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World's Largest Collection of Whale Sounds Now Available to Public

A mother sperm whale and her calf.
Gabriel Barathieu

No one has hunted whales in American waters for decades, but scientists continue to chase them in pursuit of data and understanding. Now, the New Bedford Whaling Museum is adding this distinctly modern chapter to their repertoire with the world's most comprehensive collection of whale sounds.

Dr. William Watkins is an anthropologist by training. Born and raised in Africa, he spoke some thirty African languages, plus French and English. But he had a knack for electronics, and found his niche at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. His 2004 obituary in the Boston Globe related the fateful event this way:

''There was an ad in the paper for a technician at Woods Hole," James said, ''and Bill interviewed for it. They were trying to follow whales and other sea mammals by putting radios and transmitters on them." In 1958, he was hired as a research assistant in electronics at WHOI by the late William E. Schevill, a renowned biologist, who did the first recordings of underwater sounds.

Watkins built the first recording equipment capable of going to sea and recording marine mammals up close. As technology progressed (and shrank), so, too, did Watkins' recorders. Over the course of his career, he compiled the world’s largest collection of whale, dolphin, and seal sounds.

Because they were able to get close enough to see the animals they were recording, Watkins and Schevill unraveled mystery after mystery, revealing what 1950s sonar operators called "carpenter fish" to be sperm whales and capturing the other-worldly underwater calls of bearded seals, which might easily be mistaken for Star Trek sound effects.

Bearded seals underwater

The collection, spanning fifty years, has also enabled researchers to document changes in vocalization (essentially, speech) patterns in right whales due to increasing ocean noise. Right whales faced with noise from ship traffic or other human activities appear to call more loudly - shout over the din, if you will - until finally, they give up and go silent. Over time, they've also learned to sing in a different key, shifting to higher pitches that overlap less with low-frequency ship noise.

Watkins' recordings - the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings, as they are collectively and formally known - now belong to the New Bedford Whaling Museum. The plan, which Watkins, himself, helped formulate, is to share his massive library of sounds, photographs, and data with the world through interactive exhibits. 

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