Songs of the Humpback Whale. ROGER PAYNE
(Capitol 1970)

‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ can be seen as a milestone in the history of published field recordings. Firstly, this double sided LP made available the first commercial recordings of Humpback Whale vocalisations. Secondly, the LP was released by major American Label, Capitol Records, who were (and still are) most usually associated with leading musical artists of the day.

The man behind this record was Dr Roger S. Payne, a Harvard and Cornell Graduate who decided to study whales in the 1960s without ever actually seeing one. Together with his colleague, Scott McVay, Payne discovered that male Humpback Whales use “songs” during the breeding season to communicate. The term “song” was chosen because, as with birdsong, Humpback Whale song consists of long, complex sequences of phrases that are repeated over time. This breakthrough resulted in many hours of recordings that, as well as identifying the use of song in Humpback Whale society, also showed that these songs were actually changing over time, with new elements being incorporated from one year to the next. In addition, it was found that these changes were accepted and adopted by all males within a population, thus the collective song would always evolve along the same path for a given group of whales.

The 1970 LP sought to share these acoustic discoveries with a wider audience. ‘Songs of the Humpback Whale’ gave listeners the opportunity to experience a range of different hydrophonic recordings of whale song. When listening to the selection and arrangement of the tracks, you start to get a real sense of Payne’s love and empathy for this amazing mammal. Most recordings are several minutes in length, allowing the listener ample time to appreciate the beauty of these vocalisations. Side Two is dedicated to a 16 minute long track entitled ‘Three Whale Trip’, recorded near the coast of Bermuda at a favourite listening spot of his. Payne wrote in the sleevenotes:

“As you listen to this recording, I wish only that it could convey to you the pleasant circumstances under which we made it. Through the whole night we listened to the whales, taking turns at the headphones in the cockpit, lulled by the smooth rolling of the boat. Far from land, with a faint breeze and a full moon, we heard these lovely sounds pouring out of the sea.”

In January 1979, National Geographic included a flexidisc in their magazine featuring recordings from Payne’s personal Humpback Whale collection. The magazine pressed a staggering 10 and a half million copies, which is still the largest single pressing of a commercial record. In his accompanying article, Payne wrote about an evening out at sea:

“Often during that night off Bermuda I thought how the oceans had once heard these wild cries. How, once, the echo chambers of the sea had reverberated to the haunting “songs” of whales. Then I thought of what it is like today in many of the whales’ former haunts – silent, lifeless, impressing one most with a sense of what has been lost.”

His scientific work with Humpbacks led Payne to become an important figure in the international campaign to end commercial whale hunting. Conservation and protection of our marine environments became another passion, leading him to found the organisation Ocean Alliance. Payne said in his 1979 National Geographic piece:

“Our belated concern for whales is helping to save them from extinction by commercial hunting, but how are they to survive if we destroy the oceans themselves. Pollution has replaced the harpoon as a mortal threat to whales, and in its way can be far more deadly. If we ignore the dangers of tanker spills, industrial contamination, and human carelessnesss, then nothing can save the whales. If that day ever comes, the exquisite songs you hear on this sound sheet will be voices not from the sea, but from the past.”

This poignant statement can be applied to many other species that are currently under threat from the activities of mankind. How sad is it when the only way to hear an animal’s voice is on a commercial publication or through a sound archive? Unfortunately this is the case for some species already lost to us, but with the dedicated efforts of scientists, conservationists and environmentalists, the library of vanished voices will, hopefully, cease to grow.

[Roger S. Payne]

-Cheryl Tipp

Roger S. Payne on Wikipedia

Cheryl Tipp

Wildlife sounds curator at British Library.