Breaching Behavior of Whales
One of the most awesome sights for whale watchers is that of a whale soaring up out of the water where 1/2 to 3/4 of the body length comes up out of the water and falls on its side or back causing a huge splash as it comes back down and hits the water, this is known as breaching. Humpback whales seem to breach more often than gray whales but gray whale calves seem to breach more often which might suggest that these calves are playing. When a whale is going to breach they will swim very rapidly under water and then suddenly raise its head and body up and out of the water. It will usually land on its side or back with a tremendous splash, often a gray whale will breach several times in a row.
There have been some studies that suggest that calves breach more often than adults which suggest that it may be more for play than anything. Some other theories range from a way to knock off external parasites, such as barnacles, to a form of communication or just for the fun of it. Some other reason for whales breaching could be a form of courtship or a way to emphasize a visual or auditory signal among whales, but the truth is no one knows why they do this. The photo above is “Scarback”, Depoe Bay’s most famous resident gray whale, she has been coming back to Depoe Bay for the last 20 years.
Another whale behavior that gets people excited is spy-hopping, where the whales head sticks straight up out of the water. One theory on spy-hopping goes against the conventional wisdom that it’s to see what is happening, some suggests that it’s to help the whales hear better; it has been observed that during spy hop behavior the eyes do not always come above the surface of the water. During migration, it may be to hear the surf since their route usually follows the coastline.
When spy-hopping, the whale rises and holds position partially out of the water, often exposing its entire rostrum and head. Spy-hopping is controlled and slow, and can last for minutes at a time if the whale is sufficiently inquisitive about whatever (or whomever) it is viewing. Generally, the whale does not appear to swim to maintain its elevated position while spy-hopping, instead relying on buoyancy control and positioning with pectoral fins. Typically the whale’s eyes will be slightly above or below the surface of the water, enabling it to see whatever is nearby on the surface.
Lob-tailing is the act of a whale lifting its flukes out of the water and then bringing them down onto the surface of the water hard and fast in order to make a loud slap. Like breaching, lob-tailing is common among active cetacean species such as humpback, and gray whales. It is less common, but still occasionally occurs, among other large whales. Lob-tailing is more common within species that have a complex social order than those where animals are more likely to be solitary such as gray whales.
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