Seeing the body of a whale launch itself out of the water is one of the most awe-inspiring behaviors you can see on a whale watch! You see it on all the TV shows, you see it on all the brochures that advertise whale watching, but what’s the likelihood that you’ll actually see it on a whale watch?

First, it’s important to understand why they breach at all. For an animal that spends the majority of its life underwater, why would it be inclined to be airborne in the first place? An article by Kavanagh et al. 2017 indicated that breaching may be useful for communication between distant groups as well as common when groups are splitting or joining. But, is that the only answer?

Could the behavior serve several different purposes depending on their age (calves vs. adults?), by location (mating/calving areas vs feeding areas), situation, species, or even individual? These are also highly intelligent animals that may be responding to stimuli that aren’t obvious to us. Without being able to ask the whales themselves, it is likely that we will never know the whole story. For now, we consider ourselves lucky if we get the chance to see it!

Consider some responses about humpback whales by a few Whale SENSE Naturalists from Gastineau Guiding in Juneau, Alaska:

By Aleta Walther. Scientists don’t really know why whales breach, but some speculate that it is a form of communication, others think it might be a way to dislodge barnacles, maybe they are looking around, but I like to believe they breach because it’s fun.

By Annette Smith. From my observations, there seems to be a ritual when bubble netting groups break up. I also think it is a startle response sometimes. I have also seen it in a frantic way along with tail lobbing when killer whales are in the area.

By Scott Ranger. The simple answer is, we don’t know! I hear lots of reasons and here is what I think about them. If animals expend energy only when necessary, perhaps breaching energy could help understand this behavior. Breaching requires a great deal of energy in a spurt of activity. Whitehead1 calculated this for humpback and sperm whales at 617 kcal. Bursts of breaching are common and burn a lot of calories.

Looking above the water. An upside down view of seconds? Their vision is limited, and their spherical lenses function far more efficiently in water than in air.

Sloughing barnacles. How can the force of a 45 ton whale dislodge a barnacle from its skin as they burrow and glue themselves into the skin? A study in Ecuadoran waters demonstrated that some do come off with intense activity.

Sloughing skin. A Humpback whale sloughs small sections of skin continuously, likely an important role in maintaining healthy skin. Could breaching aid in that shedding process?  

Social interactions. This is a broad category! Most of the breaching that I have seen has been associated with bubble net feeding groups, but males will also breach during competitive groups in the tropical mating grounds! Therefore, it is difficult to generalize why a whale would breach in all social interactions!

Communication. Landing from a breach makes a loud noise. I’m sure whales a long distance away can hear it through the water. Just what would the splash communicate?

Play behavior. This is an enticing and difficult conclusion. As intelligent animals, wouldn’t this be an appropriate conclusion? Anthropomorphism is my worry. Because we humans play, do we conclude they play?

Just this summer I was out with my four year old granddaughter and we watched whale 1879, better known as Sasha with her new frisky calf. Watching the calf do many variations of tail slaps, waves, throws, Mabel proclaims “she’s having fun!” Mabel just may be right. How do we determine and measure play?

  1. Whitehead, H. 1985. Humpback whale breaching. Investigations on Cetacea. Berne, Switzerland. 17: 117-155

Read more answers to Frequently Asked Questions here!

Header photo courtesy of Lilli Mack

Ali Schuler
Ali Schuler

Ali has been working with the Whale SENSE Program since 2018. She has worked as a whale watch naturalist in both Alaska and Hawaii, and spent her master’s researching the effects of whale watching on humpback whales and conservation.