Have you ever been cruising along the coast and seen a massive humpback whale explode from the ocean surface? It’s quite a sight to behold! This spectacular maneuver is known as breaching.
Humpback whales are renowned for their acrobatic skills, often putting on a show for lucky onlookers with behaviors like breaching, pectoral fin slapping, and displaying their tail flukes. But why do these giant creatures – weighing up to 40 tons – launch their bodies completely out of the water? The reasons are complex and fascinating.
In this article, we’ll explore the science behind humpback whale aerial behaviors.
What Is Breaching?
Breaching is the most dramatic of the humpback whale aerial displays. This is when the whale launches its entire body clear out of the water in a powerful vertical leap.
To breach, the whale starts by swimming quickly upwards from depth. Right before reaching the surface, it flexed its tail stalk, thrusting its massive fluke into the air. This provides the final propulsive thrust to explode up and out of the ocean.
The whale’s body can reach heights of 10 to 16 feet above the water’s surface. Then it comes crashing back down on its back or side, landing with a huge splash. The impact sounds like a thunderclap or bomb blast.
Breaching requires tremendous energy and effort. The whale has to swim at high speed and with perfect timing to get its entire bulky body airborne. Seeing a 40-ton whale suspend its whole body above water is an unforgettable sight.
This awe-inspiring aerial display certainly grabs our attention. But breaching serves important purposes for humpback whales beyond putting on a spectacle. The reasons whales breach are explored later in this article.
Watch a breaching humpback whale below:
Different Types of Aerial Behaviors Humpback Whales
Humpback whales put on quite a show with their incredible aerial displays. The various maneuvers they perform serve important purposes but also demonstrate their athleticism and acrobatic skills. Here are the main types of jumps and aerial behaviors humpbacks are known for:
- Breaching – This is the big kahuna of humpback maneuvers. During a full breach, the whale propels its body completely out of the water, often twisting as it launches up. Then it crashes back down on its side or back, creating an enormous splash. Breaches are visible from over a mile away!
- Pectoral Slapping – Humpbacks repeatedly slap the surface of the water with their large pectoral fins (the ones on the side of their bodies). These fins can span up to 15 feet long in adult whales! The slaps make very loud, dramatic cracking sounds.
- Fluking – Fluking occurs when a whale lifts its tail flukes out of the water before making a deep dive. Humpback tails are iconic with their massive, wing-like shape. The underside patterns are unique to each individual, like fingerprints.
- Spyhopping – Here the whale pokes just its head straight up out of the water in a vertical position. It can look around, breathe, and check out any nearby boats. Spyhopping only lasts a few seconds before the whale sinks back down.
So, we’ve covered the range of jumps and surface slaps in a humpback whale’s repertoire. Let’s explore why they perform these awe-inspiring aerial maneuvers in the first place.
Why Do Humpback Whales Breach?
Breaching is arguably the most dramatic and impressive of all humpback whale behaviors. When a 40-ton whale launches itself entirely out of the ocean, it’s hard not to be amazed! But why go through all that effort just to smash back down? There are a few key reasons scientists believe explain breaching:
- Communication – The huge splash of a breach can be heard over vast distances underwater. This allows whales to signal their location and presence to others far away. Breaches are louder than their vocalizations!
- Dislodge Parasites – Whales can pick up remoras, barnacles, and other marine hitchhikers. Quickly breaching may help dislodge these pesky parasites from their skin before they attach. Like a dog scratching off fleas!
- Play Behavior – Young whale calves often breach playfully, twisting and turning as they jump. This helps strengthen their muscles and coordination through repetitive practice.
- Dominance Displays – Adult male humpbacks compete for mates by breaching as high and powerfully as possible. Females watch these shows to select the fittest male based on breach quality.
So in short, humpbacks breach to communicate, rid parasites, play, and impress mates. But those aren’t the only reasons whales go airborne…keep reading to learn why they slap pectorals, fluke, and spyhop!
What Purpose Does Pectoral Slapping Serve?
Pectoral fin slapping is another dramatic aerial display humpback whales often perform. When a 15-foot-long flipper smacks the ocean’s surface, it makes a remarkably loud cracking sound. But why do humpbacks slap their fins in the first place? Here are some of the proposed explanations:
- Communication – The loud slaps can convey messages to other whales many miles away. They use sequences of slaps to signal different meanings.
- Foraging – Slapping fins near concentrations of prey like krill or fish helps confuse and herd them into tight balls that are easier to consume.
- Display – Males competing for mates will aggressively slap their pectoral fins as a threat display to other males. Females watch these confrontations when selecting a mate.
So in summary, humpbacks slap pectorals to communicate, aid feeding, and compete for mates. The sheer size and strength of their fins allow them to deliver such powerful blows. Next time you see dramatic fin slapping, remember there’s meaning behind the action!
Why Do Humpback Whales Fluke Before Diving?
Another iconic humpback behavior is fluke displays. This is when the whale arches its tail flukes high above the water before making a deep dive. Humpback tails are unmistakable with their massive, wing-like shape and unique black and white patterns on the underside. But why do whales throw their tails in the air like this?
- Propulsion – The powerful upward motion of fluking provides strong forward momentum to initiate dives. It thrusts the whale downwards and forwards.
- Communication – The black and white patterns on the tail’s underside are like fingerprints, unique to each whale. Fluking displays this to other whales as a signal of identity.
- Foraging – Dramatic fluke-ups are thought to help humpbacks while feeding. The sudden movement startles bait fish like herring into tight balls that the whale can more easily consume.
So in short, humpbacks fluke to power dives, communicate their identity, and aid feeding. The next time you see that iconic tail rise, appreciate how it provides the whale force, visibility, and fish herding abilities!
What Are the Reasons for Spyhopping?
Spyhopping is when a whale pokes its head vertically out of the water for a few seconds, often while floating motionless. It allows the whale to briefly scan its surroundings before sinking back down. This maneuver got its name because the whale seems to be “spying” on things above the surface. What leads humpbacks to spyhop?
- Scanning Surroundings – Spyhopping gives whales a view above the waterline that lets them visually scan for predators, other whales, or boats.
- Curiosity – Humpbacks are very intelligent and curious animals. Spyhopping may allow them to get a better look at nearby human activity like boats.
- Breathing – Shallow spyhopping may simply provide another opportunity for the whale to breathe and expose its blowholes without fully surfacing.
While brief, the spyhop is an important behavior that satisfies whales’ need to observe their environment, indulge their innate curiosity, and take breaths between dives. Next time you notice a humpback head poking up, know that it’s gaining some key intel!
Humpback whales are remarkable acrobats of the ocean, entertaining watchers with their impressive aerial behaviors. As we’ve explored, breaching, pectoral slapping, fluke displays, and spyhopping all serve important purposes for humpback whales.
The more we study the majestic humpback whale, the more we uncover about the significance of their fantastic aerial abilities. These behaviors reveal insights into their communication methods, feeding strategies, social structure, and intelligence.
Next time you witness an acrobatic humpback show, appreciate the importance of every breach, slap, fluke, and hop out of its element into ours.