The Voices of Whales: Whaling Museum Receives a Major Gift from WHOI

New Bedford Whaling Museum chosen as global repository for the groundbreaking work of William A. Watkins; the world’s most comprehensive collection of whale audio recordings

NEW BEDFORD, Mass.  — The New Bedford Whaling Museum becomes the permanent repository of the world’s most comprehensive collections of whale audio recordings and related resources with the bestowment of the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data and the William A Watkins and William E Schevill Images and Instruments from Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI).

These extraordinary collections together include more than 2,000 reel-to-reel audiotapes (over half of which have been digitized), photographs, whale radio tags, recording instruments, and other material created or collected by William A. Watkins and others including William Schevill, Peter Tyack, Melba Caldwell, Donald Griffin, G. Carleton Ray, Kenneth Norris, James Johnson, and Thomas Poulter. The digital collection includes18,000 calls from more than 70 species of marine mammals.

“The Whaling Museum is honored to receive these keystone collections of historical data which continue to inform studies in marine mammal conservation today,” said Christina Connett, PhD, Curator of Collections and Exhibitions, New Bedford Whaling Museum. “They will be a major component in the planned upgrades to our cetology exhibits in the coming two years and are an enormous asset to our research library.”

“Bill Watkins designed his digital archive of marine mammal sounds as an archive of the history of marine mammal bioacoustics and also as a living tool for students and scientist,” said Peter Tyack, Senior Scientist Emeritus, WHOI. “Those of us who carried on his tradition at WHOI have tried for more than a decade but have been unable to bring the database into a form that meets the vision Watkins had for it. We are thrilled that the donation of the archive to the New Bedford Whaling Museum will achieve Bill’s vision of curating and archiving a living database for all people interested in marine mammal acoustics.”

The history of bioacoustics is fascinating and the impact Watkins and Schevill had on our perceptions of whales is profound. As a whole, these collections tell the story of the history of marine bioacoustics from the 1940’s through the 1990’s. Its integration into the Whaling Museum’s wide-ranging historical collections documenting global whaling underscores the institution’s standing as a competitive scholastic research center in whale conservation study.

William A. Watkins and his collaborator of almost 40 years, former WWII Navy ASW (anti-submarine warfare) investigator William Schevill, were the founders of marine mammal bioacoustics. A true pioneer in his field, Watkins spoke more than 30 languages, and led a radio station in Africa before moving into a position as electronics technician at WHOI in the 1950’s. He received his PhD in Whale Biology from the University of Tokyo which he wrote and defended in Japanese. Schevill was a curator of the Museum of Comparative Zoology at Harvard and managed the Museum’s library in the 1930’s. He was commissioned by the navy to identify underwater sounds believed to be Russian submarines of which he determined were the calls of fin whales. Watkins joined Schevill in recording and cataloguing distinctive whale sounds for the navy, data that is still used in sonar operator training.

When Watkins and Schevill began their research in marine mammal bioacoustics there were no reasonable methods of collecting data of live specimens at sea. Watkins developed the necessary audio instruments over time through trial and error and whale radio tags. He also created methodologies and equipment to locate marine mammal sounds underwater and to identify and follow individual animals. He also performed underwater playback experiments to see how animals respond to audio clues. The William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data reflects the progression of technological sophistication and scientific understanding that allowed scientists to gather high-quality recordings of natural, undisturbed cetacean vocal behaviors. As Tyack noted, “Watkins gave the voices of marine mammals to the world.”

By the mid-twentieth century, the alarming ecological crisis that had developed as a result of industrial whaling and other maritime activities was abundantly clear. During this period, global environmental issues gained ascendancy and redefined our perception of human supremacy on the planet. The shift in popular attitudes about whales reflects these broader changes in environmental awareness, influenced by new discoveries of social and vocal behaviors such as the songs of humpback whales that hinted at the complex inner lives of these animals. These studies were enabled largely by the development of better equipment for underwater photography, videography, audio recording, and satellite tracking. These technologies enabled new kinds of scientific study while allowing the general public to gain a better appreciation for cetaceans at sea.

Studies of cetacean vocalizations have paved the way to understanding new conservation concerns which fall under the mission of the Whaling Museum’s cetacean conservation, exhibition, education, and interpretation objectives. Shipping, sonar and oil exploration have increased the environmental noise pollution in the ocean environment. Comparative studies of data from the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings and Data and current recordings have already indicated changes in communication frequencies in the North Atlantic right whale population, theorized as a possible behavioral impact as a result of human activity. Scientists are also working to understand how noise pollution affects cetaceans by masking vital communication between animals which can lead to mass strandings of species that rely on echolocation for navigation. This exact topic was the subject of a recent talk at the Whaling Museum given by author Joshua Horwitz.

The Whaling Museum will work closely with WHOI scientists Tyack, Laela Sayigh and Michael Moore to continue to digitize and catalogue the two collections and make them accessible to scholars, students, and the public through exhibitions, educational programing, and online.

“The Whaling Museum will not only provide interpretation of the collection within the context of its cetacean conservation efforts but will also steward the raw material that requires appropriate conditions for preservation and create a new web portal geared to students of all ages,” said Dr. Connett.

In 2000, the Whaling Museum integrated cetacean conservation education into its strategic plan. This included major institutional investments, particularly the construction of the Jacobs Family Gallery to house skeletons of a humpback whale and blue whale, which the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) encouraged the Whaling Museum to accept and preserve. The Whaling Museum also accepted and installed the skeletons of a sperm whale (2005) and North Atlantic right whale and her fetus (2008). The Whaling Museum collection includes the largest archives of international and Yankee whaling artifacts and more than 2,300 whalers’ logbooks and journals, which have become invaluable primary resources for data mining in whale population density studies and climate change research such as NOAA’s Old Weather project. The installation of the NEH-funded core exhibition From Pursuit to Preservation in 2009, which interprets the history of whaling and the historical context of human interaction with whales, furthered the Whaling Museum’s shift towards exhibiting and interpreting content related to whale ecology and conservation.


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About the New Bedford Whaling Museum

The New Bedford Whaling Museum is the world's most comprehensive museum devoted to the global story of whales and the history and culture of the South Coast region. The cornerstone of New Bedford Whaling National Historical Park, the Museum is located at 18 Johnny Cake Hill in the heart of the city's historic downtown. Museum hours April through December: Daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Museum hours January through March: Tuesday – Saturday from 9 a.m. - 4 p.m., Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m., Open on Holiday Mondays. The Museum is open until 8 p.m. every second Thursday of the month and is closed on Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s Day.  For more information, visit