Humpback whales are well known for their impressive breaching behavior, where they launch their 30-40 tons bodies entirely out of the water before crashing back down. This thrilling display has captivated whale watchers and researchers alike, who have proposed many theories to explain why humpbacks breach.
After reviewing the evidence, here’s why humpback whales breach:
Humpback whales breach, or jump out of the water, to communicate with other whales through the loud sounds created, navigate, remove parasites, stun or herd prey, play, and express dominance. Breaching likely serves multiple social and hunting functions for humpbacks.
Overview of Humpback Whale Breaching
When a humpback whale breaches, it propels nearly its entire body vertically out of the water to heights typically ranging from 10 to 16 feet, sometimes landing on its back or side. This is an energetic feat – a 30-ton whale leaping 16 feet into the air is equivalent to a 180-pound human jumping over a 5-story building!
Humpbacks don’t breach randomly. They usually make several shallow dives first to build up speed, then arch their back and flip their tail fluke to launch upwards. Some breaches are simple leaps, while others add twists, turns, or belly flops. Humpbacks often breach over and over, performing dozens of breaches in a row.
Different types of breaches include:
- Full breaches: The whale launches almost all of its body clear of the water
- Partial breaches: Only the head and forward part of the body emerges
- Twisting breaches: The whale spins laterally as it breaches
- Tail breaches: The whale lifts its peduncle and tail flukes out of the water while keeping its head submerged
- Pec slaps: The whale slaps the water with its pectoral fins
Why Do Humpbacks Breach?
While the reasons behind this impressive behavior aren’t fully proven, scientists have proposed several explanations:
One leading theory is that breaching allows humpbacks to communicate over long distances. Breaches generate incredibly loud splashes and bursts of sound that can travel for miles underwater.
Researchers found humpbacks breach more often when groups are farther apart, suggesting it is a long-range signal. The sounds enable humpbacks to send specific messages about location, identity, group affiliation, or emotional state to other whales over long distances.
Breaching promotes important social connections between whales. The exciting spectacle draws whales together to interact and may play a role in courtship. Mother-calf pairs also breach together, which could build social bonds.
Additionally, breaching may also function as a threat display. The immense sound, splash, and visual of a 30-ton whale launching out of water is attention-grabbing and intimidating.
Navigation & Orientation
Breaching gives whales an aerial view to survey their surroundings. Humpbacks likely use this perspective to navigate by sighting landmarks, assessing ocean conditions, locating prey, and mapping migration routes. The orientation gained from breaching may explain why they often perform a series of multiple breaches traveling in one direction.
Mating Displays & Social Interaction
Dominant male humpbacks frequently breach to show off their strength and athleticism during breeding season. This impressive display advertises their physical fitness to attract females and intimidate competitor males. Breaching also allows males to better scan for potential mates across distances.
Additionally, breaching promotes important social connections between whales. The exciting spectacle draws whales together to interact and may play a role in courtship. Mother-calf pairs also breach together, which could build social bonds.
Launching out of water allows humpbacks to vigorously shake off external parasites like barnacles or lice. The high-impact landing could dislodge irritating organisms clinging to their skin. This would explain why whales often perform repetitive breaches.
Joy, Playfulness & Exuberance
Breaching may simply be a reflection of whales enjoying themselves and reveling in their aquatic environment! This playful, exuberant behavior is more common in immature whales and during breeding season when energy levels run high.
Why Do Calves Breach So Much?
Humpback whale calves breach frequently, often launching their 5-ton bodies repeatedly over and over again. Mother-calf pairs also breach synchronously together. The special bond between humpback mothers and calves is very strong – calves must surface more often to breathe, and the mothers stay by their side, never leaving them alone.
One explanation is that calves have an abundance of youthful energy and breach playfully for enjoyment. Breaching may also build necessary muscle strength for migration or future mating contests. As calves improve their breaching skill, they additionally learn complex motor coordination and train aerial orientation abilities.
Breaching together likely cements social bonds between mother and calf. The exciting spectacle draws the attention of other whales, allowing calves to better observe adult breeding behaviors they will later mimic.
How Do Humpbacks Physically Breach?
Humpback whales are supremely adapted for the biomechanics of breaching:
- Their streamlined torpedo-shaped bodies reduce drag and turbulence during the ascent.
- Powerful fluke strokes propel the whale upwards at speeds of up to 22 mph.
- To maneuver acrobatic spins and turns midair, humpbacks flex their pectoral fins like airplane wings to roll their bodies.
- Expandable throat pleats stretch to engulf massive volumes of air, preventing injury from water pressure changes.
- On impact, thick blubber cushions organs from the shock. Ribs unfuse in maturity to add chest flexibility.
To successfully breach, timing is key. Humpbacks carefully choose wave troughs to launch from to gain maximum height. They also porpoise several times beforehand to build speed for the highest breaches.
Environmental Factors Influencing Breaching
Researchers have uncovered some environmental triggers making humpbacks more likely to breach:
Wind & Waves
Choppy water and high winds impair whale communication. Breaching generates loud sounds that travel farther in noisy conditions. More breaches occur as wind and wave action increase.
Boat noise also hampers long distance acoustic signals. During heavy vessel traffic, breaching spikes as whales compensate to maintain contact. Repeated breaches parallel the path of passing boats.
Areas and times of year with dense prey like krill or fish shoals incite more breaching. Whales may breach to herd and corral bait balls, or announce feeding opportunities.
Periods of social activity like competition between males or exchanges between mother-calf pairs elevate breaching. High energy social gatherings also spark more breaches.
Time of Day
Humpbacks breach more often at dawn and dusk, possibly due to prey availability or changing light conditions useful for visual orientation.
In northern feeding areas, breaching occurs more in late summer when prey is plentiful. In breeding grounds, breaching peaks in winter months for mating displays.
Unique Humpback Breaching Behaviors
While most humpback whales breach similarly, some unique breaching behaviors stand out:
Repeated Serial Breaching
Some juvenile whales rapid-fire breach dozens of times in a row without a break. One calf breached at least 69 times in under 30 minutes – more than double the previous record! Their stamina is astounding. These serial breaching events seem to be playful displays.
Combined Tail Slaps & Breaches
Rather than a single aerial maneuver, some clever humpbacks combine multiple moves. They will breach once, then follow it with several tail slaps before launching up again. This advanced routine showcases strength and agility.
A few phenomenal super-breaching humpbacks can spectacularly launch over two-thirds of their bodies out of the water, rivaling even the most acrobatic whale species. Photo sequence analysis captured one juvenile humpback reaching an astonishing height of 30 feet! Researchers think these athletes purposefully build speed for maximum lift.
Conservation of Humpback Whale Breaching Behavior
With growing threats to humpbacks from human activity like ship collisions, entanglement, and ocean noise, their intriguing breaching behavior is at risk in certain habitats.
Measures to conserve breaching include:
- Establishing marine protected areas for key breeding grounds and migration routes
- Enforcing boat speed limits in areas with high humpback density
- Requiring fishing gear modifications to prevent entanglements
- Limiting offshore construction during peak seasons and habitats
Maintaining pristine environments where humpbacks can safely communicate and navigate will allow these majestic marine mammals to continue their extraordinary breaching displays for generations to come.
Breaching Mysteries Remaining
Despite making strides in deciphering reasons for this charismatic behavior, many breaching mysteries still puzzle researchers:
- Do sounds produced by breaching actually form a communication signal?
- Is there a pattern to the number of spins and direction of rolls during aerial twists?
- Why do some populations breach more than others?
- How do humpbacks decide which whale initiates a synchronous breach?
- What determines if a whale will perform multiple serial breaches vs a single one?
Advanced technologies like high resolution body acceleration tags, underwater sound recording devices, and aerial drone footage will shed more light on these remaining questions in coming years.
For now, science cannot fully explain every nuance of why humpbacks toss their gigantic bodies skyward. As we continue learning, we can simply stand in awe as another humpback whale rockets up from blue depths hangs suspended in grace, and then vanishes once more. Their breaching spectacle represents nature at its most powerful and poetic.
And like the humpback whale finding ways to communicate across distance through splashing, we too can apply their lesson – staying connected with our loved ones through whatever creative means we can during challenging times.
- Whale Behaviors. Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Retrieved February 6, 2024, from https://stellwagen.noaa.gov/visit/whalewatching/whale-behaviors.html
- Humpback whales face a major setback from climate change. National Geographic. https://www.nationalgeographic.com/environment/article/humpback-whales-face-a-major-setback-from-climate-change