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Sperm Whale : Illustration

Today, whales are a beloved icon right up there with polar bears when it comes to mascots for protecting the planet. That wasn’t the case in 1966 when biologist Roger Payne came upon a dead, beached dolphin with a cigar butt carelessly shoved in its blowhole — which shocked him enough to make it his mission to “try to find out things about them that would capture the fancy of humanity,” he says in the most recent episode of NPR’s Invisibilia.

Payne’s eventual discovery that humpback whales sing, and his tireless efforts to bring those songs to as many people as he could — calling radio stations to play the record he’d made — led to restrictions on commercial whaling. Hearing whales had transformed the way humans thought of them. This…

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