Cetaceans are unique marine species with fascinating surface behavior. Aside from breaching, these mammals also exhibit lunge feeding, logging, and spouting on the ocean’s surface. But why do whales breach?
This article explores the reasons for breaching, a behavior in which a whale propels half of its body out of water for a few seconds. We also discuss the species of whales that breach and the energy required for them to perform this action.
Related Read: Whale Facts.
Breaching is an out-of-water activity performed by whale species, with humpback whales taking the lead as the whale with the most breaches. A whale breach is when it propels its body out of water for a few seconds.
There are two types of breaching: a full breach and a half breach. A full breach is when the whale jumps with more than half of its body out of the water, while half breach is when half or less than half of the whale's body appears.
When whales breach, they may spin clockwise or counterclockwise. They can also perform a non-spinning breach, landing on their side or back. Whales can also breach with their tails by propelling their lower body and tails out of the water.
Another form of whale breaching is a chin-slap breach, a vertical movement in which the whales land in their stomachs or throats.
Before learning why whales jump out of the water, watch this impressive video wherein three whales simultaneously breach.
No one knows the reasons humpback whales jump out of water at intervals. Scientists have been studying whale breaching behaviors for decades but have yet to understand them fully. However, scientists proposed some theories that explain why humpback whales jump out of water. They are:
Breaching serves as a form of communication among these amazing animals. Researchers believe breaching is a way adult humpbacks communicate in a pod. The splashes and sounds created by a whale’s body and tail slapping the water travel long distances underwater.
These sounds allow whales to communicate with those far away from the pod. Breaching could be a long-distance acoustic and visual signal that helps alert a lost pod member of the pod’s location.
It could also signal the availability of food sources or the presence of a viable mate. Breaching can be a crucial signal in rough seas where sounds get distorted underwater. Or there is a noisy ship around.
Furthermore, a 2010 study shows humpback whales increase breaching frequency when background noise levels are high1.
Similar to spy hopping, humpbacks breaching enables them to get a better sense of their environment. It allows them to see whatever is going on above the ocean surface, making it easy to navigate busy coastlines.
Another of the several theories about breaching is that it helps whales catch prey. Humpback whales jump out of the water and dive back into the ocean to disorient and intimidate their prey. Researchers commonly observed this hunting tactic in other whales, like the killer whale.
Orcas tend to hunt other whales like sperm whales, gray whales, humpback whales, and blue whales. A group of orcas surround their prey and breach repeatedly to disorient it.
Breaching could also be a hunting skill in an area with abundant schools of fish or signaling other whales to point out a location with plenty of fish.
The ocean is vast, and whales must establish their boundaries and dominance. Some believe that whales breach to show off their physical abilities. Breaching sends a message to other whales that they occupy an area alone. The breaching behavior can help reduce potential conflicts between rival whale pods.
Also, humpback whales breach to remove parasites. Breaching helps forcefully impact water by forcefully removing the parasites attached to its mouth and skin.
Researchers believe the breaching power, combined with the pressure and shock of the ocean on the skin, removes unwanted parasites and dead barnacles from their bodies.
This surface-active behavior helps them maintain good hygiene, reducing the risks of infections and other parasitic problems.
Further research shows humpback whale breach as a mating display to show off their physical prowess to other members. During whale watch seasons, researchers noticed humpback whales increased breaching among a mating pod.
Like many animals, young whales also play. Calves may breach to mimic mother whales. They could also breach as a form of exercise to build their muscles for a successful hunt.
There are different species of whales, and not all of them breach. We do not know the exact reasons other species do not breach, but we know those that breach. The humpback whale breaches the most out of all whales.
However, blue whales and sei whales rarely breach. Fin whales also do not breach, but some specific populations breach sometimes. On the other hand, only female sperm whales breach regularly, while their male counterparts do not.
Sperm, humpback, and right whales breach as a form of communication, with the humpback whale breaching seven times more around feeding areas than in the presence of a female humpback whale.
As whales engage in breaching, they use energy and other interconnected elements2. First, the size and length of a whale affect its ability to breach. For instance, a whale with a short length and body mass doesn’t need high muscle power and fast swimming speeds to breach.
A larger whale would need to swim faster to cover the same surface area, thus requiring more muscle power. For reference, a 15-meter-long humpback whale would require ten times the energy an 8-meter-long humpback whale needs. Within the 15-second breaching period, a 15-meter-long whale can use as much energy as a 60 kg human running a marathon.
Researchers calculated the amount of energy needed for a whale to breach by calculating its metabolic rates, the energy required for muscular contractions, the frequency of tail stroke and flipper slapping the water, and the variables influencing water resistance.
They learned a whale’s length is a major limiting factor and may explain various breaching behaviors. For instance, a blue whale can only deliver short bursts of power with its long body. In contrast, a right whale has a chunky body, wider tail, and thick layer of fat that facilitates easy breaching.
Whales often exhibit different behaviors that we can see on the ocean surface during a whale watch. These behaviors are:
Some whales engage in deep diving to catch fish. However, the dive times vary by species, location, and purpose. For instance, humpback whales can dive underwater for up to 6 minutes.
They also engage in low fluking diving, a form of shallow diving. You can recognize this dive form when you see the top surface of the whale’s tail as it goes underwater.
It refers to the vertical position where the whale places itself in the water. The whale could also be at an angle with only its head and eyes out of the water. In this position, it may turn 90 to 180 degrees before slipping back underwater.
Sputing refers to the cloud of air and condensed vapor that occurs whenever a whale exhales. The spout varies with each species. A fin whale's spout is up to 40 feet, while a humpback whale’s spout is about 16 feet high. Right whales have a v-shaped spout, while minke whales have barely visible spouts.
Lunge feeding is a short, fast speed along a straight line to catch prey. Whales use this method of hunting to catch fish with their baleen plates. Sometimes, their head might come above the ocean's surface.
We don’t know the exact reasons whales breach at intervals. However, it is a beautiful attraction at whale-watching sites. The next time you see a breaching whale, it could be a means to communicate with other pod members. It could be a method of parasite removal or a mating display.
Dunlop, R. A., Cato, D. H., & Noad, M. J. (2010). Your attention please: increasing ambient noise levels elicits a change in communication behaviour in humpback whales ( Megaptera novaeangliae ). Proceedings of the Royal Society B: Biological Sciences, 277(1693), 2521–2529.
Segre, P. S., Potvin, J., Cade, D. E., Calambokidis, J., Di Clemente, J., Fish, F. E., Friedlaender, A. S., Gough, W. T., Kahane‐Rapport, S. R., Oliveira, C., Parks, S. E., Penry, G. S., Simon, M., Stimpert, A. K., Wiley, D. N., Bierlich, K. C., Madsen, P. T., & Goldbogen, J. A. (2020). Energetic and Physical Limitations on the Breaching Performance of Large Whales. eLife.
Jen’s a passionate environmentalist and sustainability expert. With a science degree from Babcock University Jen loves applying her research skills to craft editorial that connects with our global changemaker and readership audiences centered around topics including zero waste, sustainability, climate change, and biodiversity.
Elsewhere Jen’s interests include the role that future technology and data have in helping us solve some of the planet’s biggest challenges.
Fact Checked By:
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