Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales In the mid-1960s, a biologist discovered the beauty of humpback whale songs. But his recordings weren't just academic — they were woven into popular music, and they kicked off an entire movement.
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Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales

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Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales

Recordings That Made Waves: The Songs That Saved The Whales

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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This next story is about songs that sparked a movement. These unique sounds were first recorded in the mid-1960s. Michael May introduces us to the man who first recorded this.(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE SONG)

ROGER PAINE: This, I always thought, was the best recorded song.

MICHAEL MAY, BYLINE: Biologist Roger Paine is at home in Vermont listening to the songs of his beloved humpback whales in his living room.


PAINE: And that sort of theme evolves as the whale sings it. I would say that these sounds are - with no exception that I can think of - the most evocative, most beautiful sounds made by any animal on earth.

MAY: When Roger Paine started studying whales in 1966, there was very little known about the sounds they made or why they made them. He went to Bermuda where whales passed on their migratory routes, and there he met sound engineer and military researcher, Frank Watlington. And it was Watlington who gave Paine this recording - he wasn't even sure what it was.


PAINE: You're going to hear explosions of dynamite. That's what Frank was listening for and the whale is just getting in his way.

MAY: Paine brought the recording back to his office in New York and he listened deeply.

PAINE: I would just leave it on - just going again and again and again. And after a long while of listening to this, I suddenly realized - my God, this thing is repeating itself.

MAY: This was a startling discovery. If an animal repeats a sound, like a bird or a cricket, then it's technically a song. This however, was arguably the most complex song of any animal. At the time, whales were headed for extinction. During the 1950s and '60s, more than 50,000 whales were killed each year. Roger Paine saw the songs as a call to arms.

PAINE: Do you make cat food out of composer poets? I think that's a crime.

MAY: For the next two years, Paine spent as much time distributing these recordings as studying them. He gave them to musicians, composers, singers.

PAINE: What I wanted to do was try to build them into human culture -anything, any damn thing that anybody wanted to try - hey, that seemed fun to me.

JUDY COLLINS: So it was 1969 in the summer - and I was playing the long-suffering Solveig in "Peer Gynt".

MAY: That's singer Judy Collins.

COLLINS: And this tall man came backstage and I didn't know him - he said, I'm Roger Paine, I study whales - I'm a cetologist. And he handed me this little package.

MAY: Inside was a reel-to-reel tape. She took it home and put it on.


COLLINS: I was very emotional. Angst for being a human being on a planet where they also live - guilt for doing what we do to them.


COLLINS: (Singing) Farewell to Tarwathie. Adieu Mormond Hill.

MAY: This is "Farewell to Tarwathie" from Collins' 1970 record, "Whales and Nightingales". It's an adaptation of a traditional whaling song. The record went gold and it introduced millions to the songs of the humpback whales.

COLLINS: You hear the whales come in and then I join them, and it is like a call and response in a way because I am having a dialogue with them and vice versa because they're answering me as well. And in a sense, reaching out into the human species.

MAY: That same year, Capitol Records released Paine's recording of humpback whale songs. It's still the best selling natural sounds record of all time. A couple of years later, a dozen or so antiwar activists working for a fledgling organization called Greenpeace, gathered at a meeting in Vancouver. Former Greenpeace director Rex Weyler says, one of them played the whale songs.

REX WEYLER: And that was the first time any of us had heard those recordings and it certainly was a huge factor in convincing us that the whales were an intelligent species here on planet Earth and actually made music, made art, created an esthetic.

MAY: Greenpeace was looking for a campaign that would jumpstart a new environmental movement. And they found it - save the whales. They played the whale songs on the radio and TV to raise money for the campaign and they used the songs in their actions as well. When they took their first ship out into the Pacific in 1975, they confronted a Soviet whaling vessel.


MAY: They blasted Paine's recordings of the humpback whales over a loudspeaker.


MAY: Rex Weyler was there.

WEYLER: There were hundreds - hundreds of crew members and they were all out on deck. They were all listening - who knows what effect it had on them.

MAY: That moment lasted a few seconds. Then, the whalers continued the slaughter. But now, the world was paying attention.

WEYLER: Saving the whales became the issue that we believed would introduce humanity to the idea of ecology and saving nature.

MAY: Save the whales was a success. Other organizations around the world joined the cause. And in 1982, The International Whaling Commission instituted a ban on deep-sea whaling. Only a half-dozen countries still hunt whales. For NPR News, I'm Michael May.

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