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William A. Watkins collection of marine mammal sound recordings

Identifier: MC-78

Scope and Content Note

In December 2016, the complete collection was relocated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

The William A. Watkins collection of marine mammal sound recordings consists of audio and videotape recordings of various marine mammals created or collected by Watkins and others (including Peter Tyack, Melba Caldwell, Donald Griffith, and Thomas Potter). Descriptions of each tape in the first two series of the collection are taken from a database of the tapes, and include coded fields for description. A list of codes follows.

Codes used in descriptions:

  1. CU: Cue or time (min:sec) on tape at signal end
  2. NC: Number of channels recorded
  3. SR: Sample rate
  4. CS: Cut size - seconds
  5. PL: Playback recorder/filter type, settings in kHz
  6. SC: Signal class, letter codes:Signature, Mimic, Variant, Deletion, Uncharacteristic, Calf, etc.
  7. ID: Identification of vocal animal, species code
  8. AG: Age, sex prefix (M or F), birth year of vocalizing animal
  9. IA: Interaction, male-male (MM)/female-calf (FC), etc., with ID's
  10. GS: Genus and species of vocalizing animal
  11. GA: Geographic location A, geographic area code from ASFIS (Aquatic Sciences and Fisheries Information System) map, species code
  12. NT: Note; species code, comments, recording details
  13. DA: Date of the record entry, last modification of database entry
  14. IP: ID of conspecifics present, species code
  15. AP: Age of conspecifics present - sex prefix with age and ID
  16. BH: Behavior codes, species code
  17. OS: Other species present, species code
  18. NA: Number of animals vocalizing, species code
  19. GB: Geographic location B
  20. GC: Geographic location C, latitude and longitude
  21. OT: Observation time for original, species code
  22. SH: Ship/cruise, aquarium or other platform
  23. AU: Author,originator of the recording
  24. HY: Hydrophone depth in meters
  25. RC: Conditions, weather, salinity
  26. RG: Recording gear
  27. RB: Recording bandwith, lowest and highest kHz
  28. SL: Signal level, Received, Source, species code
  29. ST: Signal type
  30. TD: Time duration
  31. TS: Time signal duration
  32. TC: Time duty cycle (area/peak)
  33. TA: Time amplitude variable (attack and decay)
  34. FR: Frequency reference center (aggregate)
  35. FB: Frequency bandwith (aggregate)
  36. FI: Frequency instantaneous average (binsize)
  37. FT: Frequency trends
  38. FS: Frequency skew
  39. SP: Signal pattern of occurrence, repetition

Some sections of the tapes have been digitized and are available in the WHOAS Repository as the William A. Watkins Collection of Marine Mammal Sound Recordings collection. Tapes that have had sections digitized have the WHOAS Cut numbers noted in the item descriptions.


  • 1934-2001

Language of Materials

The records are in



Open: materials are available for research.


Copyright: Permission to publish material from the collection must be authorized by the Institution Archivist.

Biographical Information

William Alfred Watkins was a pioneer in marine mammal bioacoustics, studying the acoustic behavior of whales, dolphins, and seals in their natural environments. He was born January 8, 1926 in Conakry, French Guinea in West Africa, where his parents worked for the Christian Missionary Alliance Mission. After receiving a B.A. degree in anthropology from Wheaton College in Illinois in 1947, he worked on the college's staff in electrical and radio systems until 1950 before returning to West Africa, where he was born and raised. Interested in linguistics, he mastered more than 30 African languages. He built and operated an international radio station (ELWA) in Monrovia, Liberia from 1951-1957. He also served as President of the West African Broadcasting Association, and was station manager and language department chief of ELWA before moving back to the United States and Cape Cod.

Although known worldwide for his marine mammal work, Bill Watkins joined the Institution staff in January 1958 as a research assistant in electronics, working with J. Brackett Hersey and later Jim Heirtzler of the Geology and Geophysics Department. William Schevill of the Biology Department, founder of marine mammal bioacoustics, immediately recognized that Bill Watkins also had unique skills for recording animals at sea, and the pair started a 40-year collaboration although Bill Watkins did not transfer to the Biology Department until 1972. He was promoted to research associate in 1963, to research specialist in 1973, and to senior research specialist in 1979, a position he held until his retirement from WHOI in 1996. He was awarded a Ph.D. in whale biology from the University of Tokyo in 1981, defending his thesis in Japanese.

During his four decades at WHOI, Bill Watkins developed many of the research tools that remain at the center of marine mammal bioacoustics: whale tags, underwater playback experiments, methods to locate marine mammal sounds underwater, and methods to identify and follow individual animals. Bill Watkins built the first tape recorder capable of recording marine mammals at sea, enabling a sudden blossoming of field studies. His first publication at WHOI was a phonograph recording of marine mammal sounds called Whale and Porpoise Voices, published by Watkins and Schevill in 1962. As colleague Peter Tyack notes, "Bill Watkins gave the voices of marine mammals to the world."

Through his long career Bill Watkins pursued research interests in acoustic pattern recognition systems, underwater acoustic behavior of marine animals, seasonal distribution and activities of cetaceans, location and tracking systems (acoustic, radio and satellite), database organization for marine animal data, cetacean vocal identity, acoustic and sonar studies of underwater animal activity, and linguistics (African language). Bill Watkins' greatest research passion was recording animals at sea, and he continued to innovate, using naval listening gear including the SOSUS array to detect whale calls over whole oceans. While most of his peers remained content with papers in which sounds were only presented in figures, Watkins maintained a modern preoccupation with publishing actual acoustic data. During the last decade he developed a digital database with over 20,000 calls from more than 70 species of marine mammals.

Bill Watkins retired from the Biology Department in 1996 and was named the Institution's first Oceanographer Emeritus, continuing an active research program until his death. Bill and his colleagues were involved in studies of the differences in shared calls by killer whales of the same family and pods, tracking sperm whales underwater using acoustic and radio tags, and following the seasonal distribution of large whales in the North Pacific basin using US Navy monitoring systems.

He is the author or co-author of more than 190 scientific publications, and was member of numerous professional societies, including the Acoustical Society of America, American Society of Mammalogists, Bioacoustics International (Editorial Board), European Cetacean Society, Oceanography Society, and the Society for Marine Mammalogy.

William Watkins died September 24, 2004 at his home in East Falmouth, MA. He was 78.

[Taken from Watkins' WHOI obituary.]


221.25 lin. ft.


The William A. Watkins collection of marine mammal sound recordings consists of audio and videotape recordings of various marine mammals.

Custodial History

The tapes were stored in the vault in Shiverick House before their transfer to the Archives, and some were digitized prior to transfer. Some tapes were recorded by Peter Tyack and others and were included with Watkins' collection of tapes. Tapes in the Caldwell Recordings series were collected by Melba Caldwell, and were given to Watkins prior to their transfer to the Archives.

In December 2016, the complete collection was relocated to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

In May 2005, Michael Moore contacted the archives about the possibility of transferring the Watkins collection to the New Bedford Whaling Museum where they would use the collection as part of their education initiatives. Fritz Heide, Mary Ann Daher, Laela Sayigh, Lisa Raymond and David Sherman from WHOI were involved in the discussion to relocate the collection with Michael Lapides, Christina Connett, Alison Smart and Mark Procknik from the Whaling Museum. All agreed that the Museum was the appropriate home for the collection at during a meeting in May 2014.

Acquisitions Information

The tapes were donated to WHOI by Watkins' wife, Joan. They were received in the Data Library and Archives from Mary Ann Daher in four accessions (acc.2009-05, 2009-08, 2009-11 and 2009-14) in February and March 2009.

Alternate Form Available

Some tapes have been digitized and the files stored on DVD.

Related Material

Three text files containing the information in the tape descriptions are available in the Data Library.

Processing Information

The tapes were physically arranged by media type and tape number in February and March 2009. Information about the tapes contained in three database files was incorporated into this finding aid in January and February 2010 by David Sherman.

A Guide to the William A. Watkins collection of marine mammal sound recordings, 1934-2001
David Sherman
Language of description
Script of description
Language of description note
Finding aid written inEnglish

Repository Details

Part of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Data Library and Archives Repository