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June 7, 2024

How to be a whale

Have you ever wondered what it might be like to be a whale? Not to watch them on the TV, or read about them in books, or even see them in the ocean, but to really BE a whale. To float, to swim, to feel the water around you resonate as you sing a song that can be heard hundreds of miles away?

Well, for World Ocean Day, award-winning filmmaker Tom Mustill and Whale DJ Vahakn Matossian, with support from Whale and Dolphin Conservation and help from the marine bioacoustic community, have created a soundscape journey that can take us some of the way there. It showcases the sonic wonderlands of the seas and helps us all imagine the lives and challenges of different cetaceans.

It’s a celebration of marine bioacoustics and a way to help people connect to different worlds.

So, turn up your speakers and close your eyes…Let’s dive in

Tom Mustill says:

“Making this has been a labour of love for myself and Vahakn, going through thousands of bioacoustic recordings to weave a few hundred together.

Vahakn took exquisite care to make faint but beautiful records audible, cleaning up hisses and interweaving it all so well there are no synthesised sounds, no backing or non-scientific tracks in it at all.

People have been playing whale recordings to each other since Rachel Carson first did so in 1951, it is quite an old tradition now, but still very powerful.

I started doing it after John Ryan, oceanographer at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, blew my mind by playing me recordings of blue whales from California.

I also had much encouragement from Roger Payne, who first discovered whale song in 1967 and was a force of nature behind the worldwide campaign to end commercial whaling. He knew that the songs of a humpback whale would “speak to the world as no other voice has ever spoken to the world”.

I started going with Vahakn to places where whales futures were being decided such as COP28, nature and climate marches, meetings of people working in ocean conservation, diplomatic meetings, anti-whaling protests, schools and more, often with Whale and Dolphin Conservation, hoping to help advocate for whales and represent their lives with their voices.

Every time we do this, we are reminded of the power of these voices.

Previously I’ve used a narration that describes the whales from our perspective. This piece is written (almost entirely) from the whales and dolphins’ point of view. It is still based on science, but I hope this shift helps people relate and imagine. I hope it allows us landlubbers to transcend our terrestrial concerns and preconceptions.

Listen out for fragments of Katy and Roger Payne and colleagues doing fieldwork in the 1970s and the only recordings of the Western Isles Orcas. How To Be A Whale is dedicated to Roger and Katy Payne and the marine bioacoustics community.

I once asked Roger how to listen to whale song. He said: “Attentively. You should listen silently. You should listen with nothing else to distract you. That’s the way to listen.”