Join me in the cold, dark, life-sustaining NE Pacific Ocean to discover the great beauty, mystery and fragility hidden there.

“Posturing” Humpback Whales?

Some experiences are best shared in photos. So here you have 20 images documenting the marvel of how 2 humpback whales interacted with one another for more than an hour. Huge energy was expended by both whales in head lobbing, lobtailing, pectoral fin slapping, and breaching. Back and forth it went, the sounds resounding above and under the water in the Great Bear Sea around Caamano Sound (proposed tanker route).

I witnessed this while with Pacific Wild as an educator for the SEAS program (Supporting Emerging Aboriginal Stewards).

What was this humpback whale exchange about?  In this case, I really don’t know.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos Telephoto and cropped.

One of the two humpbacks that was incredibly surface active ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

I have had the privilege of learning from these giants for more than a decade now and have seen such exchanges in all sorts of contexts.

I reference the behaviour as “posturing” since the whales appear to making a display to one another. Outside of play behaviour and learning in young animals, my interpretation is that these incredibly powerful surface active displays between whales may serve the purpose of:

  • Delivering a clear “I’m big don’t mess with me” message to a perceived threat e.g. the presence of mammal-eating killer whales (“Bigg’s”/”transients) or the vocals of fish-eating killer whales (“residents”) to which the humpbacks are not habituated;
  • Communicating the presence of a perceived threat to other humpback whales since the slaps of humpback fins and bodies resound underwater;
  • Striving to display dominance / greater vigour to other humpbacks which may be particularly relevant for mating;
  • Possibly establishing spacing between humpbacks; and/or
  • Some sort of social function that leads to them ultimately joining up and swimming away together as was the case in exchange for which I provide the photos below.

Here we go. Photos provided in chronological order.

Almost simultaneously, when both whales were within 200 m of one another, Humpback 1 (lots of barnacles and smaller but too big to be the 2nd whale’s calf) started breaching and Humpback 2 (larger) started lobtailing. [Note, there were also two other humpbacks in the area but at a greater distance away and they were not surface active.]

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 starts breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 starts tail-lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. All photos telephoto and cropped.

Humpback #1 then began repeatedly head-lobbing, advancing away from Humpback 2.

 All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

Humpback 1 head-lobbing. All photos telephoto and cropped ©2014 Jackie Hildering.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active.  ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 continues to be very surface active. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 still at it. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 1 breaching. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Some more head lobbing from Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

HW_2014-08-05-_JH_Rambothem Island-1536

Leandrea, intern at Pacific Wild, listening to how the slaps of fins and body could be heard underwater.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Whale 1 not done yet. Breaching here. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Half an hour later, Whale 2 advanced from the position where the exchange with Whale 1 began. S/he head-lobbed and breached down the same track as Whale 1.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 head-lobbing, advancing down from where the exchange with Whale 1 began. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 – more head lobbing. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2 – head lobbing and moving toward Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. See his/her eye? ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. Imagine the energy expended to lob his/her body like this. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 continues in the direction of Whale 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback  2. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Shortly after this, s/he joined with Humpback 1. ©Jackie Hildering. Telephoto and cropped.

Humpback 2 only stopped this highly surface active behaviour after half an hour when close to Humpback 1. And then . . . . then they joined up very close together and swam back in the direction that exchange had begun. What was it all about?!

With these whales being on the Central Coast, I am relaying fluke and dorsal photos to the wonderful Janie Wray and Herman Meuter of Cetacea Lab to find out if they might know the identities of the whales involved in this exchange. They are not known to us at the Marine Education and Research Society.

But will we ever know for sure what such a display was about? In having the extraordinary privilege of learning from the marine environment, one of my most valued lessons is to recognize how little we know and thereby to have the correct humility and precaution in decisions about marine resources.

Humpback whales are giants, they are easy to identify as individuals, they have been studied for some 40 years and still there is so very much we don’t know – including the benefit of expending so much energy in such an exchange.

_________________________________________

For related information see my previous blog “Might As Well Jump

For an ethogram of humpback whale behaviours from the Whale and Dolphin Conservation Society, see here.

7 Responses to ““Posturing” Humpback Whales?”

  1. Good Jacqui

    Fantastic series of images Jackie! What incredible animals that as you say we know so little about..but a little more each time you share!

    Reply
  2. Josie Byington

    Hi Jacquie, I’m updating the Clayoquot Sound humpback whale catalogue right now and I would be interested to see the fluke IDs for these two whales too. I bought a copy of your catalogue online and I’m using it as I’m working. Great to have it. Thanks, Josie Byington http://www.clayoquotwhales.ca

    Reply
    • The Marine Detective

      Will send them now Josie. For the smaller animal, I only have the dorsal fin. Do you have Cetacea Lab’s catalogue? How great it would be if we had the resources to put one catalogue together. Warm wishes!

      Reply
  3. leestrick

    What an excellent “show” as I call it. I felt like I was right there. I LOVE these animals. It seem like it was some love connection between them or maybe not, maybe just play time, or maybe it was “can you do this?, look what I can do” I always wondered, do whales think that way, just as humans do? I don’t know…maybe, maybe not. All I know is, that was a wonderful article and thank you for sharing with all of us whale lovers and those that have a passion for the sea and all of its inhabitants.

    Reply
    • The Marine Detective

      Thanks so for this feedback Lee.
      I really appreciate it.
      It was such a privilege to witness this and, for me it means all the more knowing it is unlikely to have anything to do with the human presence; that it happens despite our being there. I so understand the sentiment but it leads to my avoiding “show”.

      Reply
  4. Bridget MB

    Can we rule out that it was related to mating (competition or attraction) since it was in the feeding grounds during feeding season or does mating-related activity start before they get to the mating grounds? It does very much sound show-off-ish to me either in terms of competition (maybe for territory, in this case, instead of for a mate?) or like you said a sort of “look what I can do” playful behavior. It really is humbling to realize that we might not ever fully understand their behaviors, but at least we can witness them and marvel at them!

    Thank you so much for sharing this – the pictures were so great I almost felt like I was there! I really wish I was there and not stuck in a landlocked state, but at least your blogs give me a little snippet of the ocean and whales which I so crave…

    Reply

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