As a researcher who has spent the last twenty years talking with cetaceans through music, I've gotten used to fielding all sorts of queries from people wanting to know what it is I do.
So the day before I’m scheduled to leave for my latest expedition, I am questioned by Kirk, who runs the local music store. As I pick guitar strings from a bin, he asks where I’m headed. "The Canary Islands. On the sea between the islands of Tenerife and Gomera. I’ll be working with pilot whales. Maybe sperm whales if I get lucky."
"What’s going on?," he asks. "You got a sponsor?"
"It's a German community known as ZEGG,"
"They have a sailboat set up as a recording studio to do acoustic research with dolphins. They invited me aboard to show them how I do it. Maybe you’ve heard of them for one of their other programs. They are best known for promoting free love.
"Spermatozoa whales, huh?" says Kirk, grinning like the Cheshire cat as he hands me the bag of strings. "Sounds like sex, dolphins, and rock ‘n’ roll." He raises an eyebrow and starts searching my face. "Hey, what does your wife think about you spending two weeks aboard this love boat?"
I’m not sure I like where this conversation is headed, so I grab the strings, bid him adios, and head out the door.
Later that evening as I’m preparing to re-string my guitar, I feel a strange object bulging through the paper bag. Inside, I spot a gift from Kirk that verifies my growing suspicion thatno matter how much I try to downplay itthis issue of free love is simply not going to go away. Kirk knows I’m a happily married guy. Yet there, among the strings, he has placed a condom.
Hats on the Hat Rack
A week later. On board the Kairos. It’s eighty degrees today, no wind, not a cloud in the afternoon sky. Twenty miles away on the island of Tenerife, the fourteen thousand foot snowcapped volcano of Teide looms heavy along the northeastern horizon, . Twenty four people are sitting in a circle on the ship’s aft deck. They are Germans, one Swiss, one Swede, and two Americans. It is our group’s first day together, and we are passing a "talking stick," each taking a turn to say why we joined this workshop in interspecies communication.
Several people describe their feelings about this morning’s close encounter with pilot whales. In hindsight, attracting the whales to our music seemed almost too easy. I had simply plugged my guitar into the ship’s sophisticated sound system and began playing, while others joined in on bass, synthesizer, a drum machine, and any of several rattles and tambourines. We eventually got into a hypnotic groove on the reggae tune, "No Woman, No Cry." At that point the sound engineer started transmitting the song through the boat’s underwater speaker system. The pilot whales arrived within half an hour. They remained close to the boat for nearly another whole hour as we recorded the encounter on audio and videotape.
Now sitting at our meeting, one young man wants to know what it all means. Did the music really attract the whales? Did we communicate with them? He passes the stick to me.
"Yes, I think we did," I answer. "Did you notice that we were playing reggae? I’ve found that it’s probably better that any other kind of music for whale communication. When you get it right, these huge holes open up in the rhythm. If you keep the groove steady, the whales sometimes understand those holes as an invitation." I hold up my hand to shield my face from the hot sun. "The reggae rhythm is quite sophisticated. There's almost no room for cheating. If everyone is in the groove, you simply hear it. Did you hear those few moments when the whales vocalized only in the holes? I’ve experienced it many times, with many different species of whales and dolphins. but I never get used to it."
The boat’s research director, Dr. Batisse Ablinger, asks for the talking stick. "I think it’s important to open a communication channel between humans and cetaceans. It teaches us something new about the communication that is going on all the time between humans." He pauses a moment to examine the feathers and the beads that dangle off the stick. Then he smiles gently at each person in turn around the circle. "I believe that studying dolphins also fits our philosophy of free love. Dolphins and whales have lived harmoniously with one another for millions of years. Human beings have a lot to learn about loving one another in community by learning to communicate with dolphins."
I am not surprised to hear such thoughts expressed by a member of ZEGG (Zentrum für Experimentelle Gesellschafts Gestaltung) translated, the Center for Experimental Cultural Design.) After all, the group operates one of the fastest growing alternative learning centers in Europe and is well known for its unconventional ideas. Based out of headquarters once used to train East German secret police, ZEGG boasts over one-hundred full time members in its community involved in education, alternative-energy, and citizen-diplomacy projects in places as disparate as Africa and the former Soviet Union.
While free love is hardly the only hat on the ZEGG hat rack, it is, by far, the best known and certainly the most scandalous hat. But what does it mean, free love? "Free love," writes ZEGG advocate Amelie Weimar, "is a way of life in which the sexual and loving attention from one person to another will not cause fear, jealousy, or violence in anyone else." Another ZEGG author, Sabina Lichtenfels, writes forcefully that "more people die each year from unresolved sexuality than die in car accidents." ZEGG’s bumper sticker may sum it up: a free society can not exist without free love.
The group has been compared to the American Rajneesh community, and there are some similaritiesalthough ZEGG has no guru or (in their Oregon days) paramilitary paranoia. One quality both communities share is a real talent for manifesting the projects that members believe to be culturally significantno matter how outlandish the dream would seem to outsiders. A convenient example is the Kairos itself. The money for this unique research vesselwith its onboard recording studio, underwater speaker system, and hydrophones (to receive underwater sounds)--was raised in one inspired night of fundraising in 1992 and by the spring of 1993 the boat had been designed and built.
The talking stick continues clockwise around the circle. Three people in a row offer variations on the theme of having learned to admire whales by watching them on TV nature documentaries. Joining this workshop now offers them an opportunity to finally see them in the flesh.
The next man changes the subject. He discusses the dissolution of a recent love affair in all its tooth-pulling agony. He shrugs his shoulders, and then concludes by wishing that he might rub the lamp of our workshop circle and order up a women to spend time with him during his week on the boat. Several people nod their support, as if saluting the time-worn idea of a consciousness-raising workshop doing double time as a singles bar.
The man’s wish finally gives voice to a subject that has subtly captivated the boat all morning long, although it has yet to be formally discussed. Next in line, the Kairos cook, donning a winsome smile, expresses great joy that there are so many new men onboard with whom she can make love. She in turn hands the stick to the next woman who nods her head first at the man and then at the women as if seconding both of their emotions. The stick is passed again. Its current bearer is a young man who looks as if he wouldn’t mind mounting the cook right then and there. He smiles, sighs theatrically, then expresses a thought I will hear many more times in the course of this voyage.
"This must be paradise."
He’s got a point. Here we are, sailing in splendid weather off the northeast coast of Africa. The ocean is warm, the food is exceptional. Most of our fellow travelers are either musicians or healers so the boat is constantly filled with the sound of joyous music and the contented oooh’s and aaah’s of people sitting astride other people poking their thumbs and kneading their fingers into various vertebrae and muscles. As time has passed, clothing has become optional. And of course, sex is available for anyone wishing to play.
I do not deny that the boat is a stimulating place. But paradise? I’m not so sure. I find myself feeling gratitude that public sex has been relegated to the open foredeck. I don’t want to see people fornicating, so most of the time I find myself avoiding an entire third of the boat. I feel even more uneasy acknowledging that I’m living in a community where sex is politics. I sometimes feel like a recruit from the loyal opposition, a card-carrying member of the monogamy party.
A Disciple of Eagles
Bald eagles mate for life. Elk and sea lions form harems. Honeybees practice polyandry. Most songbirds mate monogamously but only on a yearly basis. Many dolphin species spend their entire lives with their mothers, only leaving their pod to go off for a day or a week to practice free love in some other mother’s pod. Some observers believe that dolphins are unique among animals because they "enjoy" sex on its own behalf, not merely for the evolutionary advantage it imparts. I prefer to place such assertions amidst all the other baggage that accompanies the dolphin myth. Who knows. Maybe millipedes enjoy sex the most. Think of all the possibilities.
In sexual matters, I am a disciple of eagles rather than dolphins. I’m a traditionalist in a post-nuclear world. I thrive in a cozy nuclear family living under one roof with a loving wife and two loving daughters. But that does not mean that I want to tell other people how to live their lives. I’ve lived in a few communes in my time, and confusion over sex was usually the precipitating factor leading to the decay of the community. Free love, at least in theory, could make good sense if a group of unmarried people want to succeed at a ZEGG-type community. But as a model for the outside world, the ideology has its limitations. Take the issue of children for example. ZEGG does have some innovative programs for the community’s eleven children, but with over 100 adults and just eleven children it still seems overwhelmingly a community of singles. These are people without much stake in mastering the art of the nuclear family.
Intriguingly, as I get to know the crew better, I will hear many of them declare that they too have tried monogamy, but failed. For them, at the present moment, the ZEGG ideology offers a chance to take part in a grand experiment as well as participate in an exercise in sexual healing. Several of them openly express a hope that, one day, they too will find true romance in the form of a life partner.
The skipper, for instance, confesses that he does not always follow the carrot of free love. Talking with him one day as he mans the helm, I mention that listening to the dolphins mew and whistle and echolocate all day long through the speakers seems to add its own special momentum to the shipboard romances, as if the sounds were underscoring the connection between ZEGG’s free love and the free love attributed to dolphins. The captain starts laughing in his good-humored way, and then informs me that a series of future workshops will be devoted to "erotic cruising" and even "the love academy" where "compersion" will be studied in depth.
"Compersion? I’ve never heard that word before. What is it supposed to mean?" I ask him.
He stares at me a moment, lowers his glance and then bursts out laughing again. "It’s a made-up English word meaning the opposite of jealousy."
I try to imagine a world without jealousy, but come up short, although not before I realize that if, indeed, there were no jealousy, it would mean no more soap operas on TV, and half the movies in the world would lose their most popular themes. "And how do the dolphins fit in to a world of compersion?" I ask.
The skipper’s answer makes it clear that he has his own doubts about the connection. "Dolphin sounds end up functioning as a kind of eco-inspirational muzak to accompany the primary work of the travelers, which is sex. I sometimes wonder if the dolphins will eventually get so friendly that they are elevated to the role of sexual tutors."
His prophecy may not be as far-fetched as it sounds. I have heard a report of a German women (not connected to ZEGG) who is alleged to have mated with a dolphin in the Mediterranean and later described the encounter as the most spiritual experience of her life. You read it here first. The skipper goes on to explain that the Kairos was actually built to explore acoustic and perhaps telepathic communication with dolphins. No one in charge here wants to turn the Kairos into an interspecies loveboat. And no one wants to shut out valid researchers who do not to toast their banner of free love. But at the same time, a few of the crew tell me they do not wish to hold workshops or sponsor research that will necessitate a suspension of their sexual experiment.
Fortunately, friendship between myself and the crewmen and women alikedevelops easily, although by bypassing ideology. Onboard the Kairos, we all seem to genuinely care for one another. Free love seems to reinforce a spirit of gender democracy. Everyone is equally respected, and perhaps more uniquely, equally attractive to everyone else. And despite my own abstinence, these social advantages of the ZEGG sexual experiment include me even if I choose not to drink directly from its cup.
There’s the cook, for example. She is a physically beautiful woman, with a huge laugh, and an odd way of dressing that includes torn clothes and a very expensive pairs pair of cowboy boots she wears when going ashore. She’s the same woman who publicly declared her desire to couple with all the new men during our first shipboard meeting (and before long had almost fulfilled that goal). But she has also become like a sister to me. We discuss our mutual admiration for one another one afternoon as I help her prepare a spaghetti dinner for everyone aboard. We seem in agreement. Even as I reap the empathetic afterglow cast by her sexual flame, so she expresses an appreciation for me as a man who can be a friend without sex becoming an issue one way or another.
And a climax can take varied forms. Our friendship is consummated one morning when she confides in me a long-held dream to play the bass guitar. Yet on a boat with several professional musicians, she has not felt comfortable expressing this desire openly. Ironically, she has no problem publicly propositioning men she’s hardly met, but feels uncomfortable making music with them. I go find a bass, take out my guitar, show her a simple riff, turn on the drum machine, and we play Light My Fire for the better part of an hour.
Free Sex and/or Safe Sex
On the evening of our fifth day onboard the captain eases his boat into the harbor of the little fishing village of Playa Santiago located on the leerkshop members award side of Gomera, one of the less populated Canary Islands. All twenty-four wond crew disembark for an evening on the town. One at a time, we jump from the wooden gunwales onto a quay of huge, free-standing concrete blocks. But our bodies keep on rocking, our leg muscles never stop flexing in rhythm to the now vanished dance partner of the ocean swells.
Even as our pocket Utopia grows strong on the boat, so it seems to dissipate a bit whenever we step off the boat. Going ashore and interacting with strangers reminds me of the last scene in The Lord of the Flies, when adults arrive on the island and, suddenly, the larger-than-life warriors are confronted by the fact that they are actually little children. We too, feel like graying children. For a brief flickering moment, we live happily (if not ever after), within a social bubble of our own creation. It makes me wonder if people join communes, utopian or otherwise, to help each other solve a common problem of keeping the world at bay.
A few members of the group wander through the little Spanish town. Most of us decide on a more plebeian course, journeying no further than the end of the quay where we take over a cafe built inside a cave that fronts the harbor. There, we spend the next few hours sampling the hard local goat cheese, earthenware bowls full of tiny baked potatoes cooked in seawater and lavished with a picante sauce, and bottle after bottle of fruity Spanish red wine. Finally, the paella arrives, a mound of smoky saffron rice topped with seafood.
As always, the conversation starts off in any number of directions but always ends up resembling a ball bouncing over the lyrics to the old standard: "I can’t give you anything but love baby." This time, the conversation turns to the dangers of practicing free love. Although ZEGG preaches free sex, it does not necessarily espouse safe sex. Perhaps stranger still, the group does not quite believe in AIDS. Certainly, they do not deny that the disease exists. But they believe the contagion is overrated. In the words of the man sitting opposite me, "the disease does not spread where it is not invited." In other words, just as my own vow of monogamy protects me from ever contracting AIDS sexually, so this man and his date both assure me that their own good karma does the same. I catch myself staring at my dinner companion wide-eyed, imagining this happy-go-lucky fellow of 175 pounds reduced to a bag of bones with hollow eyes and sores all over his back.
His girlfriend passes me the goat cheese and asks me about my family. I answer that my wife and I share a belief that our marriage vow is sacred, a lifetime commitment to our children, to our home, as well as to each other. When she asks if my marriage vow must be difficult to keep in this difficult age, made more problematic by my own occasional immersion in workplaces as unconventional as the Kairos, I smile and answer that I have never been tempted to break my vow.
But there’s more to this vow than simple attractiveness, dogged willpower, or even the fact that I believe it is my daughters’ birthright to be raised by two parents. My wife and I discovered long ago that our fidelity has nurtured a kind of physical magnetism between us that grows more evident and more powerful the longer we cultivate it. It’s a force that helps us maintain our emotional grounding, and provides an added measure of clarity to all our other relationships. Like many longtime couples, we have even started looking like one another. We consider this bond to be a sacred energy. To cheat on one another would be to trifle with one of the sources of our spiritual existence.
You really have to do this
Not everyone, I soon discover, empathizes with my position. One of the women on the boat is a general in the ZEGG sexual revolution. She is a strong and creative person with an unerring knack for facilitating our group’s daily meetings. Midway through the first week onboard, she stands up during a workshop circle and, in a coy voice, declares to the entire group that she wishes to invite me to her bed. Curiously, another woman lets out a small scream, jumps to her feet, and angrily declares that turning who-sleeps-with-whom into an issue of our daily meetings is a misuse of our meeting time. She, for one, came onboard the Kairos to meet dolphins.
I turn pensive, realizing that, so far, none of the other ZEGG members has publicly propositioned any of the workshop patrons who are coupled up. For that reason, I suspect that this woman’s invitation would never have been made if my wife was onboard. In other words, my wife’s physical absence renders inconsequential the relationship she and I share. I start to answer by making light of the woman’s bold invitation, joking that I’m really a monk. But I veer off that path in mid-sentence and hear myself defending the sanctity of my marriage vow. My tone reveals to this gathering of new friends that I feel my absent wife is the one being violated here. I stare at my hands a moment and then leave the circle.
It doesn’t end there. The next morning is hot and sunny. The captain stops the boat for an hour to permit us to go swimming. The cook puts on a CD and blasts it over the deck speakers. It is Seal singing in that Joe Cocker growl of his, "no, the writers can not stop us, because the only love they find is paradise." I start to peel off my shorts when suddenly the same woman walks up behind me and pats my bottom. She informs me that the two of us need to swim together. I shake my head, and tell her that, actually, I was about to...well...ah...eat lunch. I run downstairs into the kitchen, pulling my shorts up from around my knees, and grab a plate of avocados, orange slices, and dark German pumpernickel.
There’s no denying it. I am feeling annoyed. Any gesture of innocent friendliness or even nonchalance now runs the risk of getting misinterpreted as a sexual signal. Sex as politics. Proximity as an invitation. By not acquiescing, I see myself reflected in her eyes displaying all the signs of the typical unliberated male. Makes me feel like it may be time for me to ask to be dropped off on the nearest convenient beach.
That evening after dinner, I sit in the darkness of the aft deck and share a glass of single malt scotch and a Kretek with one of the male veterans of the group. This man’s sexual behavior sometimes reminds me of a bull elk in rut. Every day I notice him cuddled up with a different women. Yet he always looks so deeply in love, although not precisely with the lady of the moment or even with love itself. He is instead a mystic lover, enchanted by the spirit of the goddess as she is channeled through every woman. The man seems a veritable superstar in the art of the clean break. That he can change partners so regularly without either he or his squeeze of the moment ever suffering the pangs of separation seems wondrous to me. Of everyone onboard the boat, this man seems to care the least about communicating with dolphins.
We are sitting quietly enjoying the stars when he smiles from ear to ear in that European fullness of expression that we so rarely glimpse in the United States. He begins whispering furtively, imploring me to reconsider the woman’s public invitation. "You really have no idea what you’re missing. Believe me, it is going to be the best experience of your life. You really have to do this."
I don’t want to insult the guy. I hardly know him. I turn and stare at him with a droll smirk pasted on my lips, but I am surprised to see that his pleasant smile has vanished. He is wringing his hands. Everything about his demeanor suggests that I am being preached at by a true believer; that the very success of our workshop and ZEGG, itself, depends on whether or not I sleep with his "colleague." We continue sipping the whisky in silence when he remarks, "No man could ever resist once he knew what was in store for him."
Now I understand what it feels like to be sexually harassed. From this man’s perspective, my vow of marriage is a quaint, even dangerous, concept that obstructs the historical imperative of a new social Utopia. In other words, my marriage poses a problem not only to my lasting happiness but to his as well. I decide against offering up some retort about harassment masquerading as salvation. Instead, I turn to him and say, "Hey man, I don’t want to be in your movie. Why don't you go ahead and fuck her for the both of us."
The Mozart Requiem
To linger on this single incident does a disservice to the success of our two week instant community. I prefer to honor the members of ZEGG for their willingness to experiment with their own lives and community in hopes of discovering new tools to transform what is too often a demented human sexual environment. That the members of ZEGG sometimes act bewildered by their choices is entirely understandable given the uncharted waters through which they are traveling.
I learned a great deal living on the Kairos. Mostly, it made me think long and hard about the "family values" that conservative American politicians are so fond of promoting as the cure for all our social ills. These societal moralists seem to believe that the secret to family happiness is a sexless lifestyle right of TV situation comedies from the 1950’s. What irony. Living that way only serves to cool down the very passion that bonds real families together. That is one reason why this raving monogamist agrees with ZEGG more often than he agrees with the American Religious Right.
Passion is also the bond that joins together all the adventurers on board the Kairos. But it is not always expressed in sexual terms.
One of the great pleasures on the Kairos is listening to the community members sing formally with one another, which they do at least once a day. Their most breathtaking achievement is a rendition of the Mozart Requiem sung in several parts. One afternoon we are playing reggae when fifteen pilot whales arrive and start floating just twenty feet off the starboard side of the boat. I put away my guitar, ring the bell, and gather the members of our little community into a circle. I take hold of the talking stick and speak about the pilot whale’s inexplicable behavior of stranding on beaches. "These animals may know how to die consciously. They seem to have turned it into a community event."
I stare intently at the talking stick and then continue speaking. "I want to try something. The Mozart you sing so well seems one of the best human statements ever made about death. I think we should stand together now, and sing for them; sing out our own species’ best death song to these pilot whales who seem to be connoisseurs of such matters."
We are a relaxed group. Everyone onboard is barefoot. One man is wearing a Kairos T-shirt but nothing below it. One woman is dressed in a sari, but it barely reaches to her hips. Three people are stark naked. We all stand, lean up along the starboard gunwale, and watch the black pilot whales rolling and spouting in the waves right there in front of us. A few of the animals must be eighteen feet long. There are two babies swimming among them. The whales can be heard mewing and whistling and clicking through the loudspeakers.
The Kairos chorale leader waves her arm once. The still air is suddenly filled to overflowing with fifteen or more voices singing the Mozart in a clear multi-parted harmony. It is achingly beautiful, ethereal, as if a shard of sunlight suddenly shone down on the deck ready to beam the boat, its passengers, and the whales directly up to heaven. On and on the music rises and falls. The whales are barely moving now. Everyone onboard feels their presence, feels their cetacean minds and their cetacean bodies listening to us in their own mysterious way even as we sing to them.
The music subsides, and then ends altogether. I am leaning against the gunwale watching the people as they watch the whales depart. No one moves. All eyes are focused intently on the surface of the water. One whale turns a moment and then raises his head as if acknowledging both our gift and our presence. He turns about and slowly swims off with the rest of them. Every human face bears the same sublime expression. There, on the deck of the Kairos, at that moment, we all experience a profound sense of the sacred in nature. It is a humbling sensation. It cuts through ideology, nationalism, class, and gender and species. Now, a year later, it remains my strongest memory of life aboard the Kairos.
Sperm Whale Name