The Nature of Communication:
(The Lesson of the Whales)
One year, partly because of our teenage son Noah’s interest in marine biology and partly because of where we happened to be traveling and lecturing, the whole Eyre family seemed to get immersed in and fascinated with humpback whales. Our first encounter was while we were scuba diving at Molokini Island off the coast of Maui. I (Richard) was with two of our sons (including Noah), and we were about fifty feet down, just minding our own business, watching schools of brightly-colored reef fish. Suddenly we heard (and felt) the pulsing, echoing, squeaking, vibrating, harmonizing song of the humpbacks. It was impossible to tell where they were or how many there were or how close they were, but their song – and their presence – was truly awesome. I looked into Noah face’s face mask to see if he was frightened and saw instead a wide-eyed expression of wonder and excitement. We stayed down as long as our air tanks would allow, just listening and feeling strangely moved by the songs. There was an honesty and an earnestness and a powerful beauty in their sound. They were very loud at times, and seemed to have infinite variety, not only of pitch, but of the emotion or mood they carried.
The whole experience lasted only fifteen or twenty minutes, but none of us will ever forget it. There was real communication going on there – a communication that carried all kinds of feelings. When we got home from our trip, we began researching and asking questions about humpbacks and we began finding educated opinions that these whales can communicate with each other through hundreds of miles of ocean and that family groups or “pods” stay in virtually constant communication – always knowing where each other is. We found that the songs are most intense and continuous when one family member is hurt or in some form of stress or danger. We found that some biologists believe many of their songs serve the purpose of encouraging each other and of giving younger whales a constant reassurance of security and a sense of identity and bonding with their own pod or family. And we found that only one whale sings at a time. The others listen and respond only when the first is finished.
In the summer of that same year we found ourselves on a cruise ship in Alaska where we were presenting a lecture. One day as we stood on deck watching the blue ice of a glacier sheer off and plunge into the sea, someone on the other side of the deck yelled, “Whale!” The captain cut his engines and we sat still in the water and waited. Even those who had watched whales for years said they’d never seen such a show as we got that day. Eight or nine huge humpbacks began to surface roll and breach and play less than a hundred yards from the ship. The still surface would explode as one of the 200 ton giants would fly up from the depths and twirl entirely out of the water before smashing back with a splash that sent rolling waves that rocked our massive ship. Noah ran down to a lower deck to be as close as possible and actually got soaked from the splash of the closest breach of all.
The on-board biologist told us later that there were lots of theories about why humpbacks jump and breach. Some think it removes crusted barnacles from their sleek sides. But the most accepted theory is the simplest one. They do it because it’s fun. They do it to play and to show off to each other. The ship was equipped with an underwater microphone so we could hear their songs which, during this kind of play, were loud and excited and almost constant. They seem to be applauding and approving of each other’s underwater and above-water moves.
Humpbacks are easy to identify as individuals because they each have a completely individual and unique white and black pattern on their fluke (the huge, flat, perpendicular-to-their-body tail which they flip and flop over as they surface through a breathing roll). With their fingerprint flukes to identify them, biologists have determined how loyal and committed they are to their own pod or family and how most of their extensive communication is between family members.
The communication allows them to have a remarkable teamwork – a sort of whale-synergy that seems to produce a kind of social enjoyment as well as the practical benefit of more food. Two humpbacks swim up through the water in a synchronized spiral, blowing constantly from their blowholes, to create a cylinder of bubbles called a bubble net. Small fish and plankton stay inside the bubble barricade and the two whales, swimming up faster than their bubbles rise, get to the surface and turn to dive down, huge mouths wide open, through the cylinder, eating all the fish entrapped there.
The gentlest, most tender and touching humpback song seems to be the sounds mothers use to guide and encourage their baby calves. Babies are born far below the surface and the first challenge of the new mother is to lift and nudge her new baby (with her nose) to the surface where it can draw its first breath of air. Those who have witnessed this nurturing act say they will never forget the mother’s song that goes with it – a song of love and pride and confidence.
We Eyres are anything but avid art collectors, but one piece we do have – and prize – is a bronze sculpture called “First Breath”: a mother humpback with her newborn calf at her nose, gently nudging and encouraging and boosting it toward its first air.
So what is the lesson of the whales? It is, of course, the lesson of constant, open, and emotionally honest communication. Real and committed family communication avoids most potential problems and holds the key to solving and resolving the problems that do exist. Open communication in a family is like an open gate that allows values to be taught and joy to be shared and problems to be dealt with. When the gate is closed, pressure builds and individuals are isolated.
Like the whales, our families must strive to communicate almost constantly. The channels need to be always open. Like the whales much of that communication needs to be approving and encouraging and confidence-giving. Like the whales, the communication needs to be particularly intense and constant in times of stress, danger, or difficulty. Like the whales, we should listen to each other rather than interrupting. And like the whales, our communication needs to involve loyalty and teamwork, allowing trust and creating real family synergy. Like the whales, our communication has to be tailored for the individual. Each child is as completely unique as a humpback’s fluke. One child may need stern, disciplining communication while another needs a far softer approach. Like the whales, we need to make our communication not a lecture but a song . . . a song of honest interchange and mutual respect and listening.
The bottom line is this: Without open lines of communication, without the lesson of the whales, a family will never be the learning, growing, trusting place it was intended to be. So . . . parents . . . insist on it. Do whatever it takes to establish it, to restore it, to maintain it. Discuss the lesson of the whales together, ask each other where communication is breaking down and why. Go on long drives together – one on one – parent and child – and talk until your talk becomes communication. Talk late at night if that’s when kids are most willing to talk. Talk about communication until you have established it as a goal that you are all totally committed to. Promise each other tolerance and forgiveness. Promise each other honesty. Let each other all the way into each others’ worlds. Communicate your love. Communicate your commitment. Communicate your confidence and trust. Communicate your concerns.
Learn the lesson of the whales and practice the principle of family communication every day of your life.