Hear the First Recording of a Whale and Thousands of Other Marine Mammals

A new archive makes decades of whale song and dolphin chatter available for studying the human impact on marine mammals.
Walrus. (Photo: Richard Sidey/Getty Images)
Jun 26, 2016· 3 MIN READ
Emily J. Gertz is an associate editor for environment and wildlife at TakePart.

A new online archive with thousands of underwater recordings of marine mammal calls—from the tuneful mating songs of humpback whales to the explosive clicks and pops of hunting seals—is now available to anyone who wants to study and listen to them.

Along with around 1,800 master tapes, the archive features 18,000 audio extracts of the calls of dozens of marine mammals species, as well as information on when and where they were recorded.

The collection is part of the legacy of a scientist and bioacoustics specialist named William Watkins, who during a career spanning more than four decades pioneered the science and technology of underwater recording, said Laela Sayigh, a cetacean communication researcher with the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.

“He was one of the main pioneers of marine mammal bioacoustics,” Sayigh said. “He and Bill Schevill, who made the first-ever recording of a marine mammal, were a team here at Woods Hole. Watkins had a lot of technical prowess and could build the machines. He developed the first tape recorder that could be taken out to sea, [and] later on, he got a Ph.D. in biology, so he was an amazing combination of technical skills and biological prowess.”

The collection includes “the very first recording of a marine mammal, which was done in the late 1940s of beluga whales in Canada,” she said. “Now, potentially, anyone who has recordings from any area of the world can go into this collection and do comparisons of the vocalizations or on the ambient noise levels.”

The collection is also a resource for anyone curious about the underwater world. “There are a lot of fun sounds that you can just listen to. It’s definitely not just for scientists. Anyone can get on there and listen to all sorts of cool calls from seals and whales,” she said.

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During the final decade of his career, Watkins worked to digitize the collection, which includes recordings of more than 70 marine mammal species. He was unable to complete the work before his death in 2004. So a few years ago, with funding from Woods Hole’s marine mammal research budget, Sayigh took up the effort to complete that work and get the archive online.

“I was there in Woods Hole, as a student, during a lot of the [early] digitizing effort,” Sayigh said. “Bill had a staff digitizing tapes and entering data into the database. I witnessed it firsthand and felt that it needed to be shared.”

Comparing the calls and the underwater sound environment from past years with those of the present can help scientists assess how conditions are changing and how those changes may be affecting marine mammal populations. Sayigh described the work of a scientist named Susan Parks, who has compared recordings of the calls of endangered North Atlantic right whales in the 1950s—part of the Watkins archive—with recordings she made in the 1990s. Parks found that increasing noise pollution from marine shipping had caused the right whales to shift their calls to a higher sound frequency.

“Having the recordings accessible by geographic area and year opens the doors for a lot of studies that could not have been done if the recordings were sitting in boxes somewhere,” Sayigh said.

Listen to a few highlights from the collection:

North Atlantic Right Whale
Recorded on April 3, 1956, in Vineyard Sound, Massachusetts.

North Atlantic right whale. (Photo: Barrett & MacKay/Getty Images)

Bowhead Whale
Recorded on May 10, 1978, near Barrow, Alaska.

Bowhead Whale. (Photo: Day Donaldson/Flickr)

Humpback Whale
Recorded on April 30, 1953, near St. David’s Island, Bermuda.

Humpback Whale. (Photo: Jason McCawley/Getty Images)

Risso’s Dolphin
Recorded on July 29, 1959; location unknown.

Risso's dolphin. (Photo: Amila Tennakoon/Flickr)

Bearded Seal
Recorded on May 8, 1966, near St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

Bearded seal. (Photo: Foilistpeter/Flickr)

Recorded on March 10, 1972, south of St. Lawrence Island, Alaska.

Walrus. (Photo: Wolfgang Kaehler/Getty Images)

All sound files and accompanying location and date data courtesy of the Watkins Marine Mammal Sound Database, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.