He and Scott McVay published a paper about this finding and introduced whale songs to the public, the discovery also launched Payne into the world of marine biology.
"A long time ago, I worked on such strange things as how the ears of bats localize sounds and I did my Ph.D. on how bats locate their prey in total darkness based only on hearing," Payne told The Park Record during an early-morning telephone interview from New Zealand. "I also did a post-doc piece on moth ears and how moths can detect and avoid bats while approaching them.
"It was all very entertaining, but I figured out that the world was going to Hell in a pack and I wasn't doing anything about it, especially if your only knowledge is about animal acoustics," he said with a chuckle. "So I thought I'd do something different and began thinking about whales."
The only thing Payne knew back then was that whales were being hunted close to extinction and no one was seemingly paying attention. So he traveled to Bermuda, hired a boat and towed around an underwater microphone.
"I heard fantastic sounds that were later confirmed as humpback whales," he said. "I met a man, who for years, was recording those sounds and he gave me some of them, which were absolutely stunning."
In analyzing the sounds, Payne developed a technique of seeing the patterns of what appeared to be random wild vocal performances.
"I found these were closely organized into songs that are repeated in a rhythmic way," he said. "That launched me into the world of whales and I realized that I would spend the rest of my life studying whales."
Payne, who is the founder of the Ocean Alliance, a nonprofit organization dedicated to the conservation of whales and their marine environment, will give a presentation called "Oceans, Whales and People" at the Eccles Center's Black Box Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Friday, April 18. The event is the final "Future in Review" presentation in the Strategic News Services and Park City Institute's 2013-2014 series.
The speaker's plan is to "answer a lot of questions that people have about the ocean and the importance of what's happening to the ocean," he said.
One topic he will address is some recent discoveries the Ocean Alliance found concerning sperm whales.
"The institute spent five years taking biopsies from several thousand sperm whales to research," Payne said. "We found substances that were largely in the whales because of human activities."
Researchers found an increase of toxic metals and a series of organic pollution or compounds and hormones in the whales' systems.
"The worst category of chemicals that we found were ones that imitate the natural hormones that are flowing in the whales' bodies that work the most basic functions of a while such as growth, tissue repair and metabolism," Payne said. "The results were pretty horrifying because some of these substances interrupt development and their ability to think."
Payne will talk about these discoveries and other sorts of problems that have come up for whales and for the world in general and make some suggestions about what people can do.
During the past 40 years, Payne has come up against many misconceptions the public has about the ocean. And he hopes to answer some of those questions as well.
"The oldest [misconception] in my corner of the world is that the ocean is silent," he said. "It is nothing but silent, but unfortunately, these days most of the noise in the ocean these days is traffic from ships that goes on for 24 hours a day or explosions that are made by oil companies that do seismic profiling of the rocks underneath the ocean to find if there is oil there."
Payne said there are many lessons humans can learn from whales.
"The most important lesson, in some ways, is that their brains are as large or, in the case of sperm whales, is that their brains are larger than ours and they have maintained these brains for tens of thousands of years," he said. "They are smart."
Another lesson is that they have a "wonderful effect" on people.
"They are large and they make us feel small, which is a healthy feeling that I feel people need to feel more, Payne laughed. "Blue whales are larger than the largest dinosaurs that have ever lived. Luckily there are a few left, no thanks to the whaling industry."
Perhaps one of the most interesting things that Payne has discovered is that whales enjoy human contact.
"If you got to areas where whales come close to shores or where whale watching tours happen, you find the whales have gotten used to these encounters," he said. "In Baja, California, in the San Ignacio Lagoon, where gray whales like being touched and patted by tourists."
In that bay, the numbers of friendly gray whales outnumber the tourist boats, Payne said.
"We were there a few years ago, a whale came close to the boat and everyone would touch it," he said. "The wind would blow the boat away and the whale would swim back up to it."
Payne also saw something interesting about the interaction.
"As soon as people touched it, the whale would close its eyes and lay there," he said. "When the touching stopped, the whale would open its eyes and swim to catch the boat."
After 20 minutes of this, Payne noticed the whale would gently open and close its mouth.
"I knew from research and videos that other marine mammals such as dolphins like their tongue touched," he said. "I don't know why they like that, but after a few minutes myself and another fellow on this tour had our arms in the whales mouth."
Payne wants to help his audience learn more about these creatures and their ocean habitat.
"The man and woman on the street need to know that everything that happens in the ocean has an effect on the land and everything that happens on land, affects what happens in the ocean," he said. "I think the single-most discovery in my lifetime is how interconnected we all are. If you pull one thread of this tapestry, it will have an effect on the other parts of our existence. We have to take it seriously, otherwise we don't have a future."
The Park City Institute and the Strategic News Service will partner for the Future in Review speaker presentation of Dr. Roger Payne, founder and president of the Ocean Alliance, at the Eccles Center for the Performing Arts' Black Box Theatre, 1750 Kearns Blvd., on Friday, April 18, at 7:30 p.m. The event will be hosted by Sharon Anderson-Morris, program director of Strategic News Service and Fire Events. Tickets are $20 and can be purchased by visiting www.ecclescenter.org or by calling 435-655-3114.