On September 12, 2015, wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill was paddling in a two-person kayak with a friend just off the coast of California. They didn’t have to paddle far before they were surrounded by humpback whales, which were all over the harbor. They could even smell the whale’s fishy, broccoli breath. After marveling at the majestic beasts for a couple hours, Tom and his friend turned their kayak back toward shore. Just then an adult humpback whale breached in front of their kayak and landed almost directly on top of them, releasing the energy equivalent of forty hand grenades. Somehow Tom and his friend survived, but that day changed the course of his life. A video clip of the incident went viral, and Mustill found himself inundated with theories about what happened. Sparked by the experience, Mustill became obsessed with whales. What had the whale been thinking? If only he could ask it.
Previously stalwart in the belief that language sets humans apart from the rest of the animal kingdom, only recently has science started to consider the possibility that animals possess consciousness and are communicating with each other. If only Mustill could ask the whale what it had been thinking as it exploded out of the sea! Drawing from his experience as a naturalist and wildlife filmmaker, Mustill began investigating human-whale interactions around the world in search for answers. In 2020 he released a film, The Whale Detective. And now, in How To Speak Whale : A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication, Tom Mustill takes the reader on an expedition of whale science and animal communication, leaving readers with a poignant look at how science is on the precipice of changing our relationship with animals forever.
So what are the whales saying? Though no specific “words” are deciphered, Mustill details several intriguing scientific endeavors to make sense of an overwhelming stream of recordings from cetaceans (whales and closely related dolphins and porpoises). Just in the past decade, big data and artificial intelligence have enabled researchers to identify individual whales, each with individual speech patterns, and follow them across the globe. Scientists have learned that cetaceans live long lives in complex societies, with clans and cultures delineated by the way they speak.
While there’s still a long way to go before we’re conversing with animals, scientists are hard at work at making the possibility a reality. In the meantime, Mustill stresses the importance of humans releasing their sense of exceptionalism: “When we see ourselves as above or outside the rest of the living world and don’t value other ecosystems and life-forms, we take them for granted and use them up.”
Reading How To Speak Whale reminded me of a short story I read in 2020. When Robot and Crow Saved East St. Louis by Annalee Newitz was originally published in Slate in December 2018. You can also find the short story in collection called Future tense fiction : stories of tomorrow / edited by: Kirsten Berg [and five others]. In the story, Robot, an autonomous CDC drone, which has been programmed to conduct health surveillances of the Metro East population, is abandoned after budget cuts force the CDC to close. Left to their own devices and equipped with a language acquisition program, Robot decides to focus on learning local languages. After an encounter with a crow, Robot decides to observe the birds and soon, Robot is able to communicate with new crow friends. When one of Robot’s new avian friends identifies a possible outbreak, or as the crow phrases it: “Near-death all over a human tree”, Robot and crow, with the help of a human child, are able to identify the outbreaks and alert other humans to help.
I came across this story, written pre-Covid, in late 2020 and it caught my attention for obvious reasons (the CDC, the spread of disease, and a deadly epidemic?). Perhaps Annalee Newitz is the latest author to channel a future reality into existence.