Two Geniuses, One Wheelchair and an Audacious Plan to Swim with the Whales
When the oceanographer who discovered whale songs met the paralyzed disability rights leader, they began a quest that grew more dangerous and beautiful than they ever imagined.
Illustrations by Claire Wyman | Edited by Farah Mohammed
Bobbing in the middle of the Pacific Ocean, whale conservationist Roger Payne hung onto the side of Ed Roberts’ floating foam chair. The two had ventured into the ocean to find humpback whales, fulfilling one of Roberts’ lifelong dreams. Payne noticed that Roberts, a disability rights leader and quadriplegic, was struggling to speak. Payne removed his snorkel mouthpiece, and Roberts asked the world-renowned biologist to perform what might be, to some, the most mundane act of assistance: to blow his runny nose.
Floating miles from the Hawaiian shore, there were no tissues. Payne would need to help his friend blow the snot into his hand. He squeezed Roberts’ nose and wiggled the pinch, shifting the pressure from one nostril to the other until mucus flowed into his hand. He washed his hand in the salt water and felt a rush of gratitude for this opportunity to help his friend.
Ed Roberts and Roger Payne had met years earlier at the 198…
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