Speaking to animals has long been a fantasy. But now a dizzyingly ambitious project is harnessing all the power of modern science in an attempt to understand what whales say – and then hold conversations with them
What happened next was almost as weird. Mustill and Charlotte went viral. Passing whale-watching tourists had videoed the pair’s near-death encounter and stuck it on YouTube. Mustill, a wildlife filmmaker, became what he calls “a lightning conductor for whale fanatics”. Interviewed by the global media, he was soon quivering with different and extraordinary stories of whale meetings from around the world: a submariner told him about whales singing to his ship; a book publisher reported being apparently scanned by the sonar-like echolocation of a pregnant female dolphin – a few days later, she discovered that she too was pregnant. “It was really addictive finding out all these other stories,” says Mustill, “because each one was like another lens on the animal and our relationship to them.”
These stories alone could fill a book, but Mustill first made a BBC documentary about humpback whales, before writing his book, How to Speak Whale, which is a thrilling exploration of past, present and future scientific endeavours to communicate with animals and better understand cetaceans in particular. What begins with questions about his own brief encounter soon plumbs profound scientific and philosophical depths.