Songs of the Humpback Whale
Columbia Records, 1970,
In 1969, National Geographic magazine gave away a free flexidisc of humpback whale song recorded off the coast of Bermuda by Roger Payne, an American marine bioacoustician. In the next decade, an astonishing ten and a half million readers sent off for copies. Released on Columbia Records in 1970 under the title Songs of the Humpback Whale, the recordings made by Payne, his then wife Katie and his colleague Frank Watlington went on to sell another 100,000 copies on vinyl by the decadeâ™s end.
To understand it would require listening again to the songs of the humpback whale with this question in mind: what, after all, do whales think of us?
As an artefact, the album tells us as much about sensibilities of the era as it does about whales themselves. Payne had opened up an undersea world previously restricted to marine biologists; an eerie submarine space of basso profondo groans and solitary, echoing moans which could not but resonate with listeners buffeted by the socio-political shocks of the late 1960s. Audiences were fascinated to learn that only male humpback whales sing, that they can sing continuously for more than 24 hours, that whales have no vocal chords and generate sound by forcing air through their massive nasal cavities, and that different herds in various parts of the Atlantic and Pacific oceans produce distinct songs, which change over a number of years never to return to the same sequence of notes.