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 showed that before propellor driven ships the loud, low frequency sounds of fin and blue whales were audible across entire oceans (a proposal since confirmed). 51 years ago Roger 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. His institute ran a five-year, around-the-world research expedition (the Voyage of the Odyssey) to measure pollution levels in ocean life. The voyage collected 955 skin/blubber samples from sperm whales from all oceans, obtained by biopsy dart (a procedure that doesn’t significantly harm the whale). The samples were analyzed for their concentrations of metals—toxic and non-toxic. A big surprise was that sperm whales carry contaminant loads of toxic chromium that are in some animals higher than the chromium levels in Chromium factory workers who died from lung cancer caused by 20 years of exposure to Chromium. Funds are currently being sought to analyze these samples for a suite of synthetic, endocrine-disrupting chemicals (EDCs) and for brominated fire retardants. When complete, the resulting data will provide the first worldwide bioassay of the levels of these ocean contaminants.
Payne pioneered many of the benign research techniques now used throughout the world to study free-swimming whales. He has also trained many current leaders in whale research both in America and overseas.