Why Do Whales Slap Their Tails?


One of the most amazing behaviors of whales to see when on a whale-watching trip is when they lift their tails up before slamming it into the surface of the water. I wanted to find out why they do this and found it to be really interesting.

Whales slap their tails as a means of communicating with other whales. They also use this as part of their mating rituals.

Whales have many interesting behaviors but this is one of my favorites. If you want to find out more, then please read on.

gray whale

What Is It Called When Whales Slap Their Tails?

Lobtailing is another name for the tail slap. This is a behavior of whales where they lift their tail fin out of the water and bring it down with great force, slapping the surface of the water. 

This is one of the main behaviors of whales that people love to experience. The resultant effect is a loud ‘’wham’’ and a big splash. Lobtailing is very common with whales, and it captures the attention of most whale watchers. 

The slap can be heard for some distance below and above the surface of the water. This behavior can lead to a call and response reaction from other whales. This means that if you see one whale lobtail, then there is a good chance of seeing one or more other whales answering the call by also doing it.

Whale
WHALE TAIL 1

Why Do Whales Tail Slap?

There are many reasons why whales exhibit this behavior. Some of the reasons are thought to be to impress a potential mate. Another is to threaten a competitor. These two are the main reasons why scientists believe that whales will slap their tails.  

Different species of whale lobtail differently. Humpback whales will frequently lobtail repeatedly. They raise their tail back and forth many times to slap the water. In most cases, they will stop to take a breath before continuing later.

There are several reasons why a whale will do this. Lobtailing is a behavior and communication method. Here are some of the reasons why whales slap their tails on the water.

Communication

Blue whale

Lobtailing is a behavior that all whale watchers love to see. Whales will flip their tail to send messages to enemies or mates. Although people and other marine animals will not understand the message, this activity is used for signaling to other whales.

Whales will increase the force of the slap depending on the distance they want the message to travel. Big splashes are for long-distance messages while the small ones are for signaling over shorter distances.

whale tail

A study by Ailbhe Kavanagh at Queensland University revealed some interesting information. The study targeted ninety-four different groups of humpback whales as they migrated from the Queensland coast from 2010 to 2011. 

The study showed that Humpback whales would regularly leap out of the water and twist their backs, also known as breaching. After this, the whales will repetitively slap their tails. The sound from the waves will travel underwater to send messages to other whales around them.

Do Whales Lobtail When Migrating?

Whales do lobtail when migrating, but the patterns will change. When whales are traveling long distances, their main focus is on swimming. Migrating whales will minimize their activities of slapping their tail to conserve their energy. For this reason, you are likely to notice that the slapping will not be as vigorous as it is usually.

Have you ever wondered why whales migrate. I have written an article that will answer your questions, which you can find here.

whale tail

Does It Help In Their Songs?

Migrating whales are known to sing. Some species of whales are known to make vocal sounds such as barks, grumbles, snorts, groans, and whoops when they are migrating. 

Another way of signaling is to slap their tails as a way of creating rhythm. This is one of the reasons why you will observe whales lobtailing together. 

It has also been discovered that the force of the tail slap would increase in Humpback whales when the wind picked up because the sounds were less audible, with males slapping their tails more than females.

Does Lobtailing Remove Parasites?

Whales have been seen lobtailing to remove parasites from their skin. In most of the cases, the tail slap will remove the parasites and some barnacles off the tail.

whale tail

Many types of parasites can stick to a whale for food and shelter. Some of the parasites include the whale louse that can hide in the genitals, nostrils, and the eyes. 

When the whale gets overwhelmed by these parasites, they are likely to slap their tails to remove them. 

Do Whales Lobtail When They Are Breeding?

Whales are also likely to lobtail when breeding. This behavior is communication to the opposite gender. In most cases, the male whale will lobtail, and the female whale will respond by doing the same. This is one of the simplest ways that whales communicate. 

whale tail

During the breeding season, whales will take all the chances and will keep on communicating with each other through such methods as lobtailing. However, the action of lobtailing during the breeding season is not clearly explained. 

Do Whales Use Tail Slaps To Get Attention?

For some species of whales, especially those with a complex social organization, tail slapping is regarded as a signal to get attention. Whales are likely to lobtail as a way of notifying other species of their presence. 

Evidence shows that lobtailing is performed by a lone animal that is in contact with another of the same species. 

whale tail

Lobtailing is also a common activity by resting animals. The lack of enough information is the reason why this is not clear, and very few people have explored the context. 

What Do We Not Know About Lobtailing?

The functionality of lobtailing as a way of communication in whales seems to be the most likely reason for the behavior, but lobtailing seems to have a couple of functions.

Many scientists have suggested that tail slapping produces percussive noise, which travels a long distance to other animals underwater. This gives an indication that the whole activity serves as a nonvocal acoustic signal among the animals.  

However, some scientists wonder why this activity has to take place on the surface of the water. By slapping their tail on the surface of the water, the intensity underneath the water is diminished. It is unknown if whales would be able to make the same impact underneath the water.

Lobtailing only occurs in species that have a complex social organization and context.

whale tail

Is Lobtailing Connected To Whales Breaching?

Whales are known to jump out of the water, which is called breaching. There are no clear indications that the two behaviors have a close correlation. However, scientists have revealed that whales jump out of the water as a way of communicating with other animals. 

This is common among migrating humpback whales to send signals to the other whales in the water. Just like Lobtailing, whales jumping out of water is a signal to other groups.

Do Whales Tail Slap All Year?

Humpback whales lobtail year-round because they have to communicate with each other. Scientists believe that this behavior happens regardless of whether the opposite gender is there or not, and it also happens outside of the mating season. This is a clear indication that the behavior goes beyond the common breeding functions.

Did you know that whales breastfeed underwater. To find out how, please click here for my article.

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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