Documentary filmmaker Tom Mustill has seen all manner of wondrous things. But those awe-inspiring experiences, including collaborations with David Attenborough and Greta Thunberg, still could not prepare him for the astounding close encounter that fundamentally changed his life.
As the British debut author details in How to Speak Whale: A Voyage Into the Future of Animal Communication, the year was 2015; the location, the waters off Monterey Bay, California; and the context, a kayak tour with his friend and co-paddler, Charlotte, wherein they witnessed 120 humpback whales, each “the size of an airport shuttle bus,” enjoying a massive group buffet. Suddenly, one of the whales breached and landed atop the duo with “a release of energy equivalent to about forty hand grenades.”
A YouTube video of the event went viral, and Mustill found himself the subject of news reports and memes, as well as “a lightning conductor for whale fanatics.” He became a bit of a fanatic, too, when his whale specialist friend Dr. Joy Reidenberg said it seemed as if he and Charlotte had survived because the whale decided to veer to one side in midair. Of course, Mustill mused, there was no way to really know if the whale attempted to spare them. It’s not like he could ask—or could he?
In How to Speak Whale, a mix of thoughtfully explained hard science and colorfully described hands-on adventures (a beachside whale dissection is particularly memorable), Mustill chronicles his incredible journey into the fascinating and profound world of animal communication. He interviews and observes people who are specialists in everything from whale song to bat chirps to interspecies sign language, as well as psychologists, computer scientists, historians, cryptographers, artificial intelligence experts and more.
Thanks to Mustill’s gift for storytelling, it’s as interesting to learn about these experts as the creatures they study. Reidenberg is a particular delight, as is Dr. Roger Payne, whose album of whale song recordings went multiplatinum in 1970. Through it all, there runs an undercurrent of appreciation and wonderment as Mustill gulps down knowledge and determinedly questions whether “decoding animal communications [is] no longer a fantasy but a technical problem.”
Wild (and thrilling!) as that may seem, Mustill’s findings offer hope that someday a book called How to Speak Whale might be more dictionary than discussion, more conversation than exploration.