Roger Payne has passed away at the age of 88. He was a biologist in the 1960s listening to recordings of humpback whale vocalizations when he realized the sounds were repeating and varying in complex ways — they were singing a song.
He created an album of whale recordings in 1970, Songs of the Humpback Whale, and dedicated the proceeds to the Whale Fund of the Wildlife Conservation Society in an effort to save them from imminent extinction at the time. Its unexpected success, going multi-platinum, not only raised funds for the whales' protection, but more importantly, it raised public awareness of the intelligence and beauty of the creatures, and propelled a movement to end commercial whaling.
In 1970, Payne gave testimony to the United States Department of the Interior for the purpose of getting great whale species listed as endangered species, and he played recordings of humpback whale songs for meeting participants. The following years saw the enactment of various protections for whale species, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, and the Endangered Species Act of 1973. Commercial whaling was finally banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986.
The album's success may have gone even farther than saving whales. From an NHPR article:
"Roger really helped jumpstart the modern environmental movement. By making people care about whales, he made them care about the planet," said Iain Kerr. He's the CEO of Ocean Alliance, an organization devoted to whale research and conservation that Roger founded in the 70s. "He spoke softly. But I think his words reverberated around the world."