Whale Songs: A look at a music phenomenon that made a real difference

Whales: they’re big, they’re smart and they’re…surprisingly adept musicians.  Considered to have one of the most complicated song patterns in the animal kingdom, this talent would soon come to save a whole whack of ’em.

Whales were first recorded by Roger Payne, a biologist who was trying to record dynamite explosions under water but who kept capturing the sounds of whales singing. Noting the repetition in their songs, Payne made it his mission to use this beautiful soundtrack as a means to spur the saviour of whales (NPR).  According to NPR, at the time (mid-60s) whales were being slaughtered at incredibly high rates by commercial whalers.  Payne was determined to end this epidemic.

From here, Payne brought his recordings to a handful of musicians, one of whom was Judy Collins.  Judy soon included the songs on her album and in particular, the song “Farewell to Tarwathie” an ancient whaling song(PRI). After this, Capitol Records released the original Payne recordings…and they went gold.

So what happened as a result? For starters, the USA banned all whaling and whale products.  Money was raised for Payne’s cause and it even swayed the International Whaling Commission to make some mandate changes–including an international moratorium on fishing whales.  A shortened copy of the song was even inserted on vinyl into National Geographic(PRI)!

In the years that followed, many would either use the recordings or intwine themselves in the “Save the Whales” movement (headed up by GreenPeace).  Among them included but was not limited to, CSNY and Country Joe McDonald.

While the movement has died down, it’s important note that a few select nations continue to fish whales today as well as other large sea animals like dolphins.  There is still work to be done!

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