Growing up in temperate South Laguna, my surfing buddies and I learned about seasonal changes watching the blow-spouts of passing gray whales. Just as red leaves signal autumn and breakup spells spring in Alaska, we knew Christmas vacation was around the corner when the first whales steamed south for Scammon Lagoon and only three months of school remained when they turned around and headed north for the Bering Sea.
That whales could teach anything to a group of teen-agers with an attention span limited to the next set of waves is testament to just how powerful these animals really are when it comes to communicating with people. Whales have been fascinating humans ever since the first Inuit paddled a bidarka after one 8,000 years ago. Our relationship has evolved from hunting them for food to slaughtering them for oil and corset stays to studying them in order to unlock such oceanic mysteries as long-distance migration and underwater sound propagation.
While whales have taught us much about life in the ocean, their greatest lesson has yet to be learned: that it is possible to have a highly developed brain without threatening one's own existence, much less the rest of life on earth. Whales, writes Roger Payne in "Among Whales," "know how to avoid destroying the world. We don't."
Payne's case for whale intelligence comes from a life devoted to their study. Considered to be the world's foremost cetacean biologist and leading expert in the field of whale vocalization, Payne is certainly one of the most colorful and passionate scientists ever to put pen to paper after putting subject to microscope (or, in his case, right whale to telescope, humpback to hydrophone). He has made a career of rocking the scientific boat by refusing to conform to the model of field researcher-as-impartial-observer. A member of the Love Generation and a disciple of the New Age, he earlier announced his discovery that humpback whale songs are strikingly similar to human music (both employ rhythm, structure and, most surprisingly, rhyme) by turning whale compositions into a popular recording with musician Paul Winter. He has blasted the International Whaling Commission (he is a longstanding member of its Scientific Committee) as grossly negligent, equating the twisting and distortion practiced by member delegates to white-collar crime.
His writing mirrors ocean biodiversity. He incorporates a rich variety of subjects and disciplines to help explain these complex creatures and their even more complex relationship with humans. Part autobiography, part scientific primer and part environmental call-to-arms, Payne's book intersperses facts about whales and their behavior with anecdotes that tell the human side of the story. We learn, for instance, that right whales have a large vocabulary, fin whales can call to each other from 4,000 miles away and many whale species exhibit such human-like emotions as playing and socializing. We experience what it is like to swim with whales (scary at first, but they prove gentle companions). And we shudder at the different ways commercial whalers have carried out their gruesome business, from harpooning to electrocuting to suffocating by pounding wooden plugs into blowholes.
Some of the most moving passages are found in a very personal chapter, richly textured and laden with emotion, in which Payne describes living in a remote Patagonia field station with his then wife, fellow whale researcher Katy Payne, and their four children. Payne writes eloquently about an Eden-like existence of whale-watching and making love in the late afternoon while serenaded by the low moan of right whales.
It is Payne as the ardent voice for whale protection that comes through loudest and clearest. His warnings about the consequences of exterminating species come at a time when the world politic seems headed for a reversal on all environmental fronts. Several countries, most notably Japan, Iceland and Norway, have recently stepped up commercial whaling activities, and under an IWC loophole big enough to chase a sperm whale through, thousands of whales are being hunted each year under the guise of scientific study. Poachers take countless more with little risk of punishment. For example, when whalers from the former Soviet Union killed 7,000 humpbacks in the Antarctic despite a worldwide moratorium, the IWC did nothing about it.
An even greater threat to whales comes from ocean drift netting and poisoning from toxic waste, untreated sewage and contaminated runoff. The latter is sure to increase in North America if those who would gut the Clean Water Act get their way. There is also mounting evidence that ocean noise pollution from ships, sonar and offshore oil wells interferes with the acoustic ability of whales, a key to their locating food, finding mates and navigating in the murky depths.
When it comes to hearing and our own survival, we would do well to listen to what Roger Payne has learned from his life among whales: We are but one species among millions and our continued well-being depends upon theirs.