The Nature of Communication
The Law of the Whales
By Richard and Linda Eyre


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 at the time, 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 60 feet down, just minding our own business, watching schools of brightly colored reef fish. Suddenly we heard (and felt) the mysterious 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’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 supply would allow, just listening and feeling strangely moved by the songs. There was an honesty and an earnestness and a powerful beauty in the whales’ 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 15 or 20 minutes, but none of us will ever forget it. There was real communication going on there-a communication that carried all kinds of feelings.

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. Five or six huge humpbacks began to surface roll and breach and play within a few hundred feet of the deck where we stood. The still surface would explode as one of the 50-foot-long, 50-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 he actually got soaked from the splash of the closest breach. 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 acrobatics.

Individual humpbacks are easy to identify because they each have a completely individual and unique white and black pattern on their fluke-the huge, flat, perpendicular-to-their-body tail that they flip up 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.

Their communication allows the whales to engage in remarkable teamwork-a sort of whale-synergy that seems to produce a kind of social enjoyment as well as the practical benefit of gathering food. Two humpbacks from the same family frequently swim down 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 as the two whales turn and swim up faster than their bubbles rise-up through the bubble cylinder, huge mouths wide open, eating all the fish entrapped there. The efficiency of this “bubble net” technique is one of the things that enable a mature humpback to eat one and a half tons of food per day.

The gentlest, most tender and touching humpback song seems to be the one mothers sing to guide and encourage their baby calves. Humpback babies are born far below the surface, and the first challenge of the new mother is to lift and nudge her new child (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.

There is a wide variety of opinions about these massive animals, and particularly about their wondrous songs. We read a lot of theories and educated guesses and came up with a few of our own. We discovered that humpback 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 each other’s whereabouts and status. We read opinions that the songs are most intense and continuous when one family member is hurt or in some form of stress or danger. We discovered that some biologists believe many of their songs serve the purpose of encouraging each other and of giving younger whales constant reassurance of security and a sense of identity and bonding with their own pod. And we deduced that generally only one whale sings at a time. The others listen and respond only when the first is finished. If another pod member sings at the same time, it seems to take the form of harmony, and of agreement and encouragement.

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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 many potential problems and holds the key to solving and resolving the problems that do exist. Positive communication in a family is like an open gate that allows values to be taught, joy to be shared, and problems to be dealt with. When the gate is closed, pressure builds and individuals become isolated.

Like the whales, our families must strive to communicate almost constantly. The channels need to be always open so teamwork and cooperation can flourish.

Like the whales, much of that communication needs to be about 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.

Like the whales, our communication needs to involve loyalty and teamwork, building 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.


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