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National Geographic Special Collections: Archives & Film Preservation Blog

In Memoriam, NGS Explorer, Roger Payne (1935-2023)

by Karen Cerka on 2023-07-03T17:14:12-04:00 | 0 Comments



National Geographic Society Explorer, Roger Payne, passed away on June 10, 2023 at the age of 88.  Payne’s first NGS grants (awarded 1971-73) were to study southern right whales.  The project was to study the vocalizations and behavior of the right whales (Eublaena glacialis) on Valdez Peninsula in Argentina, and it included observing the undisturbed whales making their sounds and recording whether other whales respond to those sounds.

Later between the years 1976-80, the Society continued to support Payne, this time for his research of humpback whale underwater sounds.  This work was in collaboration with his wife Katy, who studied music. Using a hydrophone to make their recordings, they discovered that the sounds that the whales were producing were long, complex sequences of repeated phrases, thus officially categorizing them as “songs.”  The Paynes conducted their study in Bermuda and Hawaii and found that the whale songs varied from season to season and location to location. For over 50 years, Payne continued to study all kinds of whales --their migrations, sounds, behavior, and mating patterns. (

In 1979, an EvaTone record with Payne’s recordings was included in the January issue of the National Geographic Magazine.  It was titled, “Songs of the Humpback Whale,” and ten and a half million records were issued, making it the largest single pressing ever of this type of disc.



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Banner Photo Credit: Renan Ozturk.