A Life Among Whales: Roger Payne’s Legacy in Patagonia, Argentina

by Roxana Schteinbarg, Cofounder and Coordinator of Conservation Programs, Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas

On Saturday, June 10, 2023, Dr. Roger Payne, 88, passed away, surrounded by the love of his family at his home in Vermont. Roger maintained his clarity and wisdom until the final moment.

photo by Flip Nicklin / Minden Pictures
photo by Flip Nicklin/Minden Pictures

He always needed to find answers to new questions, and often felt that science was not enough. Roger was frequently considered a rule-breaker, given his propensity to share theories about whales that had not yet been scientifically proven. He did this because he was convinced that the amount of time needed to generate change did not correspond to the timescale of science. Roger considered it necessary to awaken people’s fascination for whales, and he did so with his recordings of humpback whale songs that mobilized thousands of people. This catalyzed the Save the Whales movement, which culminated in a great victory when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) established a moratorium on commercial whaling that went into effect in 1986.

Although Roger studied whales in numerous expeditions in all the seas of the world, his heart found its home with the right whales of Península Valdés in Patagonia, Argentina.

In order to study whales and demonstrate that it was not necessary to kill them to learn about them, he developed several benign research techniques. He was convinced that the best knowledge about animal behavior was obtained from long-term studies of known individuals. It was then that he read a report mentioning the record of southern right whales off the coast of Península Valdés. Drawn by his curiosity, Roger traveled to Argentina in 1970, never imagining all that would follow and how his experiences and his family’s in Patagonia would fill his heart. 

In 1971, already settled with his family in a camp on the shore of San José Gulf, he discovered that southern right whales could be individually identified by the pattern of callosities on their heads. This was the beginning of a scientific program that is currently the world’s longest continuously running study tracking individual whales throughout their lives. This is the great legacy that Roger left to Argentina’s Instituto de Conservación de Ballenas (ICB), its founders (Diego Taboada, Mariano Sironi, and me) and an amazing team of people deeply committed to the science and conservation of whales in Argentina.

Some of the first whales that Roger identified were Troff and Pionera, whales who continue to return to Península Valdés and are part of a whale adoption program. Their life stories and those of the more than 4,300 identified whales fascinate and attract, and their individuality moves us to protect them.

Today there are many of us who, inspired by Roger, dedicate our lives to research, environmental education, and conservation. Following Roger’s example, the ICB team continually asks questions in order to learn about whales on a changing planet and seeks to mitigate the threats whales face in the ocean. In the footsteps of Roger and Dr. Vicky Rowntree, ICB researchers conduct scientific studies that are presented at the IWC and other international forums. The Animal Welfare Institute supported Roger Payne in his pioneering studies and continues to help fund the work of our researchers and conservationists, using science to influence the conservation of whales and the marine environment. 

Roger said, “I came to Patagonia hoping to find a species whose individuals I could recognize and a place where I could study them with relative ease. But most importantly, we discovered the land and people of Argentina; for me it was love at first sight.”

Life comes to an end, but the thoughts and teachings Roger left us remain. For those of us who founded the ICB in Argentina in 1996, and for those who over the years have joined the team, Roger will always be a source of inspiration. As he came to the end of his life, Roger expressed his deep gratitude to each and every one of the people who made Península Valdés his heart’s home. He left empowered, at peace, full of wisdom, and with more questions to keep answering.

Thank you, Roger, for your legacy, for your friendship, and for being a source of inspiration. Safe travels, my friend forever, wherever you are.

by Susan Millward, AWI Executive Director and CEO

Dr. Roger Payne had a long history with AWI—having joined AWI’s Scientific Advisory Committee in 1976 and continuing to serve on that committee for 45 years. While Roger is known for his groundbreaking discoveries of the “songs” in humpback whale vocalizations, his dedication to learning more about whales, educating others about them, and, above all, conserving them, was incredible. 

Roger’s connection with AWI began when he met AWI’s founder, Christine Stevens, in the early 1970s as they campaigned to end commercial whaling at the IWC. This led to the foundation of the Save the Whales movement, a massive global campaign that in the next decade would result in the establishment of a commercial whaling moratorium—a ban that endures to this day. Roger’s work with Christine and others on behalf of this movement was immense. Roger and Christine’s friendship endured long after the moratorium victory, and they spent countless hours together battling to protect whales—at the IWC, on Capitol Hill, and in strategy sessions at Christine’s home in Washington, DC. 

Roger’s long scientific career extended beyond saving whales from needless slaughter, as Roxana so adeptly explains above, but it was through the IWC that AWI and Roger’s paths mainly intertwined. In 2010 in Agadir, Morocco, Roger took part in a press conference with other whale conservationists to call attention to the toxins and pollutants being dispersed throughout the world’s oceans and traveling up the food chain. I was also at that meeting—having joined AWI seven years earlier—and remember Roger’s dedication and passion for doing right by whales. 

Roxana and her colleagues, along with AWI and many other whale protectors, owe so much to Roger, and through his legacy will continue the good fight for the world’s whales and their ecosystems.

Read more articles about: