Well known for their acrobatic surface displays, humpback whales are a favorite for whalewatchers around the world. The meaning behind these impressive behaviors, however, is still unclear. Because many of the behaviors are performed by both males and females, and on both the winter breeding grounds and summer feeding grounds, researchers believe that the interpretation of these behaviors may largely depend upon the context in which the behavior is observed.
On the breeding grounds, males engage in three primary behavior patterns, including singing, associations with other males, which include both non-agonistic and agonistic behaviors, and escorting, guarding or defending females. Much less is known about female behavior patterns on the breeding grounds, but females are generally involved in courtship and mating and/or activities associated with the care and protection of newborn calves.
The whale raises its head vertically out of the water, without the mouth open or the ventral pleats extended. Usually the whale is stationary and the flippers are outstretched beneath the surface. Occasionally whales will clear the water first with their flippers or tails, creating a circular window, from which they can more easily look through the surface of the water.
The whale slowly raises its tail into the air, sometimes high enough that the genital area is exposed above the surface. Often the whale holds its tail there for extended periods of time. We have observed a female holding her tail out of the water for as long as four hours, only taking time to breathe. In some breeding areas this type of behavior appears to be more common than in others. Although the reason for this behavior is unknown, speculation has included avoiding unwanted male attention or as a way to regulate body temperature.
The whale raises one or both flippers into the air and slaps it (or them) down on the surface of the water, once or many times in succession. Why? It has been suggested that flippering may attract other whales to join a group and/or be a way that females may roll away from or toward male attention.
Whale extends its tail fluke above the water and slaps it, often forcibly, down on the surface. This can occur "right way up", with the whale slapping the ventral (underneath) side of the flukes on the water, or the reverse, with the whale belly-up slapping the dorsal (top-side) of the flukes on the water. This often, but not always, occurs many (35+) times in a row. As with the other behaviors, the meaning behind this behavior is unknown, but it has been speculated that it may be a way to ward off other whales, or to the contrary, to invite other whales to join a group.
The whale throws the rear portion of its body from the water, striking the water forcefully.This behavior is often described as one of the more aggressive behaviors of humpback whales.
Breaching is often described as a behavioral exclamation mark! The whale leaps from the water, spinning in air before re-entry, once or many times in succession (35+). At times, two or three associated whales may breach simultaneously. Why whales breach is unknown. Most likely breaching serves many different functions depending upon the context in which it occurs. For instance, breaching often signals a change in behavior or sometimes direction of travel, and is likely a form of communication.
The whale lunges forward, with most of its head coming out of the water. This behavior is common in surface-active groups where male escorts and challengers are vying for close position to a female.
The submerged whale releases a controlled stream or trail of bubbles from its blowhole, leaving a long stream behind it. This behavior often occurs in surface-active or competitive groups from the primary escort or his challengers. It has been suggested that this bubbling behavior makes a visual screen, making it harder for whales to see underwater.
Male humpback whales compete and fight with each other, most commonly over access to a female. Groups of males that are competing for access to a female are called competitive groups or surface-active groups. Behaviors in these competitive groups may range from relatively low-impact displays with no physical contact, to high-impact collisions and tail lashes that may result in bleeding wounds on the tubercles (head knobs), dorsal fin, and tail fluke.
Whale lunges or leaps partially out of the water, striking the underside of the chin forcefully on the surface of the water. Head slapping behavior often occurs after a breaching sequence and its meaning is unknown.
The whale opens and closes its jaws, clapping them together, at times audibly! This behavior is common in competitive or surface-active groups when males are competing for a female.
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