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Blue whale © Andrew Sutton

How to be a whale

How To Be A Whale is a half-hour, bioacoustic listening journey - a soundscape of many hundreds of scientific recordings woven together into a story told through the lives of seven different whales and dolphins. Released ahead of World Ocean Day 2024 on June 8th, it is a celebration of a world that most people have never heard - the sounds of the sea.

Made by writer and wildlife filmmaker Tom Mustill and his friend and Whale DJ Vahakn Matossian, with support from WDC, Whale and Dolphin Conservation, the soundscape is available for free for anyone to have a marine listening party.

Tom has spent eight years exploring recordings from the sea for his book How To Speak Whale, which is about listening to animals. For this piece, WDC put a call out for sea recordings from scientists, whale watchers and enthusiasts around the world.

How To Be A Whale brings the best and most unusual marine recordings together with recent discoveries about their lives to imagine what it might be like to be a humpback whale, orca, spotted dolphin, blue whale, bowhead whale, pilot whale and baby sperm whale, living among fishes, coral, crabs, sea urchins and seals, from the tropics to the poles to the deep sea.

Tom Mustill

Tom Mustill says: “Released for free ahead of World Ocean Day (June 8th) we made it as a way to help people think of whales and dolphins as individuals and imagine their lives, relationships and challenges. And because the sounds are just so weird and beautiful when we heard them we wanted to share them.”

Vahakn Matossian adds: “All the sounds are real vocalisations from real animals in the water. Nothing is special effects or synthesised.  This whale-pod cast has been a labour of love - we’ve spent months going through thousands of faint and crackly recordings from every ocean - some of which even the scientists who recorded haven’t heard before! Some are so deep you can only feel them, so turn your bass up!”

Vahakhn Matossian

Special sounds

The soundscape includes the only known records of the voices of John Coe and Aquarius, the UK’s last two surviving native orca, and recordings from the sperm whales off Dominica that animal communication researchers at Project CETI have just discovered have a whale alphabet.

How To Be A Whale is inspired by and dedicated to the marine bioacoustics community, especially Roger and Katy Payne. Newly discovered archival recordings of Roger and Katy carrying out their research 50 years ago are woven into the last track.

Why listening to whales is important

In the 1970s Roger Payne and Katy Payne discovered that humpback whales sing.  They played their songs to people, an album of whalesong was a smash hit and their recordings were even sent into space on the Voyager Space probes.

When people heard their voices it made them want to protect the whales. The Save The Whales movement was a great success and an example of how when we get the chance to listen, we can change. Tom became good friends with Roger and Katy when writing How To Speak Whale.

Roger died in 2023 and Tom continues his mission, as a WDC ambassador for whales and dolphins, taking whale voices to places their futures are being decided. Last year he and Vahakn played them to thousands of delegates, schoolchildren and diplomats, including John Kerry, at the UN COP28 climate conference.

Humpback whale

Tom Mustill is a biologist turned filmmaker and writer, specialising in stories where people and nature meet. His first book How To Speak Whale: A Voyage into the Future of Animal Communication has won several awards and was a New Yorker Best Book of 2022. His film collaborations, many with Greta Thunberg and David Attenborough, have won two Webbys, a BAFTA, and an Emmy nomination, gone viral, been played at the UN, in Times Square, and on the Pyramid Stage at Glastonbury. He lives in Cornwall with his wife and two daughters and is an ambassador for Whale and Dolphin Conservation.

Vahakn Matossian is an Armenian-German-Cypriot music specialist, composer, producer, electro-acoustic performer and inventor from London. He is one half of the ultra experimental electro-acoustic duo SONNEN, with sought after classical and contemporary violist Max Baillie. He is an innovative instrument builder and product designer at Human Instruments, focusing on accessible musical instruments for players with physical disabilities, collaborating with the likes of MIT, Rhizomatiks, BFI, Yamaha, the British Council, and British ParaOrchestra.

Tom and Vahakn would like to thank the generous and wonderful marine bioacoustics community for making their recordings available for this and other projects.

Featuring recordings from:

Ocean Alliance, Project CETI, Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, Scottish Association for Marine Science, Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, Cetacean Research Technology, BBC Natural History Unit Sound Library, The Sunken Lighthouse Project, Fishsounds, University of Washington, Global Library of Underwater Biological Sounds, Discovery of Sound in the Sea, Scripps Institution of Oceanography, Voices in the Sea, Sonartech Inc, WhaleAcoustics LLC, JASCO Applied Sciences, Alfred Wegener Institute for Polar and Marine Research, Australian Antarctic Division, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Fisheries Science Center, National Marine Fisheries Service, Freesound.org, Robots4Whales

John Ryan, Joseph R Olson, Jörg Rychen, Misael Morales Vargas, Marco Montiel-Soto, Amorim, Hawkins, B Wilson, Kathleen M Stafford, Miles Parsons, Sophie L Nedelec, Erbe et al, Carriço et al, Pine et al, Veronica Coppolaro, Thomas R Kieckhefer, James Locascio, David Mann, Ari Daniel Shapiro, Arthur Newhall, Kendall Folkert, Jan Straley, Aaron Thode, Jay Barlow, Shannon Rankin, Freesound.org - Robinhood76, August Sandberg, Glaneur-de-sons, Inspector J, LGarrett, Kris Boruff, Javier Zumer, Inmotion Audio, Listening To Whales, Felix Blume, Gerald Feibig, Aguasonic, Klankbeeld, Mark Baumgartner

Human voices: Katy Payne, Roger Payne, Tom Mustill

All recordings used were either shared with us or already published under public domain/ creative commons non commercial licenses.

Full tracklist and license details for each, and links for further listening are at tommustill.com/howtobeawhale

How To Be A Whale is available for free to download for anyone to play (non-commercial) - CC-BY-NC-ND

If playing in a public setting please link to the credits and sources at tommustill.com/howtobeawhale

World Ocean Day 2024

June 8th is World Ocean Day. WDC will be celebrating whales and the role they play in supporting the climate. You can support us too.