Preserving Whales’ Voices

Ocean Alliance has been awarded $36,298 from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) Recordings at Risk program to digitize 331 audio recordings of whales made from the 1950s to the 1990s.

The 76 oldest recordings, dating from the 1950s through the 1970s, were rediscovered at the Bermuda Institute of Ocean Sciences in 2016 and donated to Ocean Alliance. These magnetic audio tapes of whale song were recorded by U.S. Navy engineer Frank Watlington from a US listening station in Bermuda that was in place to track Russian subs.  It was Watlington’s recordings that led Dr. Roger Payne to realize that humpback whales were singing songs.  Watlington donated these tapes to BIOS in the early 80s.

Since the discovery that whales sing songs, Dr. Payne and Ocean Alliance have gathered songs from whale populations throughout the world. These recordings contain whale vocalizations from blue whales off Sri Lanka; humpbacks off Bermuda, Alaska, and Hawaii; minke whales; and  sperm whales as well as undersea sounds of explosions, ships, earthquakes, etc. The incredible biodiversity makes these archives unmatched in scientific existence. Whale song evolves over time—naturally and in response to human activities—these recordings are essential for understanding how whales contend with a rapidly changing ocean.

Ocean Alliance’s whale song library now contains more than 1,500 recordings from fourteen different geographic regions. The library totals more than 6,000 hours of sounds and is the largest collection of humpback recordings. These 331 reels covered by the grant are in poor condition and will be cleaned, preserved and digitized by Mass Productions.

One of Ocean Alliance’s volunteers, Alyssa Wile, helped inventory all the reels and prepared information for the grant application. She is applying to PhD programs and would like to use the digitized recordings to study how whale culture has changed over time.

This project is supported by a Recordings at Risk grant from the Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR). The grant program is made possible by funding from The Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. The Council on Library and Information Resources (CLIR) is an independent, nonprofit organization that forges strategies to enhance research, teaching, and learning environments in collaboration with libraries, cultural institutions, and communities of higher learning. To learn more, visit www.clir.org and follow them on Facebook and Twitter.

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