Tom Mustill’s “How to Speak Whale” is a Love Letter to All Life

After awe, huh? Naturalist and filmmaker Tom Mustill thought he was dying when a 30-ton humpback whale breached and landed on the two-person kayak he was piloting near Monterey. The massive impact propelled him and his co-kayaker deep into the ocean, but when they miraculously emerged still alive, he was “thrilled.” What a sight, what a feeling.” The incident, captured on a phone by a bystander, went viral with over six million views (you can see it here); A whale specialist spotted it and told Mustill that rather than landing full force and almost certainly killing her, the whale deliberately “turned and turned away” to cap her. Some people would never venture near water again after such an experience. Others might capitalize on their viral fame or go the Ahab Way and spend the rest of their lives searching for the whale that almost killed them to get revenge. On the other hand, there is the path that Mustill has chosen, which is instead determined to find the answer to this question: “What, if anything, was the humpback whale that jumped on us trying to say?”

Mustill’s hunger to find out sent him on an exploratory journey through everything we know and don’t know about the ways species, particularly whales and other marine mammals, communicate with each other and sometimes with us. The result is a thoughtful, far-reaching, and moving book that combines history, reportage, science, and Mustill’s own trial surrounding his near-death collision with a giant otherworldly creature. As with the documentary My octopus teacherthe memoirs of Helen McDonald H stands for falconRichard Powers novel The Overstoryor Ed Yong’s An immeasurable worldwhich explores the very different and often extraordinary sensory abilities of countless animals, How to pronounce whale is in many ways a love letter to all life on this planet but ours: its beauty, its profound strangeness, its power – and our often unrequited longing to understand and connect with it. And as with any current exploration of nature, the book is also filled with sadness at how much of this wonderland has disappeared or is going. Mustill describes himself at one point as “kind of a natural wars reporter.”

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Of course, Mustill’s book doesn’t tell you how to speak whale or other animal languages. It’s no big spoiler to reveal that Google Translate of animal-to-human communication doesn’t exist yet. While we humans conflate vocalization with language, and it is clear that animals communicate with each other, it does not follow that animal vocalization is “animal language” or that vocalization, as our species does, is the only way communication happened. After all, if your cat is squirming around your legs at the same time every night, you’ll know she wants dinner whether she meows or not. Part of the considerable joy of How to pronounce whaleIn fact, it’s the tension between all the facts that Mustill uncovers and the mysteries that remain unsolved. He interviews scientists, whale song researchers, AI innovators, the academics who created the Cetacean Translation Initiative, and underwater camera operators, among others, and explains the immense body of compelling empirical evidence that what we call “whale song” is a created , patterned is rhyming, collaborative sound things whales make with purpose and innovation. However, to this day no one knows exactly why. Mustill writes, “Greeting whales, which can live more than two centuries, sing songs that are compared to jazz.” What do they do? We do not know it. Armed with increasingly sophisticated equipment, numerous researchers have spent decades studying whales and other marine mammals trying to translate what’s going on in their minds. Some of the results are unintentionally weird. When a prominent whale expert laboriously set up a mirror underwater to see if dolphins could pass the famous “mirror self-awareness test” – the gold standard of self-awareness and what we consider consciousness – two young male dolphins passed with flying colors then the mirror for “sequential attempts at insertion”…meaning they had sex and observed themselves.” Having fun, making out with us, or both?

When Mustill goes swimming with humpback whales towards the end, he talks about the sublime experience of “being seen by something inconceivable and huge”. A whale starts to sing, and it basically immerses itself in the song. “My lungs and air spaces and limbs were all vibrating, and I felt like I had become the medium in which it spoke.” Does it matter if we know what the whale “said”? Mustill’s resounding answer, literally vibrating with mystery, is no. “What matters,” he writes, “is that they are there.”

Novel by Stacey D’Erasmo the accomplices, in which a whale plays a major role is out now.

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