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Talking to whales: Can AI bridge the chasm between our consciousness and other animals?

By Patrick Barkham

18 Sep 2022 · 10 min read

Editor's Note

Scientists want to be able to communicate with whales in a way that humans can't just understand whale songs, but even exchange ideas. Sci-fi much? Not really, use of AI is showing progress.

Tom Mustill was kayaking with his friend Charlotte in Monterey Bay, California, when an animal three times the size of the largest Tyrannosaurus Rex hurtled from the water and crashed down on their tiny craft. As the flying humpback whale fell upon them and their kayak was sucked beneath the waves, Mustill assumed he would die. Miraculously he and Charlotte found themselves gasping for breath, clinging to their capsized kayak. How had they survived a smash with a creature three times the weight of a double-decker bus?

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.”

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