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.''

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.

There are places in the ocean, for instance, where the echo of a whale song is louder than the source; where you can hear the sound at intervals of 35 miles but not in between; where deep sound channels act as an acoustic lens and probably enable blue whales to hear each other across oceans, but where the movement of a whale and the direction of a boat may completely confuse the recorder.

``The ocean is a noisy place,'' he observes, adding that fish, seals, and boats all create a busy sonar background.

Such problems in sound, and the way creatures manipulate it to survive and communicate, have been a lifetime preoccupation of Payne, an amateur cellist, who began his scientific career studying bats, moved on to owls, and then graduated from moths to whales - always drawn to phenomena like echolocation and other forms of sound manipulation.

The turn to whales began on that boat where he first heard a tape recording of their cries, well before anyone had imagined that whales were singing. The boat was filled with all sorts of machinery and noise, he recalls. But out of this mechanical cacophony ``came these extraordinary sounds. I couldn't believe it.''

He was so smitten that he borrowed a 10-minute snatch of tape and listened until he had all but memorized the sounds - a process that led to the discovery that the whales were actually singing, when he sat, a year later, in a small rowboat directly over a humpback, hearing its low rumbles and high, plaintive cries resonate through the bottom of the boat.

Suddenly, he realized he was listening to the same basic pattern of sounds he had memorized from the tape.

``Supposing you were listening to radio emissions from outer space, and you suddenly discovered some were coming in the form of a repeated sequence, like a song.'' That's exactly the experience he had in that boat, he says. He felt as though a fellow being had nudged up against him, announcing its presence as clearly and emphatically as a phone call in the middle of the night.

That was 20 years ago, and Payne still hasn't a clue as to what those songs mean: ``We can make some general observations, but you can make exactly the same observations about the cricket.'' And anyway, discovering the ``meaning'' of the songs may not be the issue.

``We can be musicologists of whales without understanding what the message [of their songs] is about,'' he says. ``After all, you don't really have to put into words what message music brings to you.'' And, without question, whale songs bring much to the average person, he says. ``I've played whale songs to hundreds of people, and some people weep, they are so moved by them.''

Over the years, he has helped musicians try to meld whale songs with music, providing recordings to the composer Alan Hovhannes, for instance. He has just completed a record with Paul Winter, an avante-garde musician, which attempts to translate the songs of whales into human musical terms and use them as a basis for improvisational exploration.

During the interview, he plays a working tape from the recording session in St. John's Cathedral in New York City, and one hears an organist reinterpreting what a whale sang somewhere in the ocean under Roger Payne's boat. Then, a saxophone turns the theme into a blues that follows the long-form harmonic structure of the whale songs Payne has spent so many years capturing - songs that seem as fragile as they are haunting.

Already, he says, there are seas - a century ago filled with a symphony of such songs - where no whales sing.

Payne is making a trip to the Seychelle Islands this month for an International Whaling Commission meeting that is designed to preserve the Indian Ocean as a sanctuary. The chilling proficiency with which men can slaughter whales makes him wonder why they don't turn the same energy to understanding the profusion of sounds their prey are making.

``What's more impressive,'' he asks, ``a butchered whale lying on a beach, or the music which comes out of the sea?''

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