The unique behaviour of tail sailing is important to the day to day life of our whales. Floating upside down with fluke high and dry above the surface, some have reported the sight as looking similar to a giant butterfly or palm tree when spotted from a great distance away. Why do our gentle giants perform such a unique behaviour that would certainly take a lot of practice to perfect so it must have a very valuable use.
So far researchers have discovered a few reasons as to why this behaviour is performed, but being a very rare behaviour to sight and study it has taken a lot of time and patience to discover the true meaning behind this wonderfully unique whale language.
Tail Sailing can be sighted more regularly in the warm climates of the Humpbacks breeding and calving grounds with both adults and mother/calf pods seen displaying this behaviour. As they still have a lot of blubber they need to keep their body temperatures cool in this tropical environment. When a whale raises its wet fluke above the surface and allows the sea breeze to catch on the large surface area it works very similar to air-conditioning. Blood vessels close to the surface of the fluke are cooled by this breeze which helps to regulate body temperature.
Ease of Feeding
A young calf will not be able to feed for long periods of time before they need to surface for air. A female whale who feeds her calf in this position can not only keep cool (and a close eye on her calf!) but her teats are closer to the surface this way which enables a young calf to feed and breathe easily.
Tail Sailing is sighted most of the time in mother/calf pods and usually in the warmer tropical climates of the breeding and calving grounds. However, earlier this week we had a yearling calf who was still with her mom practicing this behaviour in Flinders Bay. We were very fortunate to watch as she practised and was determined to get it right!
Southern Right Whales have also be observed tail sailing shortly prior to the birth of their calves in Flinders Bay, Augusta. Tail sailing is a behaviour that is very rarely sighted which means we still have a lot to learn about other possible reasons why our whales like to hang upside down for extended periods of time. Importantly should you have the opportunity of observing a whale tail sailing in the wild please be mindful that they are in a relaxed state and provide them with plenty of space as the cooling or feeding process is a very important part of their life.