Why Do Whales Breach?


If you have ever seen an enormous whale leap out of the water then you know this is one of the most amazing and powerful things that you will ever see. The leap is called a breach and in this article, I look at why whales have this behavior.

Whales breach as a means of communication to other members of their species. Breaching can also be a way to catch food, remove ectoparasites, stretch, or just as a way of playing. New evidence states that it helps them to hold their breath for longer.

A full breach is probably the only time you will ever be able to see the entire animal. If you want to find out more information on why whales breach, then please read on.

Whale

What Is A Breach?

A whale breach is defined in the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals as ‘an intentional jump from the water in which at least 40% of the animal’s body emerges.’

Breaching is different from other behaviors of whales that you may see including lunging and porpoising.

Lunging is when less than 40% of the whale emerges from the water and happens generally when the whale is lunge feeding. Porpoising is normally done by smaller whales, dolphins and porpoises. Porpoising happens when they make small leaps while swimming close to the surface. This helps them to reduce drag.

Breaching is defined and can be seen as an intentional jump from the water. Dolphins and porpoises do breach the water but are known as leaping.

Whale

Some whales breach from different angles. Sperm whales swim vertically up to the water’s surface to breach, whereas right whales and humpback whales which can swim in shallow water will swim horizontally before they breach.

By using their speed, their head and fluke rise up and then down which allows them to leap out of the water.

Although breaches are defined as 40% of the whale emerges from the water, full breaches are possible. Humpback whales need to reach near their full speed of 8 meters per second to complete a full breach.

Although breaches can occur in many different ways, the sight that most people have seen either in the wild, on video, or in photos is a whale that is twisting to land on its side or back.

Why Do Whales Breach?

Breaching is one of the greatest mysteries of whales. We know that both males and females can breach, that they breach at all times of the year, and that they will breach when alone or in groups.

Whales will also breach once or many times and at both their breeding grounds and their feeding grounds. Whales often follow the lead from other whales and will often copy another whale when they breach.

Whale

Although not the main reason, breaching has been shown to help whales in their search for food. By breaching from the water, surrounding fish can be stunned, trapped, herded or scared, allowing the whale to feed on them once back in the water.

Other behavior of whales such as lobtailing also helps the whale get food and scientists believe that breaching also causes fish to act in the same way.

Many species of whale, especially the larger baleen whales are infested with ectoparasites. Most of the species of whales that have been studied that breach is more heavily infested than species of whales that do not breach.

It is believed that breaching helps the whales to remove some of the ectoparasites from their bodies, however, whales and dolphins that do not attract a lot of ectoparasites also breach.

Scientists also believe that breaching can be done for some other reasons. When in rough water, whales still have to inhale air and may breach to breathe in water-free air.

Want to know why whales migrate? Find out here.

Whale

It has also been stated that whales may be using the breach to stretch their bodies and also to see above the sea level.

The main reason that scientists now believe that whales breach is for communication.

It has been studied that it is the species that are more social that breach more. It was also noted that breaching occurred more frequently when social activities happened.

The social structure of whales relies heavily on communication between different members of the same species, and so breaching is thought to be a way of them communicating.

The sound of the whale hitting the surface travels a distance but does not reach as far as their vocalizations would. Other whales would also not be able to see the leap of a whale above the water. Both of these facts go against the idea of breaching being a means of communication to other members of their species.

However, the sound of the whale reentering the water is a true sign of the physical abilities of the whale that has breached. This would signal to other members around the size of the whale and their intentions.

The breach may indicate to other members in the vicinity of courtship, a display of strength, aggression or annoyance.

A full breach uses a lot of energy to make, with about 1% of a whales daily resting metabolic expended. Due to the amount of energy used, the message from the whale must be significant.

Another belief why whales breach is due to play. By leaping into the air, whales, especially smaller, younger whales may just be imitating their larger parents. Due to the amount of energy expended it is not believed that adults breach as an act of play.

After more recent research, scientists have come up with another reason for why whales breach. As whales dive to great depths, they need to be able to hold their breath for a long time.

The muscle of a whale is rich in a protein that carries oxygen. The protein is called myoglobin and studies show that high levels of this protein play a large part in how long a whale can hold their breath.

By breaching, the muscles are recharged with myoglobin allowing them to dive to great depths.

Want to know why whales slap their tails on the water? Find out in an article I have written here.

When Do Whales Breach?

Different species breach at different times to other whales, and different sections of animals in the same species may breach at different times.

For example, young whales breach more often than adult whales. Female sperm whales, although larger than the males breach much more often.

Baleen whales in the North Atlantic breach more when in their feeding grounds than in their breeding grounds. Humpback whales can be seen to breach about seven times as much as they do when feeding than when around the opposite sex.

The thought that breaching is as a means of communicating is especially true in sperm whales, right whales and humpback whales when groups are splitting up or merging.

In groups of right whales and humpback whales, a breach from one whale often causes other whales in the vicinity to also breach. Clusters of whales up to 10 km across have been seen to breach in this way.

When a male humpback finishes their song in the Hawaiian islands where they breed, they can often be seen breaching.

Wind speeds also play a part in the breaching habits of whales. Scientists have noticed that with higher wind speeds, breaching occurs more often. However, there is no specific reason for why this happens.

Some whales have been seen to breach almost 200 times in one display, although they can be seen getting physically tired as the breaches are less impressive with less of their bodies exiting the water.

Ever wondered how whales evolved. Find out here in an article I wrote.

Which Whales Breach?

Many species of whales breach the surface of the water. However, it is generally the slower whales that will breach.

Although some faster species such as Sei, Bryde’s and fin whales will breach, they do it less often than slower whales such as humpbacks, bowheads, gray whales, sperm whales and right whales.

The slower whales live in larger groups than the faster, slimmer whales and this is the reason that scientist believe that these whales breach more often.

Humpback whales can often be seen breaching, as can right whales and sperm whales. Humpback whales and sperm whales can sometimes be seen doing belly flops, but some will make a complete breach out of the water.

Blue whales, fin whales, gray whales, sei whales and minke whales can also be seen breaching.

References

Bernhard Grzimek, Schlager, N., Olendorf, D. and American (2003). Grzimek’s animal life encyclopedia. Detroit: Gale.

Carwardine, M. (2010). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Dorling Kindersley.

Carwardine, M. (2017). Mark Carwardine’s guide to whale watching in North America : USA, Canada, Mexico, where to go, what to see. London: Bloomsbury.

Hadoram Shirihai, Jarrett, B., Graeme Cresswell and Kirwan, G.M. (2019). Whales, dolphins and seals : a field guide to the marine mammals of the world. London: Bloomsbury Wildlife.

Martin, T. (1990). The illustrated encyclopedia of whales and dolphins. Hodder.

Nowak, R.M. and Walker, E.P. (1991). Walker’s mammals of the world. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Perrin, W.F., Würsig, B.G. and J  G  M Thewissen (2002). Encyclopedia of marine mammals. San Diego: Academic Press.

Richard John Harrison and Bryden, M.M. (1990). Whales, dolphins and porpoises. London: Merehurst.

Williams, H. (1988). Whale nation. London: Cape.

Wilson, D.E. (1999). The Smithsonian book of North American mammals. Washington: Smithsonian Inst. Press.

May, J. (1990). The Greenpeace book of dolphins. London: Century.

Bryan Harding

Bryan has spent his whole life around animals. While loving all animals, Bryan is especially fond of mammals and has studied and worked with them around the world. Not only does Bryan share his knowledge and experience with our readers, but he also serves as owner, editor, and publisher of North American Mammals.

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