Historic sound recordings – and recordists celebrated

Bill Schevill and Bill Watkins © WHOI

Bill Schevill and Bill Watkins © WHOI

Just a few weeks ago a notice came across my desk about a marine mammal acoustics symposium hosted by Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute (WHOI) at the whaling museum in New Bedford Massachusetts. The occasion was to celebrate the legacy of Bill Schevill and Bill Watkins – pioneers in the field of marine bioacoustics who really set the course on the continuously-developing inquiry starting back in the late 1950’s.

With the miniaturization of modern equipment yielding amazing data and monitoring complex animal interactions it is easy to forget how these technologies started out. For example a sound spectrum analyzer (three of which I have on my smart phone) used to be an assembly of amplifies, filters, and chart recorders that weighed as much and was about the size of a full two-drawer filing cabinet, and the first data-tags for whales were small harpoons fired into skin and blubber from black powder shotguns.

Watkins and Schevill were expansive thinkers who knew that understanding marine mammals was a more complicated task than just assembling a catalog of physical data. Watkins (a poly-linguist) knew that the vocal repertoire of whales, dolphins, and seals needed to be explored in context – inclusive of habitat and soundscape, environment and social interactions.

These are the pediments of our field now. The studies are much more refined; “soundscape” is becoming a commonly used phrase; synergistic and behavioral impacts of noise are becoming central to the discussion. I’m sure that these distinctions would have eventually become part of the marine bioacoustic canon, but it is inspiring to look back into time’s window and learn how the rudimentary tools of the past guided us into the nuanced explorations of today. This was highlighted in presentations given by a few of Schevill and Watkins’ protégés from WHOI who are now themselves mentors building on the work of their forerunners.

Watkins and Schevill were the first animal recordists down in the Antarctic with chainsaws, dry-suits, and hydrophones – cutting dive holes into the ice so they could get up close and personal with the wildlife. Fifty years later the coasts, lead ice, and continental shelf are being instrumented with acoustical sensors; whales, seals, porpoises, and dolphins are being tagged and tracked so that conservation policies can be informed by ecosystem-based data inclusive of habitat, soundscape, and behavioral interactions.

Had Watkins and Schevill not crossed paths in 1957 it is likely that these perspectives would have eventually emerged. But these guys came along early. The bioacoustic questions they started asking in the 1960’s are continuously being answered in ever-finer detail. And given the speed at which ocean soundscapes are transforming through human enterprise, Watkins and Schevill came along none-too-soon!

The symposium celebrated WHOI’s gift of the Watkins recording library to the New Bedford Whaling Museum.