A Defender of World’s Whales Sees Only a Tenuous Recovery

Biologist Roger Payne played a key role in helping end the wholesale slaughter of whales. In an interview with Yale Environment 360, Payne discusses the mysteries of these legendary marine mammals and the threats they continue to face.

Roger Payne first came to prominence more than 40 years ago, when he and a colleague made the discovery that whales sing eerily beautiful songs as a way of communicating. Their 1970 recording of whale sounds, Songs of the Humpback Whale, helped to galvanize the global anti-whaling movement, which led most countries to scrap their whaling fleets.

Roger Payne
Ocean Alliance
Roger Payne

Payne, the founder of the conservation group, Ocean Alliance, has continued his groundbreaking work on whales, including recent landmark studies showing how whales worldwide have high levels of pollutants — including DDT — in their bodies. He also is continuing a 40-year study of more than 2,000 right whales in Argentina, identifying individual whales by the markings on their heads.

In an interview with Yale Environment 360 contributor Christina M. Russo, Payne talked about current threats to the world’s whale populations, including the ongoing killing of whales by Japan and other nations — a practice he describes as inhumane. Payne also discussed the mystery of the songs sung by whales, whose haunting strains have the power, he says, to move people to tears.

Yale Environment 360: You’ve been studying whales for nearly half a century?

Roger Payne: Yes. I’ve been studying whales about 45 years.

e360: Do you ever come across educated, aware people who don’t realize that whaling is still taking place?

Payne: I would say most of them don’t realize it. And if they do realize that whaling is taking place, they are very pleased that there is a moratorium and that whaling is under control. And of course the truth of the matter is that whaling is completely under the control of the whalers — not the rest of the world. The rest of the world gets no chance to vote on it, even discuss it, set up any quotas or anything else. The whalers have won absolutely everything.

e360: When you first started studying whales in the 1960s, the chief threat to them was commercial whaling. About 33,000 great whales at that time were killed annually. The 1986 moratorium made a huge impact. But Norway, Iceland and Japan — among others — still whale. How many whales are killed now annually?

Payne: The numbers have been climbing steadily since the moratorium went into effect. At that time the total number killed was 185 whales. Two years ago it was 1,004.

e360: Japan is the chief whaling nation…

Payne: Yes, it controls it all. The other nations will tell you they are interested primarily in getting whale meat, but it’s perfectly clear that what they are looking for is foreign exchange, so they can buy all of the wonderful things that are made in Japan. Norway has some people who eat whales, and so does Iceland, but not enough to eat through the stocks that they get. What they are really trying to do is export to Japan.

“The main trouble is that in the wild it is impossible to kill a whale in a humane fashion.”

The regulations of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) have two loopholes that you could fly a 747 through. One of them is: If you don’t like some restriction which has been passed — not just by a majority of the other nations in the commission, but by every other nation in the commission — all you have to do is to say, within 90 days, “I don’t like it, I’m not going to obey it.” And it is totally legal not to obey it. Japan didn’t do that when the IWC passed the “zero quota” moratorium. Instead, Japan waited a couple of years and said it was going to continue it’s “scientific research.”

And that is the second loophole in the commission. Basically, this means if a scientist says he needs whales to do studies on, then the country of which that scientist is a citizen can give the scientist permits to kill whales. It doesn’t have to wait for the International Whaling Commission to make up its mind and say whether or not that can happen.

e360: What kind of liberties does this scientific umbrella afford Japan?

Payne: They are killing the same whales. Taking almost exactly the same data they took when they were doing commercial whaling. They are selling these whales’ bodies to the same markets. And they are taking them from the same areas… And now it’s “science!” It is a total scam! It doesn’t fool anybody. They have produced only maybe one or two papers in the years since the whale moratorium took effect.

e360: Doesn’t the scientific clause allow the Japanese to whale — for example — certain species they might not be able to otherwise? Or calves?

Payne: Yes, and it is a very important distinction. If you say you are doing scientific whaling , you get to do anything you like. You can kill any whale. Of any species. Of any area. At any age. By any means. And you are doing it in the name of “science.”

e360: What are the methods to kill whales?

Payne: The main trouble is that in the wild it is impossible to kill a whale in a humane fashion. The normal technique is to fire a harpoon that weighs about 200 pounds into the back of a whale, and five seconds after it hits the whale, the tip on it explodes — and that is supposed to kill the whale instantly. However, in one of the worst cases, it took four hours and nine harpoons to kill the whale. During this time, the whale is pulling against the barbs on the harpoon in its flesh to a degree where it can actually pull a catcher boat, which is a very powerful speedboat.

Whales Biologist Roger Payne

Courtesy of Iain Kerr/Ocean Alliance
A humpback whale breaches off the Dominican Republic.

The [method] that is now mostly used is a technique in the Antarctic that uses sonar. Not, however, to look at the whale underneath the water. They use it as a means of scaring the whales, because sonar is very loud. They did experiments and chose a frequency which kept whales so panicked, that they were at the surface for breaths more frequently than at other frequencies. So, they drive the whale along at the surface and then they fire into it.

Normally, they used to hit somewhere about the back of the head of a whale, so that the explosion of the harpoon might in fact do something. But, with small whale species — and the small one that is the basis of the industry now is the minke whale — the whale gets a lot of its meat damaged by an exploding harpoon. So, what they now do is they shoot farther back along the body, back near the tail. And there is a winch on board the catcher boat, which is able to winch the rear of the whale up into the air, leaving the whale’s head in the water. And the whale slowly — very slowly — drowns. And during the time that the whalers lift it up, they also put some electrodes into it and try to electrocute it. Heaven knows what the whale is suffering as a result of that sort of behavior.

e360: From 2000 to 2005, Ocean Alliance conducted a massive study in which your goal was to get a baseline survey of pollutants in whales. Can you explain those findings?

Payne: We came back with 955 samples from sperm whales. There were [a few] reasons we used sperm whales. One is, like humans, they live at the top of the food chain, so what is happening to them is happening to us — even if we don’t know it. And the other major reason is that they have a lot of fat, so they absorb some of the substances that we are most interested in — things called persistent organic pollutants. Along the way, we also started analyzing for metals, and some of the biggest shocks came from metals.

“Our data showed chromium levels in whales only seen in workers who had occupational exposure.”

We found, for example, that the concentrations of aluminum and chromium are surprisingly very, very high. Our data showed that chromium levels present in sperm whales were previously only seen in workers who have had long, occupational exposure — 20 years of being in some factory in which chromium is being used. One of the ideas that came from this and has gained some traction is the possibility that these animals are getting chromium from the air, from breathing it in.

Another shock was that the highest concentrations of DDT were in whales right off of the Galapagos Islands, where there is no use, as far as we know, of DDT by big agriculture.

e360: What did that mean?

Payne: The most obvious thought would be that these were whales that had come in from elsewhere, where they had been exposed. But there are big surprises in things like DDT. For example there is more DDT in the air over Canada now than when Canada used DDT — and it hasn’t used it since the late ‘60s. This stuff moves around, and it gets into the ocean. What it’s really showing is that whatever the food was that the whales in these areas were feeding on… it came from food chains that were badly contaminated with it.

Also, these substances concentrate as they move up food chains because any given animal in the ocean feeds at the sixth level of the food chain. All that means is that at the bottom of its food chain is all the plants, and those plants are single-celled diatoms. And they get eaten by little zooplankton, little single-celled animals. And they get eaten by other zooplankton, which might get eaten by krill, which might get eaten by a small fish. And the small fish may get eaten by a bigger fish. And then eventually the whale might be eating on that somewhat larger fish.

If you have that sort of situation, you get about 10 times the magnification of substances that the animal cannot metabolize. So they have to store them. There’s nothing they can do with them. If you have a six-step food

Whales Biologist Roger Payne

Courtesy of Ocean Alliance
Roger Payne touches the chin of a southern right whale at Argentina’s Peninsular Valdez in the 1990s.

chain you have a 10 to the 6th amplification — that is a million. So, if you were about to eat a pound of swordfish, and the swordfish had fed at the sixth level of the food chain, how many pounds of algae or diatoms did it take to make that one pound of swordfish? The answer is 10 to the 6th — a million pounds. A million pounds is 500 tons. 500 tons is 50 ten-ton truckloads. Load those trucks all up with diatoms, all dripping down onto the pavement, and then park them nose to tail — that will take about 18 blocks. Now tie your liver to one end of this row of trucks and detoxify the whole thing with your liver. And that’s what you do when you eat a pound of any fish that lives at the 6th level of any ocean food chain.

You do that enough and over enough years and you end up with a very serious load of these contaminants in your own body, and it causes all kinds of terrible health effects.

e360: Do you believe pollutants could actually bring about the extinction of the whale species or is that too dramatic?

Payne: Not only is it not dramatic, I think it is inevitable for many whale species. The reason is that many of these contaminant loads last longer in the whale than we believe the lifetime of the whale to be… [And] because whales are mammals, there is not only a build-up during the lifetime of the individuals, but there is also an increase as you go from generation to generation. When a mother nurses her offspring, she is actually dumping her lifetime’s accumulations of fat-soluble substances into her newborn babe. So the babe does not start life as a pristine creature. It starts life basically with a concentration [of contaminants] that is about the same of what its mother has. And then it goes through its own life and adds to it with the meals that it eats. Then it dumps that double load into its first infant. And it should slowly move along from generation to generation… until you don’t have reproduction working well at all.

A lot of people weep when they hear whales. And they can’t even tell you why.”

But I’m concerned not just with whales, but also with the concentrations of these substances in people. For example, about a billion people in this world eat — as the principal source of animal protein — food from the sea. That means about a billion are in a position of getting these substances into their bodies and not being able to get rid of them. And I worry about the rest of the other species of marine mammals as well who have high diets of fish — seals, sea lions, and porpoises.

e360: I want to ask you about your study in Argentina, which [Ocean Alliance] describes as “the longest continuous study of any great whale based on known individuals.”

Payne: We have been studying right whales in Argentina starting in 1970. You can tell individual right whales apart by the patterns of the white markings on their head, there are no two alike. We now follow the fates of well over 2,000 right whales. We know who is the mother of whom; who is the half-brother, or sister, and who consorts with whom, and who avoids whom. We also can tell the ages of whales, and what differences occur as they get older, because we watch them as calves and then follow them through life.

e360: Do you have affection for any particular species of whale? Or an individual?

Payne: Oh, yes there is an individual I am very fond of. We call her Y-spot. She has a pattern on her back of a Y and a spot… She is a right whale in Argentina, and I missed her for about five years at one point. And then one day when I was watching whales from a cliff I saw a whale in the distance, and I couldn’t figure out who the Dickens it was. After maybe two and half hours of watching, I suddenly saw that this was… Oh my gosh, it was Y-spot. I can’t tell you how it felt. It would be like finding a long lost brother or something.

e360: Is there a singular moment for real triumph for you as a conservationist?

Payne: What has pleased me most is the reaction that people still have when they hear the sounds of whales. Nobody is prepared for it. Whales seem to be communicating in what I think of as emotional communication. If I was trying to make you joyous or sad or concerned or frightened or something like that, there might be ways of doing that — but I wouldn’t think of doing it in any way except by words. But in the case of whales, I think they are achieving those same sorts of things probably just as directly.

The songs of whales have a profound impact on many people. A lot of people weep when they hear them. And they can’t even tell you why they have wept, except they say it just seems so sad. And many times it does.