How to Speak Whale

The Power and Wonder of Listening to Animals


By Tom Mustill

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What if animals and humans could speak to one another? Tom Mustill—the nature documentarian who went viral when a thirtyton humpback whale breached onto his kayak—asks this question in his thrilling investigation into whale science and animal communication.

A New Yorker Best Book of 2022 

“When a whale is in the water, it is like an iceberg: you only see a fraction of it and have no conception of its size.”
On September 12, 2015, Tom Mustill was paddling in a two-person kayak with a friend just off the coast of California. It was cold, but idyllic—until a humpback whale breached, landing on top of them, releasing the energy equivalent of forty hand grenades. He was certain he was about to die, but they both survived, miraculously unscathed. In the interviews that followed the incident, Mustill was left with one question: What could this astonishing encounter teach us?
Drawing from his experience as a naturalist and wildlife filmmaker, Mustill started investigating human–whale interactions around the world when he met two tech entrepreneurs who wanted to use artificial intelligence (AI)—originally designed to translate human languages—to discover patterns in the conversations of animals and decode them. As he embarked on a journey into animal eavesdropping technologies, where big data meets big beasts, Mustill discovered that there is a revolution taking place in biology, as the technologies developed to explore our own languages are turned to nature.
From seventeenth-century Dutch inventors, to the whaling industry of the nineteenth century, to the cutting edge of Silicon Valley, How to Speak Whale examines how scientists and start-ups around the world are decoding animal communications. Whales, with their giant mammalian brains, virtuoso voices, and long, highly social lives, offer one of the most realistic opportunities for this to happen. But what would the consequences of such human animal interaction be?

We’re about to find out.


How do you expect to communicate with the ocean, when you can’t even understand one another?

Stanisław Lem, Solaris

An illustration by the artist Sarah A. King of the view I had as the whale bore down on Charlotte and me.


Van Leeuwenhoek Decides to Look

What if I had never seen this before?

—Rachel Carson, The Sense of Wonder

In the mid-seventeenth century, in Delft in the Dutch Republic, there lived an unusual man called Antonie van Leeuwenhoek. This is him:

Antonie van Leeuwenhoek holding one of his magnifying inventions in 1686, by Jan Verkolje.

Van Leeuwenhoek was a businessman, a draper. He was also a high-tech inventor. The previous fifty years in Europe had seen the rapid development of tools for magnification—telescopes and microscopes. Most worked on similar principles, with two glass lenses fitted into a tube. Looking through these lenses gave the user superhuman powers, bringing distant planets and tiny objects into better view. They were also very rare: Few people had learned how to grind, polish, and fit the glasses, and many guarded their secrets closely. For van Leeuwenhoek, as an apprentice draper, “microscopes” (from the Greek words for “small” and “to look at”) were also the tools of his trade, useful for inspecting the quality of the fabrics he bought and sold. The early microscopes could magnify up to nine times, while later iterations could zoom in farther. But the multilens design had a flaw—the more they magnified, the more distorted the lenses made the image, and above about twenty times magnification it was hard to make anything out.

In Delft, van Leeuwenhoek had been secretly pioneering a different technique. Instead of using a series of lenses, he became expert at crafting tiny individual spheres of glass, some just over a millimeter in diameter, which he mounted onto folding metal brackets. By placing an object onto the bracket, holding the glass sphere very close to his eye, and looking through it into a source of light, he found he could magnify his subject by up to 275 times and with little distortion. He is thought to have made more than five hundred microscopes during his lifetime. Recent studies have found the focusing capabilities and clarity of his devices comparable to those of modern light microscopes.

Van Leeuwenhoek did not just use his revolutionary magnifying technology to inspect the weave of the cloth he sold. He explored the world beyond his trade. While other microscopists had enlarged and explored the visible—things like insects, or cork—van Leeuwenhoek discovered entire invisible realms. In a thimbleful of water from a local lake, empty to the naked eye, he was astonished to spy hordes of “animalcules”—tiny animals, bacteria, and single-celled organisms. Everywhere he looked, he found scurrying swarms of previously unknown creatures: in the world around us—in rainwater and well water, and within our bodies—samples scraped from his mouth and taken from intestines. Van Leeuwenhoek was entranced, writing that “no more pleasant sight has yet met my eye than this of so many thousands of living creatures in one small drop of water, all huddling and moving.”

At the time, people were unable to see the eggs of fleas, eels, or mussels, so they assumed they didn’t exist. Rather than growing from eggs as larger animals did, it was believed that these small animals came into being through a process called “spontaneous generation,” whereby fleas could spring into life from dust, mussels from sand, and eels from dew. Van Leeuwenhoek’s tools revealed the previously imperceptible eggs of these animals, and doomed this theory. He was obsessed with the new world he had discovered: red blood cells, bacteria, the structure of salt, the muscle cells of whale meat. He investigated the still-mysterious world of human reproduction, perceiving within semen tiny moving bodies with tails—sperm. When I think of this moment, I wonder both how astonishing this must have been, and whose semen he got hold of.

A copy of the illustrations made by van Leeuwenhoek of the animalcules he had discovered. Figure IV is thought to be the first printed rendering of a bacterium.

Across the Channel, in England, the natural philosopher Robert Hooke had himself been experimenting with microscopes, adding to and modifying their lenses and exploring the structures of snowflakes and the hairs of fleas. The drawings he published of these hidden worlds caused a public sensation. The diarist Samuel Pepys stayed up until 2 a.m. reading Hooke’s book in bed. Poring over the fold-out illustrations, he wrote that it was “the most ingenious book that ever I read in my life.” Van Leeuwenhoek wrote to Hooke and the other learned experimenters of the Royal Society (then called the Royal Society of London for the Improvement of Natural Knowledge) and reported his findings. At first, many did not believe the “exceedingly curious and industrius” merchant, despite credible witnesses. How could there be whole domains of life completely invisible to us? Van Leeuwenhoek complained that he “oft-times hear it said that I do but tell fairy tales about the little animals.” It didn’t help that he closely guarded his microscopes and his methods for crafting them.

In London, Hooke worked to reproduce van Leeuwenhoek’s results. It took many attempts to replicate the exquisite, tiny glass spheres, but when he finally succeeded on November 15, 1677, he gazed into rainwater and beheld tiny moving creatures; “surprized at this so wonderful a spectacle” he, too, “verily believed” them to be animals. Seeing was believing. Van Leeuwenhoek was duly made a fellow of the Society and is today widely acknowledged as the father of microbiology. His inventions allowed us to view the microscopic life that has always surrounded us—but just as crucially, he possessed a mind curious enough to look where others assumed nothing would be found.

A few centuries on and our culture has changed. When someone sneezes in the street, you picture the germs spraying across you. When you worry that your mole looks a bit funny, you conjure up visions of tiny cancerous cells furiously dividing. Knowing about the microscopic world changes our lives: We wash our hands and wounds, we create and freeze embryos. We know that hidden within each of our bodies there are as many bacteria as human cells. An invisible ecosystem. His decision to look has transformed our behaviors, our cultures, and how we see ourselves.

This is the legacy of van Leeuwenhoek’s invention. We cannot unsee what he first spied.

What further invisible worlds might we now discover? You are already part of one new frontier. Since the seventeenth century our tools for looking have proliferated, and many are now pointed toward ourselves: Security cameras track you walking down the street, the thermometer and gyroscope in your iPhone senses you shifting in your sleep as the room cools. So much is now tracked: When you sleep and when you dream. Where you live and where you go. Your fingerprints, voiceprints, iris pattern, gait, weight, ovulation, body temperature, likely infections, breast scans, the steps you take, the shape of your face and the expressions it can pull. What you like, what you don’t. Who you like, who you don’t. The songs and colors and objects you are drawn to. What turns you on. What you think is funny. Your name and your avatars and handles. The words you use, the accent with which you speak. And we’re just getting started. You are now remembered not just by your friends and family, but by computers you have never met—what they sense of you is crystallized in data and transmitted through the internet to vast servers, where it sits with the data of billions of other humans. Your data are accumulating faster than any memoir you could write, and when you die, they will outlast you. And within these data, other machines are trained to find invisible patterns.

For the past couple of decades, many of our brightest engineers, mathematicians, psychologists, computer scientists, and anthropologists have been scooped from universities to work for Alphabet, Meta, Baidu, Tencent, the other giant information corporations, as well as the governments of the United States and China. In the 1940s, these minds might have been set to work on splitting the atom at the Manhattan Project; in the 1960s, they might have been employed designing spacecraft at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory. Today, clever young people are richly rewarded for finding new ways to record, amass, and analyze human data. Using invisible patterns in language, their machines can translate between human tongues without ever being taught how to speak one; using hidden patterns in faces, they can tell when a human smile is genuine better than a human can. We are begrudgingly accepting this accumulation of our data, as well as the fact that we can be manipulated by those who understand these patterns within it.

In all this, it is easy to forget that we are animals, human animals. All these patterns—our bodies, behaviors, and communications—are biology. The tools we have made for finding invisible patterns in humans can work on other species, too. Like van Leeuwenhoek’s microscopes—useful for evaluating cloth, but also good for discovering the origins of fleas—many of our tracking devices, sensors, and pattern recognition machines were originally developed to sell things to people effectively but are now being turned outward, toward other species and the rest of nature. And they are, in the process, revolutionizing biology.

This book is about some of the pioneers in this new age of discovery: the decryption of the natural world. It is a journey to the frontiers where big data meets big beasts, where silicon-based intelligences are finding patterns in carbon-based life. It focuses on some of the most mysterious and fascinating animals—whales and dolphins—and how recent technology has radically changed what we know about their hidden lives and capabilities. It explores the way underwater robots, massive data sets, artificial intelligence (AI), and changes in human culture are combining to transform how biologists decode cetacean communications.

This book is about learning to speak whale. About whether, with all that is changing in our science, technology, and culture, such a thing could ever be possible. As we turn our pattern-finding machines away from ourselves and focus them on the utterances of other species, I have come to wonder if we will be changed by what we find, much as the microscopic worlds that van Leeuwenhoek saw through his glass spheres changed us. Could our discoveries compel us to protect these animals?

I know this all sounds a bit far-fetched. I thought so, too. But I didn’t just come up with this story: It found me, and I stumbled after it. It began in 2015 when a thirty-ton humpback whale leapt out of the sea and landed on top of me.


Enter, Pursued by a Whale

They say the sea is cold,

but the sea contains the hottest blood of all.

—Captain James T. Kirk, Star Trek IV: The Voyage Home

On September 12, 2015, I was kayaking with my friend Charlotte Kinloch in Monterey Bay, off the coast of California. We’d left the shore around 6 a.m., along with a guide and a half-dozen other kayakers from Moss Landing, a deepwater harbor halfway up the long bay between the coastal cities of Monterey and Santa Cruz. We were split into pairs, and each pair was allotted a two-person kayak. It was cold, misty, and so still I could hear the water dripping from our paddles onto the sea’s surface. Within the calm of the harbor walls, sea otters floated on their backs at rest, eyeing us from a distance, clamped to one another in fluffy rafts. As we turned past the piled boulders of the breakwater into the open ocean, groups of sea lions rolled about on the surface all around us, like the tops of turning cogs in a giant underwater machine, whiskery and snorting. The fog around us diffused the morning light so that it felt like paddling in a lightbox, and often little could be seen, but life was all around us. Above, pelicans cruised to the jagged cries of gulls.

I peered at the gray, almost metallic sea. Beneath us now was an underwater chasm deeper than the Grand Canyon. Although we were within earshot of land, it was already hundreds of fathoms deep, a great crack stretching thirty miles out from the coast far out to the sea. A freak of geology—the third largest underwater valley in the world—it channeled deep, food-rich seawater up to the surface, where the maritime alchemy of sunlight and nutrients fed an astonishing food chain considered a wonder of the natural world. In the 276 miles of shoreline and six thousand square miles of ocean, the National Marine Sanctuary contains such an abundance and diversity of life that it is known as the Blue Serengeti. On land there are just a few places, like its namesake the Serengeti in Tanzania, where you can witness megafauna. On most continents the largest animal you are likely to see is a cow. Yet many giant beasts remain in the seas. Mostly they dwell far from human eyes, in polar waters or clustering around remote island chains. But here, because of the canyon, mingled the largest aquatic creatures on the planet: great white sharks, leatherback turtles, giant ocean sunfish, elephant seals, humpback whales, killer whales, and the vastest of all the megafauna, blue whales. Right next to the shore, alongside one of the biggest sprawls of humankind, just down the road from San Francisco and Silicon Valley.

Beneath this splash are Charlotte and me, our kayak, and a humpback whale.

Our guide, Sean, was a young, bearded, brown-haired bloke who looked like he spent more time with a kayak-skirt hanging from his waist than dressed in land clothes. Sean had explained that if we saw any whales, we should keep a hundred yards away from them. They were wild animals and it was on us to stay out of their way, not the other way around. There were many kinds of cetaceans in these waters. Gray whale mothers escorting their young calves along the coast from their birth waters in Mexico; killer whales lurking to hunt them; fin whales, minke whales, cruising through, chasing plankton swarms; and Risso’s dolphins hunting squid.

As we paddled out of the harbor, only a few minutes passed before we saw the whales. They were everywhere. The morning fog lifted to reveal their spouts shooting up from the surface in all directions; whale breath marked the air along the sandy coast toward Monterey and out to sea. As a conservation biologist and wildlife filmmaker, I have been fortunate to see a lot of whales of many different kinds. But I had never experienced anything like this. There were so many. At first, all those we spotted were distant, half a mile off. Then a group of three popped up a stone’s throw away, one after another, moving quickly. Before long, more appeared and disappeared behind us. Sean told us to stick close together, and we backpedaled to keep our distance. With no wind or waves, the sudden, plosive exhale of a whale surfacing felt scarily loud and close, something between a whinnying horse and a gas canister being depressurized. Their breath, like stale, fishy broccoli, carried downwind toward us.

Often sighting a whale can be anticlimactic: Mostly you see them when they come up to breathe, and from high up on the deck of a boat it can be like fleetingly glimpsing a big exhaling log. It’s often hard to get a sense of their scale. Yet, from the kayak, it was remarkably different. As we watched them along the water level, we felt their size, and their power.

The whales we were seeking that morning were a species called humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), one of the largest of all the cetaceans—the name given to the group of mammals that includes whales, dolphins, and porpoises. When a humpback whale is born, it already weighs as much as a white rhino. The adults swimming around us were each mostly the size of an airport shuttle bus. The flat wash of the misty light brought out all the detail of their skin, which resembled the texture of a cucumber with a filigree of cracks and scars, the muscular ridges along their double nostrils, clamped shut on the tops of their heads. They were blue-gray on top and paler underneath, with long, armlike pectoral fins.

We’d been told that the whales were feeding on a school of fish that stretched over a mile underwater, and there was clearly a great whale feast happening beneath us. Humpbacks are binge eaters, hunting and swallowing hundreds of fish at a time. They are migratory: In the summers, they move to cooler waters, such as Antarctica, Alaska, and Monterey Bay, where they will spend most of each day eating. They pile on the pounds, feasting month after month. Then, in the winters, they fast, not eating for months. They swim to warmer tropical seas where they woo one another, shed their parasites, and birth their young (called calves). Humpbacks are unusually “surface-active” whales; they often lift parts of their bodies out of the water, or roll around on the surface. When lunging at their prey, they can suddenly shoot most of their heads out of the water, mouths agape. When they dive, they fold gracefully and their tail flukes can extend well clear of the surface. In the tropics, they mainly rest and move little, conserving strength for the long journey back. The peace is sometimes broken by the males (called bulls), who charge around after the females (cows) in “heat runs,” battling and jostling one another in bloody, dangerous competitions. Their annual migrations are the longest of any mammal, spanning entire oceans. By the time they return to their feeding grounds, their fatty blubber is so depleted the outlines of their spines are clearly visible. So humpbacks don’t mess around in Monterey. When it’s feeding time, they gorge.

All around us the humpbacks were moving, and fast. They seemed to be clustered in small groups of three or four and turning often. I’ve learned since that these whales can work in teams, using their bodies and walls of exhaled bubbles to trap balls of fish and push them toward the surface before lunging at them together. In these maneuvers, different whales seem to take on different roles. Unusual for mammals that cooperate, the teams of whales often aren’t related to one another, and they stick together year after year, traveling across thousands of miles in convoy. I watched a group of four whales surface, their bodies aligned, pectoral fins overlappingly close. In unison, they exhaled, inhaled, and immediately disappeared. They seemed like volleyball players fist-bumping between points.

These relationships have been called friendships (though scientists generally refer to them as “stable multiyear associations”). Bobbing in our kayaks, toes numb, mouths agape, we watched them feed. I was later told that at least 120 whales were identified in the bay that day. Sometimes they would slap their fins on the water with a great phat noise (“pec-slapping”), or even raise their heads above the surface to the level where their eyes could look about them in the air, a behavior known as “spy hopping.” Toward the horizon we saw a couple of partial breaches—whales throwing themselves up out of the water and crashing back down in a white explosion with a whump noise, like distant thunder. I didn’t realize at the time that this was, even for Monterey Bay, an unprecedented feeding frenzy. We’d chanced upon the greatest concentration of whales, with the calmest weather, the closest to shore in living memory.

I looked over at Sean, our guide, and noticed that he did not seem relaxed. His eyes flicked back and forth over the four boats in our little flotilla; he regularly called out to us to come back together if we drifted too far apart and to paddle backward as new whales appeared. Of course, whales can move a lot faster than kayaks. As the morning wore on, three or four whale-watching boats and other kayakers joined us. We were so close to the beach that a stand-up paddleboarder had even made it out. I had long since stopped caring about how cold and damp it was, or the fact that all feeling from my bottom was gone. After a couple of hours, Charlotte—who had before that day never seen a whale in her life—and I turned our craft away from the whales, and with the rest of our group, we headed back to shore, hyperattenuated and awed.

We had made it about halfway to the harbor when suddenly about thirty feet in front of us an adult humpback erupted from the sea, shooting impossibly upward—as if a building had grown out of the ocean, as Charlotte would later describe it. When a whale is in the water, it is like an iceberg: You see only a fraction of it and have no true conception of its size. Each foot of humpback whale weighs about a ton, and adults range from about thirty to fifty feet long. An animal three times the weight of a double-decker bus. Can you imagine what that looks like hovering above you? One moment we were on the flat, calm sea going home, the next this gargantuan, living mass of muscle and blood and bone was in the air, arcing toward us. I remember noticing the grooves on its throat. Ventral pleats, I thought to myself. And the next thing I recall is being underwater.

A humpback whale is three times bigger than the biggest T. rex; its sixteen-foot pectoral fin is the largest and most powerful arm in the history of life on Earth. If you were to X-ray a humpback’s pec fin you would see your own arm, writ monstrous: shoulder blades into humerus bone, joining radius and ulna, hand bones and fingers—a legacy of their lives on land before their ancestors returned to the seas. As the whale came down onto us, the force of the impact punched the kayak beneath the water, and we were sucked down with the sinking whale, leaving just an explosion of spray where we’d been a moment before. Underwater, dislodged from the kayak, I spun, a toy person, tumbling in the freezing water faster than I thought possible, my stomach yawing with the feeling you get when you jump off something high. My eyes were open but I could see nothing but whiteness. I sensed that the whale was still very close. And then I felt it move away without touching me. The white of the explosion turned to dark seawater. It was only at that point that I felt fear. Until then, it had been a matter of facts: There was a whale above my head and I was going to die. Some reptile part of my brain now rationalized that the only reason I wasn’t yet dead must be that I was in shock and couldn’t feel that my body was broken into pieces. Soon, I’d surely be hit by the pain and lose consciousness. But miraculously I felt my lifejacket tug upward, and I kicked with it toward the light.

I was certain that Charlotte was dead. As I broke the surface and looked around, I saw her head. Her living head, attached to the rest of her body, eyes wide open and mouth pulled tight in a grin of adrenaline and fear. I felt sheer delight. We were alive.

How the fuck were we alive?

We swam over to our kayak, which was filled with water and lolling on the surface, and clung to it. Its nose was dented and deformed from the impact, and there were scratch marks from where the barnacles living on the whale’s skin had scraped it. Later, I wondered how much force it must take to dent the rigid molded plastic of a kayak floating on water. If I punched a rubber duck floating in a bath as hard as I could, it wouldn’t leave a mark. Scientists have estimated the forces involved. To breach, a humpback must reach speeds of up to twenty-six feet per second, an astounding velocity for a thing the size of a truck moving through water. For a large adult whale to breach like this, they estimated it would take a release of energy equivalent to about forty hand grenades. It felt as though we’d survived a lightning strike.

Other kayakers paddled over, seemingly more upset than us—which is understandable considering they’d thought they’d just watched us die. As someone fished Charlotte’s flip-flops from the water, a whale-watching boat chugged up alongside us. We looked up at ranks of tourists leaning over. Some shouted to ask if we were OK, while others recorded us on their phones. Most had been looking the other way, out to sea. They assumed we’d been knocked out of the kayak by the splash, not that a whale had actually hit us. We dangled off someone else’s kayak in a state of euphoria and shock, while someone turned ours over to empty it. We were safe. Just then, a whale began moving toward us along the surface of the water. “He’s back for more!” joked a nearby kayaker.

I laughed, but I was unnerved. While I knew that these whales don’t eat people and in fact cannot, having no teeth and a throat the width of a grapefruit, I was also aware that they don’t often breach on people, either. Just as the approaching whale’s head felt like it would hit us, it tilted its front end down and dove. As humpbacks bend into the dive their backs arch distinctively, showing prominently the bulge ahead of their dorsal fin that gives them their name. As the long spine curved and the whale’s head plunged toward the seabed, other parts of it were still moving upward. Like carriages on a train, sections of the whale first rose, then disappeared beneath us: the dorsal fin, then the thick, stocky caudal peduncle—like the tail of a diplodocus, which narrows to a human torso’s width—before the great tail fluke finally emerged, glistening, into the air, trails of water dripping off the tips of each half of the massive paddle.

Floating in the water, I was transfixed by the sight so close in front of us, beloved of whale watchers. The huge, black, heart-shaped flukes shone in the gray light, the tail’s end alone the size of a horse. This is called fluking, I thought. It’s doing that so the weight of its tail helps it overcome its buoyancy, allowing it to sink. Where it dove, it left a mark like a big pancake on the water. A whale footprint. If I had stretched my feet out beneath me, I think I could have touched its body as it passed under. Instead, I wrapped my feeble, stubby land legs around the kayak I clung to like a sloth. I then remembered that a whale had just jumped on us, and we had survived. I turned and said this to Charlotte. In more colorful language, she said she was aware of this but needed me to just shut up until we got back to land.


  • “We rarely pause to consider what animals think or feel, or question whether their inner lives resemble our own. Tom Mustill’s fascinating and deeply humane book shows us why we must do so—and what we, and the planet, could stand to gain by it.”—Greta Thunberg
  • “We are on the verge of a revolution in communicating with these smart, social, otherworldly leviathans. Tom Mustill's riveting reports from the cutting edge of science set my heart pounding! How to Speak Whale is one of the most exciting and hopeful books I have read in ages.” —Sy Montgomery, New York Times bestselling author of The Soul of an Octopus
  • “Through his highly personal journey and discussions with experts, Tom Mustill conveys the richness of whale song and communication. Most of all we gain immense respect for these giants of the ocean.”—Frans de Waal, New York Times bestselling author of Mama’s Last Hug and Different: Gender Through the Eyes of a Primatologist
  • “I loved this book. It will really make you think about the relationship between animals and people.”—Temple Grandin, New York Times bestselling co-author of Animals in Translation and Thinking in Pictures
  • “Dr. Doolittle wanted to speak to the animals, and many attempts to communicate with non-humans have involved trying to teach them to speak English. The frontier is in meeting other animals where they are, how they live, and for us to understand them by learning their modes of communication. In How to Speak Whale, Tom Mustill takes us farther, much farther, than Dr. Doolittle ever imagined. And he does it with humility and sensitivity that befits the subject.”

    Carl Safina, New York Times bestselling author of Song for the Blue Ocean and Beyond Words
  • "A rich, fascinating, brilliant book that opens our eyes and ears to worlds we can scarcely imagine."—George Monbiot, Sunday Times bestselling author of Regenesis
  • "Mustill guides the reader right to the edge of what we know (and don’t know) about how whales and other non-human animals talk to one another. A lively and informative read that heralds what could be the golden age of animal communication."—Jonathan C. Slaght, Author of Owls of the Eastern Ice, longlisted for the National Book Award and Winner of the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award
  • How to Speak Whale begins with a massive splash that pulls you right in. Then, the waves of wonder keep rolling over you page after brilliant page, until you reach the end and realize your view of the world, and the animals we share it with, has changed forever.”—Juli Berwald, Author of Spineless and Life on the Rocks
  • "This is a scary, important and brilliant book. It proposes that whales may be the first species other than ourselves whose complex communications we will soon understand. Tom Mustill’s adventures into the inner space occupied by these watery aliens are by turns enthralling and revealing. And he’s not afraid to ask, boldly, the crucial question: if we do get to translate ‘whale’, will we like what they’ve got to say?"—Philip Hoare, Author of Leviathan and Albert and the Whale
  • “Mustill has opened a door that takes us into an exciting journey of understanding the other animals on this planet, demystifying their secrets and putting their messages within our grasp. You will actually start to listen to animals after reading this extraordinary book.”—Christiana Figueres, Author of The Future We Choose
  • "How to Speak Whale is borne along by [Mustill's] faith that whales have something intelligible to tell us and his hope that one day soon we’ll figure out what that is . . . Think how transformative it would be if we could chat with whales about their love lives or their sorrows or their thoughts on the philosophy of language."—Elizabeth Kolbert, The New Yorker
  • "Mustill examines why humans always seem to underestimate other animals and what this means for the future and writes of the sheer joy of being in the water with a singing humpback whale."—Booklist, Starred Review
  • "A thoughtful, wide-ranging, and moving book that combines history, reportage, science, and Mustill’s own process around his near-death collision with a mammoth sentient being from another world . . . How to Speak Whale is in many ways a love letter to all the life on this planet besides ours: its beauty, its deep strangeness, its power—and our longing, often unrequited, to understand and connect with it. And, as with any current exploration of the natural world, the book is also filled with grief about how much of that wonderland is gone, or going."—Oprah Daily
  • "Fascinating characters . . . Thoughtful and curious, this study sings."—Publishers Weekly
  • "The ultimate question of Mustill’s book is whether enabling interspecies communication will make people value other species more. His attention to detail—perhaps from his work as a nature documentary filmmaker—immerses readers in each step of discovery and lends immediacy and personality to the writing. Environmentalists and general science enthusiasts will enjoy joining Mustill on his quest to understand whales."—Library Journal
  • "A mix of thoughtfully explained hard science and colorfully described hands-on adventures . . . Mustill’s findings offer hope that someday a book called How to Speak Whale might be more dictionary than discussion."—BookPage
  • “Readers will savor this expert exploration of animal communication.”—Kirkus
  • "A travelogue, a history lesson, a critique of the scientific community when it comes to animal studies, and a high-tech conservation game plan all wrapped into one book. Most of all it’s a captivating, thought-provoking read, leaving its audience with a greater sense of the complexity and inherent value of these sovereigns of the deep."—Christian Science Monitor
  • "A whirlwind of stories and scientific studies all pointing to when, exactly, humans might be able to 'speak whale' . . . Projects both a warning of the dangers of human exceptionalism and an optimism for the quest to understand the inner lives of our fellow animals."—Vulture
  • "This lively book by the British nature documentarian begins with a bang."—The Globe and Mail
  • "Like a first-class nature film put on paper . . . a reasoned, entertaining, and fact-filled inquiry into the particulars of animal communication and the possibilities of humans ever talking to any animals."—Forbes
  • "Fascinating . . . Mustill dives into the history of the whaling industry and looks beyond."—BookRiot
  • "Not only will this book blow your mind, it will instill you with a vision of interspecies peace and progress - and there is nothing more revolutionary than that."—Daniel Kraus, author of The Shape of Water
  • "Superbly detailed, limpid, uplifting and emotionally arresting, Mustill does not just speak to the whales but for them. The Interspecies age is dawning and Mustill is in the vanguard."
     —J.M. Ledgard, author of Submergence
  • "How to Speak Whale is a rich exploration of some of the world's most astonishing creatures and the remarkable people that seek to understand them. Mustill weaves a narrative that will expand your concept of language and deepen your understanding of the many ways there are to be alive. This is an extraordinary book that left me inspired."
     —Merlin Sheldrake, New York Times bestselling author of Entangled Life

On Sale
Sep 6, 2022
Page Count
272 pages

Tom Mustill

About the Author

Tom Mustill is a biologist turned filmmaker and writer, specializing in stories where people and nature meet. His film collaborations, many with Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, have received numerous international awards, including two Webbys, a BAFTA, and an Emmy nomination. They have been played at the UN, in Times Square, and on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury, and been shared by heads of state, the World Health Organization, and Guns N’ Roses. He lives in London with his wife, Annie; daughter, Stella; and the inhabitants of his small but surprisingly deep pond.

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