Biggest-selling nature album
Roger Payne, Frank Watlington, Katharine Payne
125,000 unit(s) sold
Not Applicable ()

Songs of the Humpback Whale, produced by the scientist and bioacoustics expert Roger Payne (USA) and released in 1970, has sold more than 125,000 copies worldwide. The five-track album features the haunting vocalizations of humpbacks, as recorded by Payne, his then-wife Katharine and US Navy engineer Frank Watlington on a device called a hydrophone. The album is credited with kick-starting the “Save the Whales” movement, adopted by environmental organizations around the world in response to the controversial practice of commercial whaling.

By studying Watlington’s recordings, Payne discovered that the whales’ rhyming, repetitive, ‘moaning’ noises repeated themselves and could continue for up to 30 minutes. Subsequent research by Payne and his wife showed that males of the species performed the same ‘song’, but with subtle changes, each breeding season.

The album includes the 9-min 32-sec opener “Solo Whale” (recorded by Watlington) and “Three Whale Trip”, recorded by the Paynes and clocking in at 16 min 31 sec. An excerpt from the recordings was included on the Voyager Golden Records that were on board NASA’s Voyager 1 and Voyager 2 probes when they blasted off for interstellar space in 1977.

In 1979, a disc of excerpts from the album was distributed to the 10.5 million subscribers of National Geographic – reportedly the largest single pressing of recorded music in history.

Several musicians – among them Kate Bush (“Moving”, the opening track from her 1978 debut album The Kick Inside) and Judy Collins (“Farewell to Tarwathie”, from her 1970 album Whales & Nightingales) – have used excerpts from Songs of the Humpback Whale on their own recordings. In 2010, the album was inducted into the National Recording Registry (USA) as a recording of ‘cultural, historical or aesthetic importance’.

The significance of the recording in inspiring Greenpeace’s “Project Ahab” initiative and the ban on commercial whaling in 1986 by the International Whaling Commission was celebrated on the album’s 50th anniversary in 2020. Dr Roger Payne (b. 29 January 1935) marked the occasion by giving an interview to The Guardian from his home in Vermont.