right now to an oldie but goodie. Songs of the Humpback Whale. To use contemporary critical parlance, “five stars.”…By Kevin Berger

I’m listening right now to an oldie but goodie. Songs of the Humpback Whale. To use contemporary critical parlance, “five stars.” Beautiful, haunting. And by the way, kids, real. You may not be able to imagine how amazing the album sounded in 1970, when it came out, but listeners were mesmerized. Nobody had heard whale songs before. Neither had the album’s creator, Roger Payne, a biologist who studied echolocation in bats and owls.

One day in the late ’60s, on Bermuda, Payne met Frank Watlington, a sonar expert for the U.S. Navy. Watlington had been listening to underwater sounds that could be useful, like the clicking of an encroaching Russian sub. Then he began hearing sounds that were eerie in a mysterious and wonderful way. They must be humpback whales, he thought, and began recording them. He played one of his tapes for Payne. “What I heard blew my mind,” Payne tells Nautilus.

This week, Payne, 86, recounts his remarkable career in an interview with neuroscientist Stuart Firestein and in an essay, “No Species Is an Island,” adapted from a talk he recently gave at a conference on the interdependence of species. The heart of Payne’s message is that when we are in thrall to other species, we are inspired to save them. He speaks from experience.

Songs of the Humpback Whale gave people a new appreciation of whales. Their songs wove their way into our better natures. Compassion for the grand giants of the sea, nearly hunted to extinction, lit up the environmental movement. And made a difference. In the North Atlantic, where Watlington first recorded their songs, humpback whales have “recovered to perhaps pre-whaling levels,” according to the International Whaling Commission, which has been monitoring whales across the globe over since 1946.

To Payne, inspiring people to feel connected with other species’ is the most important challenge in conservation. “The main challenge we face is to get humanity to fall in love with non-human lifeforms,” he says. Where do we begin such a challenge? Easy. With whale songs.


Lead image: Ethan Daniels / Shutterstock

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