Skip to Content

Why Whales Breach?

whale breach
whale breach

Our expert-vetted content is grounded in current scientific publications, yet we acknowledge science’s ever-evolving nature. Read our full editorial and disclosure policy.

Introduction

The air-water interface signifies a major barrier for most organisms. However, despite the difficulty, some creatures manage to temporarily breach this interface for a number of reasons including hunting, escaping predators, regulating body temperatures, and parasite removal. One of the most remarkable examples of this behavior is observed in whales, and the phenomenon of whale breaching has captured the fascination of scientists and nature enthusiasts alike.

By National Marine Sanctuaries – HIHWNMS – Breaching Humpback Whale, Public Domain.

Whale breaching is a spectacular display in which a whale propels itself out of the water and crashes back down with tremendous force. This article will delve into the hows and whys of whale breaching behavior.  

1. Whale Species That Breach

By Fritz Geller-Grimm – Own work, CC BY-SA 2.5.

Almost all whales are known to breach, particularly the baleen whales. The most famous and frequent breachers are the humpback whales, right whales and sperm whales. The more uncommon baleen breachers include the gray, blue, minke, sei, Bryde’s and fin whales.

Apart from the northern bottlenose, beaked whales are also known to breach, except this behavior is termed ‘leaping’ for this family of whales. Examples of beaked whales that have been observed breaching are the Cuvier’s, Longman’s, and True’s whales.

2. Why Do Whales Breach?

Communication

Check out Why Do Humpback Whales Breach?

Scientists believe that breaching and other aerial behaviors may serve a communication function. These slapping sounds could be used as an effective aquatic mechanism for sending messages to other whales over long distances. The bigger the breach, the louder the sound and the further the message will travel. This is because sound travels faster underwater than it does on land and is therefore a more effective form of communication for animals that live underwater.

Scientists have inferred that the most aerially active species of whales are also the most social. Therefore, high levels of aerial activity such as breaching could be used to communicate among members of the same species.

Parasite Removal

Another proposed benefit of breaching is ectoparasite removal, especially among heavily-infested baleen whale species. The physical force generated during a breach can dislodge parasites attached to a whale’s skin. This suggests that breaching might have evolved as a means of maintaining hygiene and health for certain cetaceans as the heavily infested species seem to be the most frequent breachers.

Hunting

Experts have indicated that breaching and other aerial behaviors could help the whale to stun, scare, herd or trap their prey. While most breaches do not occur during feeding, this theory cannot be discounted.

Play and Other Reasons

Play is yet another possible reason behind breaching, particularly in young animals. Although not immediately biologically functional, play behaviour could help develop skills and abilities that are beneficial later in life. This notion is particularly relevant when considering the acrobatic and agile nature of breaches, which young whales often exhibit.

Other possible reasons for breaching and other aerial behaviors include stretching, looking above the water and inhaling water-free air in rough weather.

3. The Mechanics of a Breach

By National Marine Sanctuaries – HIHWNMS – sanctuaryoceancount-NOAAFisheriesPermit782-1438, Public Domain.

How Whales Breach

Whale breaching is an impressive display of power and agility, often categorized into two main styles: the “lateral breach” and the “vertical breach.” In a lateral breach, the whale propels itself horizontally out of the water, while a vertical breach involves the whale shooting vertically into the air, typically rotating during the ascent. Whales use their powerful tails to generate the immense force needed to breach that air-water interface.

Types of Breaching 

Check out more about whale breaching behaviour

·  Full Breach: When more than half of the whale’s body leaves the water.

·  Half Breach: When half or less than half of the whale’s body leaves the water.

·  Spinning Breach: While doing a full or half breach, the whale may spin clockwise or counterclockwise.

·  Non-spinning Breach: While doing a full or half breach, the whale may not spin at all and simply land on its back or side.

·  Chin-slap Breach: A vertical breach where the whale lands on its throat or belly.

·  Tail Breach: When a whale lifts the lower half of its body and tail out of the water.

Photo by Silvana Palacios.

4. The Best Places to Witness Whale Breaching

Photo by Daniel Ross.

1. Monterey Bay, California: Located along the Pacific coast, Monterey Bay is a renowned hotspot for whale watching. The best time to witness breaching here is during the summer months for humpback and blue whales. Gray whales can be seen during the winter months.

2. Husavik, Iceland: Iceland’s northern coast is famous for its rich marine life, and Husavik is known as the “Whale Watching Capital of Europe. Visitors can observe breaching humpback and sperm whales from May to September.

3. Hervey Bay, Australia: Between July and November, Hervey Bay becomes a hub for humpback whale watching. The sheltered waters provide an ideal environment for these giants to showcase their breaching behaviors.

4. Hermanus, South Africa: Nicknamed the “Whale Watching Capital of the World,” Hermanus offers exceptional opportunities to see southern right whales and humpback whales breaching from June to October.

5. Maui, Hawaii: Humpback whales migrate to the warm waters around Maui from December to April. Witnessing their spectacular breaches in this tropical paradise is a unique experience.

6. Baja California, Mexico: Gray whales frequent the waters off Baja California from December to April during their annual migration. Travelers can watch them breaching in the region’s lagoons and coastal areas.

5. Human Impact on Whale Behavior

Humans have a significant impact on whales and their breaching behaviors, often with negative consequences.

  • Ship strikes: The most significant threat to whales occurs when shipping vessels collide with whales that are at or close to the surface. These accidents can cause injuries or fatalities for whales and damage to ships.
  • Commercial fishing: Commercial fishing practices can lead to entanglement in fishing gear, a severe threat to whale populations.
  • Noise pollution: Noise pollution from shipping traffic and underwater construction can disrupt whale communication, navigation and feeding – potentially altering their breaching patterns.

As breaching requires a high amount of energy, it can often be used to indicate an individual’s health, therefore, when a whale is injured or stressed due to human activities they may breach less frequently.

Conclusion

YouTube video

To conclude, it is vital for whales to be able to safely and successfully carry out their natural behavior. However, increases in shipping traffic and anthropogenic noise pollution can severely hamper their ability to do so. Conservation efforts are crucial to mitigate these impacts. Implementing stricter ship speed limits in whale habitats and creating whale-friendly shipping lanes can reduce the risk of ship strikes. Reducing underwater noise pollution and employing quieter vessel technologies are essential steps to protect whales. In terms of fishing, using whale-safe gear and implementing regulations to reduce bycatch is vital. Collaboration between fisheries and conservation groups can help find solutions to minimize the impact on whales.

To protect these gentle giants, it’s essential for individuals to support and promote these conservation efforts, raise awareness about the challenges whales face, and advocate for responsible practices in industries affecting whale populations. Our collective efforts can help ensure that whales remain safe and can carry out their natural behavior in the wild.

Read more about these fascinating animals:

References

Kavanagh, A. S., Owen, K., Williamson, M. J., Blomberg, S. P., Noad, M. J., Goldizen, A. W., Kniest, E., Cato, D. H., and Dunlop, R. A. (2017). Evidence for the functions of surface-active behaviors in humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae). Marine Mammal Science, 33(1), 313–334. https://doi.org/10.1111/mms.12374

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., and Goldbogen, J. A. (2020). Energetic and physical limitations on the breaching performance of large whales. ELife, 9. https://doi.org/10.7554/ELIFE.51760

Würsig, B., and Whitehead, H. (2009). Aerial behavior. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, 5–11. https://doi.org/10.1016/B978-0-12-373553-9.00003-1

Latest posts by Zara Prew, PhD Candidate in Ocean and Atmospheric Science (see all)