Tracking whales. The song that comes out of the sea
ROGER PAYNE turns on a tape recorder, and the song of the humpback whale echoes off the high windows of his 19th-century farmhouse. ``When you get next to a whale, you are completely awed by it,'' he says. ``It reminds you in a beautiful way of where you stand, that you're not really the star of the show, you're just another pretty face. Whales have [that] kind of power over our imaginations.''Skip to next paragraph
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The world's largest mammals have long exercised this singular power over Dr. Payne's imagination. From the day in 1967 when he sat in a pitching, noisy boat and first heard their cries, he has been following them, listening to them, and lobbying for their continued existence.
In the process he has accumulated an impressive body of hard knowledge about whales, especially humpbacks, the singers of long, complex songs.
Payne has studied the songs of whales probably as much as any person on earth, logging thousands of hours of tapes in the process. He contributed whale songs to ``Star Trek IV,'' a movie that fancifully attributes powers of intelligent communication to the humpback. But he finds himself too fascinated with the questions to get very caught up in speculative answers.
``Whether or not whales are - in our convoluted, human, slightly Simian way of thinking - conscious of [what they communicate] is almost irrelevant.''
What is highly relevant to the bearded neurophysiologist in worn sneakers and a tweed jacket is the mystery of just what manner and shape the thoughts of whales assume. Voluble and emphatic, he keeps pushing his glasses back up onto the bridge of his nose and fidgeting with whatever comes to hand, as he explains his preoccupation with such questions.
``What are the thoughts like that go through the brains of whales?'' he asks rhetorically. ``I really think that's the most fascinating question in biology today. All of this speculation about what the brain is used for, whether they are super intelligent, is just that: pure speculation. I welcome that sort of speculation but it's just guessing. The guesses are pretty dull, I suspect, compared to the reality.''
This reality is something he and several assistants at his Long Term Research Institute here in the barns behind his farmhouse grope for, while sifting through spectrograph renderings of whale songs, comparing them with logs of recordings and their own knowledge of cetacean behavior. It is a game of inches, in which the researchers look for small increments of knowledge rather than some dramatic breakthrough to meaning.
``It's all edges,'' he says of the team's findings. ``It's all indications.
``What you find out is such things as, `Oh, well, I'll be darned, the song is of this much greater complexity. The ways the whale is manipulating it are such and such,''' he says. This approach has led to discoveries such as the one by his former wife, Katy Payne, that whales gradually evolve the patterns of their songs over the years, and that whales in different breeding grounds sing different songs.
``If they sing the same song, you know they have been in acoustic contact very recently,'' he explains.
``If you go to a place like Hawaii, and you record whale songs, you discover that all the whales are singing the same song. If you go back the following year, you discover again that all the whales are singing the same song - only it's a different song, and it's a modified version of last year's song.''
Payne has to find his way to such observations by following a subject that surfaces to be studied only 5 percent of the time; one that communicates through a medium - underwater sound - that poses considerable technical challenges to the listener.