Why Do Whales Breach?

When whales launch themselves out of the water,
what are they thinking about? What are they DOING out there? whale watchers
In September 2015, a humpback whale breached in Northern California and nearly squashed
two casual kayakers into jellyfish. They survived without a scratch, and Professor Joy Reidenberg
from Mount Sinai University told The Guardian she believes the way the whale breached and
turned showed it saw them, was surprised, and tried to protect them! She said quote,
“I think you.. survived because the whale cared about trying not to hit you.” Whales are beautiful, majestic, and completely
and utterly massive; both in scientific and hyperbolic meaning. Humpback whales can weigh
more than 40 tons (35 metric tons) and be up to 52 feet long! For perspective, a fully
grown humpback is the weight of TWO city buses and extends twelve feet longer! But why would
something so huge throw itself out of the water like that? Whales, like some other marine animals, breach,
the most famous are Spock’s favorite, the Humpback whale. By observing whales, marine
researchers found they usually shoot out of the water, twisting in mid-air and splashing
down on their back or side in spectacular fashion. Scientists have a number of different
hypotheses as to WHY whales breach, because to be honest, we don’t know. It’s not like
we can ask them, yet. For example, when they come down on their
skulls, they could attack, or ward off other whales… they could even do it to impress
and compete for mates. Another hypothesis, is they’re jumping to create the smacking
sound on the water, to attract the attention of or warn off other whales. This is supported
by humpback’s unexplained lobtailing behavior — which is when they slap the surface with
their tail, creating a very loud smacking noise. They do the same with their fins, perhaps
to warn the rest of their pod. Yet another hypothesis, is when they hear a ship approaching
they pop up to take a look around, simultaneously warning the ship of a pod in their presence.
And still ANOTHER hypothesis is the breaching helps move food through their digestive system
when they’re mass feeding! Researchers following pods of whales often
look for DNA evidence of the identities of the whales they’re tracking, and they discovered
debris and DNA in the water after a breach; this got them thinking… Perhaps breaching
is part of a self-cleaning behavior! Barnacles attach and grow on surfaces in the
ocean. They’re famously attached to boats, piers, rocks and of course, sometimes humpback
whales. One humpback whale, can host as many as 1,000 pounds of barnacles; and though scientists
don’t think they harm the whale they may get annoying, itchy, or could cause drag in the
water. So, another hypothesis says, whales breach to clean barnacles off! It’s not like
they have thumbs to grab a scraper, so by breaching and slapping their 80,000 pounds
back onto the surface, they strip away some of their barnacle buddies and exfoliate dead
skin; which is where the DNA and debris come from! Though they’re slower, it’s fairly easy for
the humpbacks to breach, with only a few strokes of their powerful tails, they can accelerate
to 26 feet per second (8 m/s) throwing nearly their entire body out of the water. According
to marine biologists, slower whales tend to breach MORE, not the faster ones, and yet
another hypothesis purported by whale watchers is that humpbacks are breaching for the fun
of it; though scientists think it’s more about display, communication, or dominance than
enjoyment. Whatever reason these intelligent mammals
have for hurling themselves skyward, it’s beautiful, and part of the spectacle of nature.
But next time, hopefully, there won’t be a kayak too close. Have you ever seen a breaching whale? Share
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