Did you know that bearded seals sound like spaceships? That blue whales can communicate across ocean basins? That humpback whales sing songs? And that dolphins make sounds through their blowholes?

Most terrestrial animals rely heavily on their senses of sight and smell to communicate. In water, these senses are limited because light is readily absorbed and scents do not diffuse in water as rapidly as in air. Marine mammals have therefore evolved to use sound as their primary means of communication. Scientists have been studying marine mammal sounds for decades to learn how they communicate, navigate, forage, and more recently, to determine the potential impacts of human activities (such as shipping, military sonar, seismic surveying, and construction) on these populations.

The New Bedford Whaling Museum near Boston, Massachusetts houses the world’s largest collection of marine mammal recordings. This digital database was started by Dr. William Watkins at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, where he worked for over 40 years. Watkins was a pioneer of marine mammal acoustics and he spent many years traveling the world to record the sounds of whales, dolphins, and seals in the wild. Once hydrophones were developed, he was the first person to build a recorder capable of capturing the sounds of marine mammals. The collection contains over 20,000 recordings for 70+ species of marine mammals, including many of the first ever recordings of these animals. The digital database is now available to the public.

Our colleague, University of St Andrews and Scottish Oceans Institute Professor Peter Tyack, was recently interviewed alongside the New Bedford Whaling Museum’s Director of K-12 and Science Programs, Robert Rocha, and Curator of Exhibitions and Collections, Christina Connett to discuss the remarkable database of marine mammal sounds in the William Watkins Collection. Listen to the interview and some marine mammal sounds here.

Interested in learning more about underwater noise and marine acoustics? Check out the Discovery of Sounds in the Sea (DOSITS) project and listen to their audio gallery of animal, human, and environmental sounds.