Dr. Roger Payne has studied the behavior of whales since 1967 and is best known for showing that the complex vocalizations humpback whales make are rhythmic repeated patterns, and therefore are properly classified as songs. He has also shown that prior to propeller-driven ships, the loud, low-frequency sounds of fin and blue whales were audible across entire oceans (a theory since confirmed). Well over 50 years ago, Dr. Payne founded what is still the longest continuous study of baleen whales based on known individuals recognizable by their natural markings (it currently follows 3800+ individual southern right whales).

He has led over 100 expeditions to all oceans and studied every species of large whale in the wild. The institute he founded ran a five-year, around-the-world research expedition (the Voyage of the Odyssey) to measure contamination levels in ocean life. The voyage collected 955 skin/blubber samples from sperm whales from all oceans, obtained by biopsy dart (a procedure that does no significant harm to the whale). The samples were analyzed for their concentrations of metals—both toxic and non-toxic. The resulting data represent the first worldwide bioassay of the levels of these contaminants in ocean life.

An unexpected result was that sperm whales carry contaminant loads of toxic chromium that in many cases are at higher concentrations than chromium levels in workers who have died from lung cancer caused by 20+ years of exposure to chromium by breathing the air in a chromium factory. Funds are currently being sought to analyze these samples for a suite of synthetic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and for brominated fire retardants.

Dr. Payne is also Senior Scientific Advisor to the CETI Project, a group of 30 specialists who are attempting to translate sperm whale communications, with the goal of carrying out a conversation with a sperm whale (no matter how simplistic it may turn out to be).