cover image How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication

How to Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication

Tom Mustill. Grand Central, $29 (304p) ISBN 978-1-5387-3911-2

Filmmaker Mustill dives deep into the world of animal communication in this colorful survey. Prompted by a near-death experience—a breaching humpback whale rising above and landing on his kayak in Monterey Bay—Mustill became obsessed with figuring out “what, if anything at all” the whale was “trying to say.” In his quest for answers, he describes the dismal history of human-whale relations (due in large part to hunting); whale anatomy that enables the creatures’ communication; and recent breakthroughs in the field of animal communication, in which researchers are employing artificial intelligence to interpret animal songs. Mustill’s survey is shot through with fascinating characters, among them Roger Payne, whose 1970s recordings of whale songs went multiplatinum and helped bring attention to the animals’ declining numbers. While there’s still a long way to go before “we will be able to speak to animals,” Mustill concludes, scientists are hard at work at making the possibility a reality. Alongside his quest to understand whale songs, Mustill stresses the importance of humans shaking 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.” Thoughtful and curious, this study sings. (Sept.)