I‘m not blessed with a foreign language talent. I once attended Spanish classes every morning of a two-week holiday and still struggled to order a ticket at Madrid train station, much to the amusement of my family.
So it may surprise some that I’m leapfrogging human languages and heading straight to how to speak whale, courtesy of a new book of the same name by Tom Mustill. The prize is so great for an obsessive tree-hugger, nature defender and ocean nerd like me that I’m very much hoping to locate some latent skill for non-human communication.
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The result of deciphering this complex system (some experts balk at calling it a language, as this is a very anthropocentric term) would be that we — homo sapiens, a notoriously cloth-eared and self-absorbed species — could develop much-needed empathy towards other species. This would be more than a party trick. It would be potentially life saving (for us and them). We are not properly connected with the rest of life on Earth, which is one of the reasons we are spewing carbon emissions and gobbling up resources faster than the poor old biosphere can regenerate them. Without changing this mindset we’re frankly unlikely to make it. The 1980s might have been about “save the whale” slogans (from hunting — in retrospect an incredibly dim thing to do, given that whales are one of the main catalysts for storing carbon in the ocean system), but this time around, the whale — and other cetacean species — could save us.
Don’t worry, Tom Mustill is not trying to be Dr Dolittle, who in my opinion had a rather limited take on animal-human comms. Rather, this is the compelling story of how humanity is getting close to being able to decipher the communications of cetaceans. This is one of a great number of scientific projects attempting to decode the workings of other species and parts of the biosphere (another example might be our recent discovery of how fungi communicate underground in complex structures, sending messages to trees, in what has been called the “wood wide web”). Yes, we’re on the brink of collapsing life-sustaining ecosystems, but we’re also on the brink of being able to save them, protect them and regenerate them. Decoding whale song could be like holding a thousand international climate COPs all at once.
Whales have been known to show altruistic behaviour
Sensors and satellites, voice and visual recognition are all part of the process. Probes can now record the deepest ocean singers while AI allows huge aural datasets to be analyzed for patterns. These patterns show creatures with organized clans and long lives using complex and bewitching communications. AI demonstrates that baby beluga even use “babble talk” to seemingly learn how to vocalise from their wider pod.
In the interests of full disclosure, Tom is a friend and fellow co-host of our climate podcast So Hot Right Now. Seven years ago he had a near-death encounter with a humpback in Monterey Bay while whale watching from a kayak. The whale breached and landed on Tom and his friend Charlotte’s kayak. A tourist on a neighboring whale-watching boat who happened to be filming and capturing the encounter (which went very viral indeed) thought they must be dead. But the whale seemed to avert total disaster by twisting to avoid a full body slam, which might indeed have killed them. This would not be the first time whales exhibited altruistic or caring behavior towards humans. In the documentary Humpback Whales: A Detective Story, Tom uses AI to find out about the whale (nicknamed Prime Suspect) and not only to identify it but to build a picture of its life. Trying to speak with Prime was always going to be the next logical step.
We’re not there yet but incredible things are happening. Scientists are using technology such as robot fish that can place tiny recorders on whales’ bodies. The aim is to create the biggest animal-behavior dataset ever. This is dubbed “the Google Translate for animals” (not least because the AI team is the one that set up Google Translate). The scientists think that by 2026 they will be in a position to “speak” with this group of sperm whales. Now that just gives you enough time to brush up on your cetacean. To make a start, Tom Mustill will give this year’s Turing lecture at the Royal Institution (the first ever for everyone over 11) on How to Speak Whale, on Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love