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William Watkins; brought whales' voices to world

Dr. William A. Watkins would do anything to capture the sounds of whales, porpoises, seals, and dolphins on tape in their natural habitats. In the Arctic Ocean's Beaufort Sea, north of Alaska and Canada, he hopped with his recording gear from one iceberg to another to collect the whistles, clicks, snorts, and chatterings of marine mammals.

When he needed more flexible gear, he designed something so compact it could be taken to sea in a suitcase. And over the last decade, Dr. Watkins developed a digital database at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution of over 20,000 calls for more than 70 species of marine mammals. The collection represented thousands of hours of recordings.

Dr. Watkins, 78, a pioneer in marine mammal bioacoustics and a senior research specialist at Woods Hole, died of multiple myeloma Sept. 24 at his East Falmouth home. He had worked at the institution for 40 years and was internationally known for his research.

''Bill Watkins built the first tape recorder capable of recording marine mammals at sea, enabling a sudden blossoming of field studies," Peter Tyack, a colleague, said in an e-mail. ''He gave the voices of marine mammals to the world."

When he retired from Woods Hole in 1996, Dr. Watkins was made the institution's first oceanographer emeritus and continued working in his laboratory several days a week and at home after his illness was diagnosed five years ago. He would call his colleague Mary Ann Daher every day.

The importance of studying the voices of marine mammals, Daher said, was illustrated during submarine warfare in World War II, when the US Navy ''had to know whether sounds were man-made or animal. Some of the sounds weren't ships at all, but whales."

After a hydrophone was invented, she said, ''recording gear that could be taken to sea was needed. Bill was the one who designed that, a portable one that he called 'the WHOI Rowboat Recorder.' . . . Bill was very innovative and an electronic whiz. If something needed to be designed or built, he could do it."

In pursuit of listening in on marine mammals, Dr. Watkins traveled to many exotic places: the Canary Islands, the South Seas, Tierra del Fuego, Hawaii, the Caribbean, the Mediterranean, the Arctic, and Antarctica, tagging mammals and recording their voices. Many of the trips were made aboard sailboats so engine noises would not frighten the ocean dwellers. He also traveled on Navy submarines to work with sonar operators, using Navy listening gear that could detect whale calls over whole oceans.

In the 1990s, Daher was among the crew who went with him each spring and fall to Dominica in the West Indies to study the sperm whale population off the island. ''We would go out in a motorized 105-foot research vessel," she said.

Each mammal was tagged and tracked. ''We would sidle up about 30 feet from a mature whale," Daher said. ''Then, with a launcher, the radio tag Bill designed with a stainless steel point would be shot into the blubber where there are no nerves. When the whale surfaced, the antenna on the tag would tell us where he was."

A paper Dr. Watkins and Daher worked on recently explored how sperm whales communicate. ''What we found is that males would approach females with a fast series of clicks," she said.

Dr. Watkins's work and his experience with radio and electronics were very important to the Navy, according to Robert Gisiner, of the Office of Naval Research in Arlington, Va. ''Bill was the one who opened our ears to what was going on under the ocean."

The Navy is still using the ''library of sounds" created by Dr. Watkins, Gisiner said, ''to train sonar operators to listen to the sounds in the oceans." His recordings are part of ship classrooms.

Dr. Watkins's research is important also for its environmental contribution. When the Navy considered installing ''a very large sound source underwater to test for global warming, they consulted Bill," said Ernie Young of Manassas, Va., a retired project scientist for the University of Washington in Seattle, who teamed with him to study how the loud speakers would impact marine mammals.

Dr. Watkins was born in Conakry, in what was then French Guinea, West Africa, to American missionaries, the Rev. Harry Oliver Watkins and Naomi (Morrell). He grew up with his younger brother, James, in the nearby town of Labe. Dr. Watkins went away to a missionary boarding school in Mamou, south of the city, when he was 7. As a boy, he spoke primarily Pular, a tribal language, but knew some 30 African dialects and French.

''Bill was always mechanically inclined," said James Watkins, of Royal Oaks, Calif. For a long time in Guinea there was no electricity and few cars, and the Watkins boys created a toy town with Lincoln Logs and blocks. ''Bill would carve out boats and motorize them with alarm clock motors," he said.

The family returned to the United States when Dr. Watkins was 15, arriving in New York two weeks before the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. ''Our departure from Africa was rather unique," James said. ''French Guinea was under the control of the Vichy government at the time and in a hostile relationship with Great Britain. In order to leave West Africa, we had to go overland by foot for four days, through a corner of Liberia, which was neutral, and into British territory at Sierra Leone."

Dr. Watkins attended high school for about a year in Columbus, Ohio, his mother's hometown, and completed his high school and college education at Wheaton Academy, a religious school near Chicago, where he earned a degree in cultural anthropology. ''Bill was thinking of becoming a missionary," his brother said.

In 1950, Dr. Watkins went to Liberia, where he became one of the founding leaders of a missionary short-wave radio station. He was the primary technical person in setting it up and, in one photograph, is shown standing atop its first 150-foot tower.

Dr. Watkins returned to the United States in 1957 and settled on Cape Cod. ''There was an ad in the paper for a technician at Woods Hole," James said, ''and Bill interviewed for it. They were trying to follow whales and other sea mammals by putting radios and transmitters on them."

In 1958, he was hired as a research assistant in electronics at WHOI by the late William E. Schevill, a renowned biologist, who did the first recordings of underwater sounds. It was while conducting a whale watch for institution trustees that Dr. Watkins met Joan (Hennessey). They married 19 years ago.

In 1981, Dr. Watkins spent a year in Japan, where he earned his doctorate in whale biology from the University of Tokyo, defending his thesis in Japanese. Over his career, he authored or coauthored 190 published papers on marine mammal bioacoustics.

Away from the laboratory, Dr. Watkins worked with his wife on their dried-floral business, growing their gardens from seed.

Dr. Watkins was sometimes asked, James said, whether marine mammals actually talked to one another. ''Bill's theory was that they do not have a language, as such, but more an understanding that communicates emotions like fear and desire in a very primal way," he said.

Besides his wife and brother, Dr. Watkins leaves three sons, Bruce W. of Truckee, Calif.; Stephen P. of Huntingdon, Pa., and James H. of Willow Grove, Pa.; two daughters, Sandra May of Salinas, Calif. and Laurel Watney of Plano, Texas; a stepdaughter, Jennifer Malis of Salem; a stepson, Matthew Maxwell of Essex Junction, Vt.; and 12 grandchildren.

A service to celebrate Dr. Watkins's life will be held Sunday at 2 p.m. at Clark Laboratory on the Woods Hole Quissett Campus.

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