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After a humpback whale crashed on top of me in my kayak, I set out to learn how they communicate

After a humpback whale crashed on top of me in my kayak, I set out to learn how they communicate
Tom Mustill is a filmmaker and writer based in England. His book, “How to Speak Whale,” will be available in September.Handout

We were in the vast Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary, which contains such an abundance and diversity of life that it’s known as the Blue Serengeti. Here mingled the planet’s largest aquatic creatures: great white sharks, leatherback turtles, giant ocean sunfish, elephant seals, humpback whales, killer whales, and the vastest of all the megafauna, blue whales.

Our guide, Sean, had explained that if we saw any whales, we should keep a hundred yards away. Only a few minutes passed before we saw them. As a conservation biologist and wildlife filmmaker, I’ve been fortunate to see a lot of whales of many different kinds. But I had never experienced anything like this.

At first, all those we spotted were half a mile off. Then a group of three popped up a stone’s throw away, moving quickly. Before long, more appeared. The sudden, explosive exhale of a whale surfacing felt scarily loud and close. Their breath, like stale, fishy broccoli, carried toward us.

Watching them from water level, we felt their size, their power. We were seeking humpback whales, one of the largest of all the cetaceans — the name given to the group of mammals that also includes dolphins and porpoises. I watched four whales surface, their bodies aligned. In unison they exhaled, inhaled, and disappeared. I was later told that at least 120 whales were identified in the bay that day. We’d chanced upon the greatest concentration of whales, with the calmest weather, the closest to shore, in living memory.

Sean didn’t seem relaxed. His eyes flicked back and forth over our four boats; he regularly called out to us to paddle backward as new whales appeared. After a couple of hours, our group headed back to shore.

We’d made it halfway to the harbor when, about 30 feet in front of us, an adult humpback shot impossibly upward — as if a building had grown out of the ocean, as Charlotte would later describe it. A whale in the water is like an iceberg: You see only a fraction of it. Each foot of humpback weighs about a ton, and adults are about 30 to 50 feet long. An animal three times the weight of a double-decker bus.

One moment we were on the flat 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. And the next thing I recall is being underwater.

Dislodged from the kayak, I spun, a toy person, tumbling in the freezing water. 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 sea water. 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. But miraculously I felt my life jacket tug upward, and I kicked toward the light.

Certain that Charlotte was dead, I 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. We were alive.

We swam over to our kayak, its nose deformed from the impact, scratched by the barnacles living on the whale’s skin. For an adult whale to breach like this, it would take a release of energy equivalent to about 40 hand grenades. But we’d survived.

The other kayakers seemed more upset than us — they’d thought they’d just watched us die. 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.

We climbed back into our kayak. Sean, clearly distressed, tied a rope to our kayak and struck for the harbor. We were shivering now. Back at the base they gave us each a Monterey Bay Kayaks baseball cap and hot chocolate. Nobody said much to us. It all felt strangely awkward, like there’d been a faux pas. On the ride back to the Airbnb, Charlotte burst into tears.

The next day, I searched online for something to prove it was all real. And there was a YouTube video from a whale watcher named Larry Plants. You could see us paddling along, and then suddenly the whale emerged and crashed onto us. Charlotte and I disappeared in a white explosion, bobbing up again six long seconds later. Larry shouted, “I got it, I got it on video,” as a woman nearby screamed.

While I was at the airport, Good Morning America called to interview me. By the time I landed in London, the video had 4 million views and counting.

Some whales voices can carry across an ocean.Craig Lambert/Adobe Stock

No one knows for sure why whales breach. The most popular theories relate to communication. Traveling through water — a far better conductor of sound than air — their voices can be heard many miles away. Had we strayed into a whale conversation?

By this point, I’d been making wildlife films for a decade. The BBC Studios Natural History Unit and PBS commissioned me to make a film about the community around Monterey Bay, and how their lives interacted with the whales there. I set about finding out as much as I could about my experience, seeking to link this into the wider story of what was happening to humpback whales.

Over the course of the filmmaking process, every week seemed to herald a new revelation in the world of cetaceans. New populations of whales, even new species, were being found, along with new patterns of behavior and communication, and possibly new cultures — new to us, that is.

Meanwhile, I was surrounded by machines. Drones flew overhead filming and measuring whales; directional hydrophones dangled from research vessels into the ocean. From space, satellites followed the movements of tagged whales. And other powerful new machines were being used to make sense of all this information. With the aid of weeks-old databases and a custom-built algorithm, local citizen scientists identified the whale that leapt onto Charlotte and me. They named it Prime Suspect. Another algorithm analyzed years of audio recordings from the seafloor, revealing that the whales in Monterey Bay were singing day and night — a surprise to many.

A profound and extraordinary shift in our understanding across all of biology was taking place, bringing us closer and closer to the fantastic beasts who share our world. As I immersed myself in the world of cetaceans, people kept mentioning one man: Dr. Roger Payne. From him, I would learn the power and importance of decoding cetacean communications.

Scientist Roger Payne has studied whale
communication for 60 years.
DIANA SANCHEZ/AFP via Getty Images

The iconic whale scientist lives far from the sea, deep in the woods of Vermont. On a Friday in June, I turned off the highway, drove down a long road, and reached a farmhouse. A tall, beaming man wearing wire-rimmed specs answered the door.

Roger insisted on showing me around before our interview. He led me around the back of the house and past the open doors of his woodworking studio. In the woods nearby was a ring of colossal standing stones. Roger and Lisa, his second wife, had married there in a ceremony that author Cormac McCarthy, a friend, had helped Roger write, and which was read by another of their friends, Star Trek’s Sir Patrick Stewart. I felt I was in the presence of a benevolent wizard.

In the late 1950s and early 1960s, Roger was studying how the mechanics of owl hearing allowed them to catch mice in total darkness. But then something life-changing happened. While working at Tufts University, he heard a radio announcement one night. A whale had washed up on a nearby beach.

By the time Roger arrived, it was pouring rain. He walked along the deserted beach and found the body: it wasn’t a whale, but a dolphin. People had cut the dolphin’s tail flukes off, stuffed a cigar in its blowhole, and carved their initials in its side. “I removed the cigar and stood there for a long time with feelings I cannot describe,” Roger later wrote. “Everybody has some such experience that affects him for life, probably several. That night was one of mine.”

In that moment, Roger realized that a person could only carve their name in a dolphin if they viewed it as something very different from a human, as no more than a thing.

At a lecture sometime later, Roger learned what was happening to whales worldwide: the unfettered industrial slaughter as the factory fleets worked their way down through the largest, most profitable, and most easily found whales — the right, blue, and fin whales — and, when they’d hunted all of them, through other species. He was shocked.

A few days afterward, he happened to hear a recording of right whale calls. Mysterious and lovely, they haunted him. He set up his alarm clock to turn on his record player with the recording. “I figured, if I can wake up to these sounds, maybe the day will be better. And I did, and it was.”

But the beautiful calls of the whales were also a reminder of the dire straits they were in. To Roger, part of the problem was that the only connection people had with whales was through the whaling industry. He became determined to change this. One day, at a meeting of the New York Zoological Society (now the Wildlife Conservation Society), he simply announced he was going to study whales.

Roger spoke to anyone who knew anything about whales. Eventually, he got a tip about a US Navy engineer named Frank Watlington in Bermuda. It was the height of the Cold War, and the United States had listening stations underwater to eavesdrop on passing Soviet submarines. Frank had access to a single, powerful hydrophone in a top secret array of listening devices on the seafloor, 35 miles offshore. He’d been hearing some unusual sounds — long, varied, and complex — and noticed they seemed to correlate with the times he saw migrating humpbacks. Could it be the whales?

Roger and his then-wife Katy (also a scientist) traveled to Bermuda and met Frank, who took them into the bowels of a boat where there was a generator hammering loudly. He put Frank’s headphones on and listened to Frank’s recordings. “I think it’s a humpback!” Frank shouted at Roger, who felt transformed. If this is a humpback whale, he thought, this will speak to the world as no other voice ever has.

It was 1967 and commercial whaling was at its peak, with more than 70,000 whales killed each year. Frank was concerned that whalers would use the recordings to find and kill more whales. He gave Roger a copy and told the Paynes to “go save the whales.”

The calls of the whales were highly complex, lasting about 20 minutes, ranging from harsh, belching grunts to high squeaks to deep, mournful moans. He listened to the recording hundreds of times until it hit him: My God, these animals are repeating themselves.

With a collaborator named Scott McVay, Roger made spectrographs — visual representations of the sounds — that clearly showed these repeating patterns. The patterns were made up of units (“notes”) of different pitches and volumes, and the notes were produced in groups (“phrases”) that repeated for a few minutes (“themes”). When the sequence cycled back to the first theme, Roger and Scott called the sequence a “song.” Roger, a cellist, felt that the closest thing to these whale calls was music.

Humpback whales hang in the water vertically, motionless, some 65 feet below the surface and sing complete songs. Roger and Scott described these singing bouts as “rivers of sound.” At the end of a number of songs, the whales return to the surface to inhale, and then sink down again. Regardless of where they breathe, they “quickly tuck their breaths in between the notes so as not to interrupt the performance of the song, just as humans do when we sing.” Roger and Scott’s 1971 research paper was a blockbuster, their spectrographs splashed across the cover of the journal Science.

It was Katy Payne who led the way in showing that the songs sung by whales are constantly changing — something unusual for singing animals. Humpback whales live in a dozen or so known, distinct populations across the globe, each population faithful to certain feeding and breeding areas. At the beginning of each breeding season, the whales of a population may all sing slightly different songs to one another. Over the season, like an orchestra tuning up, these seem to coalesce into a single, coherent song that is quite accurately repeated. These songs evolve continuously, each one changed from that of the previous year, until after a few years it would become entirely different. There appear to be “hit factories” like the Australian humpbacks, whose earworm tunes seem to leak out from their population, carried by bulls to other seas where other bulls take elements of their phrases and verses and add them to their own songs.

Researchers following on from Roger’s work found that the seas were alive with the vocalizations of whales and dolphins. Some could be heard only from a hundred yards away, while others could transmit across entire oceans.

What had Roger discovered? What did the songs mean, if anything? Why do whales sing them? These questions had kept him awake at night for decades. The songs he’d discovered were beautiful, but their singers at that time were in danger of being permanently silenced — an estimated 3 million whales were killed in the 20th century, far more than during Herman Melville’s era. Roger had gone to investigate the songs not just to find out what they meant, but because he knew their power: to “capture the fancy of humanity.” He’d been confident from the start that if other people heard the songs, they would think differently about whales — they would care.

A humpback whaleGregory Sherman

In 1970, Roger released an album of the best recordings, Songs of the Humpback Whale. It quickly sold 125,000 copies and eventually went multiplatinum. The “sounds spread like wildfire; people got into them, and when they heard them they were stunned.” He heard rumors that Bob Dylan would sometimes stop gigs to play sections of the record. Whale songs were played on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson and in the background of Judy Collins’s hit song “Farewell to Tarwathie.”

Some of Roger’s whale song recordings were even on the Voyager space probes launched in 1977, encoded onto a 12-inch gold-plated copper disk along with photographs, diagrams, and audio recordings of things that humans deemed important. Someday, these probes — now billions of miles from Earth, beyond our solar system — may become the only record left of our human existence, and all that remains of the whales.

But the biggest public relations coup came when Roger persuaded National Geographic to press 10.5 million flexi discs with a selection of songs from humpback whales, to be distributed to each of its magazine subscribers in the January 1979 issue. To this day, it remains the largest single print order of any recording. A half-century later, in interview after interview I undertook — with scientists, whale-watching boat captains, and others — they told me it was this record that had hooked them on whales for life.

As the numbers of surviving whales plummeted from centuries of relentless hunting, protests grew. Footage of whaling was aired on television. People donned T-shirts reading “SAVE THE WHALES.” Greenpeace boats drove between harpooners and their quarries, playing Roger’s album. Public pressure intensified, and in 1972, the United States passed the Marine Mammal Protection Act, prohibiting the hunting and killing of whales in US waters, as well as the import and export of their products. The International Whaling Commission went from creating quotas for whalers to closing down all hunting. Finally, in 1982, an international moratorium on commercial whaling was voted in. The hunting has now largely stopped, except for Japanese whalers, who’ve resumed their commercial hunt in their national waters.

Roger had wielded the songs with great power to save the whales — appealing not to our reason, but to our empathy. He gave the whale its voice in our culture, and this decision is one of the reasons there are still whales at all.

In the years since my run-in with Prime Suspect in Monterey Bay, I’d talked to researchers finding elements of “language” and the cognitive powers to communicate in animals, from parrots to prairie dogs. And I’d gone from thinking that speaking to animals was just a beautiful fantasy, to considering it feasible within my lifetime — and that it could be a tool, like the power of Roger’s whale song discovery, to connect with these animals and maybe protect them.

On Christmas Eve 2021, Roger called to tell me that the work of the Cetacean Translation Initiative, or Project CETI, was underway. What, he said, if you could capture hundreds of thousands of whole conversations from scores of different whales, totaling millions, perhaps billions, of vocalization units? Would you then have a chance at speaking whale? That’s CETI’s plan.

CETI is an enormous A-team of interdisciplinary scientists: marine robotics specialists, cetacean biologists, artificial intelligence wizards, linguistics and cryptography experts, and data specialists. They’d been brought together in 2019 at Harvard University, at a meeting chaired by David Gruber. David’s a marine biologist and inventor, crafting cameras that can capture the glow of sea turtles and soft robot graspers to gently handle fragile deep-sea animals. Roger is CETI’s principal adviser in whale biology.

The team includes scholars from around the world, with funding and technical support from Twitter and Google Research and grants from the TED Audacious fund, the National Geographic Society, and Amazon Web Services. Their goal, David told me, was “to learn how to communicate with a whale well enough to exchange ideas and experiences.” And they’re not wasting time.

MIT’s SoFi, a soft robotic fish.joseph delpreto

CETI is focused on the population of sperm whales off the island of Dominica in the Caribbean. Biologist Shane Gero already has identified hundreds of the individuals and their vocalizations. He’ll provide a vital context for what CETI records.

Roger has dreamed of a chance like this for 60 years. When he sketched out the project’s scope, it took my breath away. CETI will rig the seafloor with multiple listening stations, trailing others on lines up to the surface. Floating stations — dangling arrays of more listening devices down to more than a thousand yards — will cover 7½ square miles and form the “core whale listening station.” Drones equipped with hydrophones will fly in formation over whales, and “soft robotic fish” equipped with audio and video recording equipment will swim among the whales. Tags modeled on octopus tentacles will stay attached to the whales even as they dive deep, capturing their vocalizations and even their viewpoints in the near pitch-black.

CETI hopes to tag mothers, grandmothers, teenagers, and great bull males from many different whale pods. With weather sensors and other contextual data, researchers will link vocalizations to behavior and what they know of each individual whale: Was it hungry, fishing, pregnant, mating? Was it speaking to its mother or a rival? Using this information, they will be able to form a “social network” of the whales’ lives.

By listening to baby whales learn to speak, the machines and the humans guiding them will examine how whales use their communication. Do they take turns or overlap? Do they echo one another? The sounds the whales were making will be linked to what they were doing at the time — which whale spoke and who responded, and what both parties did next.

All of the machine-learning tools will be searching for patterns to help narrow down theories as linguists and other team members take the patterns they’ve discovered and attempt to build a working model of the sperm whale communication system. Finally, they’ll “attempt bidirectional communication” — they’ll try to speak, back and forth, with the whales.

What did they expect to say? I asked David. “The important thing to me,” he said, “is to exhibit that we care and we are listening. To show the other beautiful life-forms that we see them.”

CETI is aiming to do all of this by 2026. These developments are only possible because of the last 50 years of vital research to explore and document the complex lives of cetaceans.

Roger, now 87, told me that if CETI succeeds and we communicate with another species, it will “change our respect for the rest of life entirely — as in completely, utterly, shockingly, surprisingly, unexpectedly, fully.” And it is this change that he believes could save us from destroying nature, and ourselves.

Tom Mustill is a filmmaker and writer based in England. This story was adapted from his forthcoming book “How to Speak Whale.” Copyright © 2022. Available from Grand Central Publishing, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc., New York, NY. All rights reserved. Send comments to [email protected].