In 1968 biologists were working to unravel the mystery of the other-worldly sounds made by humpback whales. What did they mean?

Looking for help, biologist Roger Payne came to New Jersey to visit Scott McVay, who years earlier had researched dolphin communications. He knew how to use a sound spectrograph, a machine that turns sounds into visual graphs, and Payne brought him new recordings of humpback whales.

McVay and his mathematician wife, Hella, converted the whale recordings into sonograms. They pored over printouts spread across their living room floor.

Suddenly it dawned on them: the graphs showed repeating, structured patterns. Together, they and Payne discovered that humpback whales sing six-octave songs with distinctive themes, over and over again. The sounds are musical, one of nature’s most beautiful songs!

This discovery ignited the worldwide movement to save endangered whales from over-hunting, and is recounted in McVay’s 2015 memoir, “Surprise Encounters with Artists and Scientists, Whales and Other Living Things.”

The book covers eight decades of McVay’s forays into science, art, history, philanthropy, travel, and conservation — and his brushes with some of the most influential minds of our time.

“Surprise Encounters” recounts McVay’s life and adventures but, unlike most autobiographies, it’s not really about him. “Overall, the book is composed of my heroes,” he explains. “Their lives have been dedicated to something larger than their own lives.”

His heroes include conservationists and researchers fairly unknown outside scientific circles. Among them are Lester Brown, a South Jersey native who farmed tomatoes as a teenager but went on to found the Worldwatch Institute and Earth Policy Institute; and fellow South Jersey native Sylvia Earle, a respected marine biologist, explorer and author.

Then there’s George Archibald, who protected the habitats of endangered cranes in Wisconsin; Tom Kimball of the National Audubon Society, who helped reduce international whale hunting by leading a boycott of products from Japan and Russia; and John Terborgh, who saved 2 million acres of rainforest in South America.

On Sunday, February 18, at 2 p.m., McVay will share stories about his conservation heroes as he reads excerpts from Surprise Encounters at the Watershed Center in Pennington. The event is jointly sponsored by the Stony Brook-Millstone Watershed Association, New Jersey Conservation Foundation and the Pinelands Preservation Alliance.

Admission is free, reservations are required. To register, visit

McVay said he hopes his talk will inspire people to pay attention to the “miracles” that occur throughout the natural world, and restrain the human impulse to exploit nature for our own gain.

He styled his book as a series of stories based on The Decameron, an Italian classic containing 100 tales told by ten people sheltering in a secluded villa in the 1300s to escape the Black Death. “My thought was to do 100, but the stories kept coming until I reached 152,” he said.

McVay considers himself one of the lucky few. He radiates joy in scientific and artistic discoveries, and hope that humanity will strive for a sustainable future for all of Earth’s inhabitants.

Michele S. Byers

NJ Conservation Foundation

“Surprise Encounters” is available on For more about the Conservation Foundation, visit For more on McVay see U.S. 1, March 16, 2016.

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