II’m not lucky with a talent for foreign languages. I once attended Spanish classes every morning during a two-week vacation and still struggled to order a ticket at the Madrid train station, much to the amusement of my family.
So it might come as a surprise to some that I’m bypassing human languages and going straight to how to talk whale, courtesy of a new book of the same name by Tom Mustill. The prize is so great for an obsessive tree lover, nature advocate, and ocean nerd like myself that I very much hope to spot some latent ability for non-human communication.
Scientists think that by 2026 they will be able to “talk” to whales
SEAN SCOTT/GETTY IMAGES
The result of deciphering this complex system (some experts hesitate to call it language, as this is a very anthropocentric term) would be that we – homo sapiens, a notoriously cloth-eared, self-absorbed species – could develop much-needed empathy towards other species. This would be more of a party trick. It would be potentially life-saving (for us and for them). We are not properly connected to the rest of life on Earth, which is one reason we are spewing out carbon emissions and gobbling up resources faster than the poor old biosphere can regenerate them. Without changing this mentality it is frankly unlikely that we will succeed. The 80s could have been about “save the whale” slogans (from hunting – in retrospect an incredibly lame thing to do, given that whales are a major catalyst for carbon storage in the ocean system), but this time, the whale – and other cetacean species – could save us.
Don’t worry, Tom Mustill isn’t trying to be Dr. Dolittle, who in my opinion had a rather limited view of animal-human communications. Rather, this is the compelling story of how humanity is getting closer to being able to decipher cetacean communications. This is one of many scientific projects attempting to decode how other species and parts of the biosphere work (another example would 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 are on the verge of collapsing life-sustaining ecosystems, but we are also on the verge of being able to save, protect and regenerate them. Decoding the song of the whales could be like holding a thousand international climate COPs at the same time.
Whales are known to exhibit altruistic behavior
Sensors and satellites, voice and vision recognition are all part of the process. Probes can now record the deepest ocean singers while AI enables huge sets of auditory data to be analyzed for models. These models show creatures with organized clans and long lives using complex and bewitching communications. AI shows that baby belugas even use “babble” ostensibly to learn to vocalize from their larger pod.
In the interest of full disclosure, Tom is a friend and fellow co-host of our climate podcast So hot right now. Seven years ago she had a near-death encounter with a humpback whale in Monterey Bay while she was whale watching from a kayak. The whale breached and landed on Tom’s and his friend Charlotte’s kayak. A tourist on a nearby whale-watching boat who was filming and capturing the encounter (which has gone viral indeed) thought they were dead. But the whale seemed to avoid total disaster by turning around to avoid a full-body crash, which could have actually killed them. This wouldn’t be the first time whales have exhibited altruistic or caring behavior towards humans. In the documentary Humpback Whales: A Detective Story, Tom uses artificial intelligence to discover the whale (nicknamed Prime Suspect) and not only identify him, but also build a picture of his life. Trying to talk to Prime was always going to be the next logical step.
We’re not there yet but amazing things are happening. Scientists are using technology like robot fish that can place tiny recorders on the bodies of whales. The goal is to create the largest animal behavior data set ever. This has been dubbed “the Google Translate for animals” (also because the AI team is what created Google Translate). Scientists think that by 2026 they will be able to “talk” to this group of sperm whales. This gives you enough time to dust off your whale. To start with, Tom Mustill is giving this year’s Turing lecture at the Royal Institution (the first ever for anyone over 11) on How to Speak Whale on Valentine’s Day. What’s not to love