Humpback Whale and Payne

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In 1971, biologist Roger Payne set out on what would be the first of many trips to Argentina. It was on one of these trips that Payne came across a female white whale and moved in close. "She was asleep," he recalls, "but after a while she opened her eye and looked me over. You would see her eyeball rolling in her head and then she closed her eye again. Basically, the whale was just saying, Well, if you've seen one of us, you've seen them all." Born in 1935 in New York, Payne has been studying whales for 40 years. He has built his career on science and activism, but ask him what it's like to swim with a whale and what you hear in his voice is awe. "It's like nothing you've ever done. You can't imagine that an animal that big could be so graceful. When you swim with them, you discover that they can turn and manoeuvre in ways that leave you stunned." There is a similar quality to the stories of whale watchers, astronauts and mountain climbers: a desire to experience an extreme feeling of smallness in the face of something enormous. However, Payne decided to study whales without ever having seen one. He had spent much of his career studying bats, owls and then moths. I wasn't doing anything that was directly related to people's destruction of the wild world. So I thought, "With your training, which animal could you work with that needs help, for which sounds are very important?" Payne chose whales. In 1967, he discovered, along with researcher Scott McVay, that male humpback whales create songs that contain many elements, such as rhyme, rhythm and structure, that are also found in human music. The songs varied a little every year, with bits being added and removed. To Payne, this suggested that musical composition was a natural process rather than a unique part of human culture. However, scientists were less than enthusiastic. "When I first suggested that whales could hear each other across oceans, it very nearly ruined my career," says Payne. Other scientists...
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