Pectoral fin slapping which is also known as pec slapping may look like our whales are waving at us but there are many hidden messages in this form of non-verbal whale communication. Pectoral slapping is one of the many favourite surface behaviours to watch amongst whale watchers and often makes a very loud noise as the pectoral fin, which can be up to five meters in length, lands with a mighty splash on the waters surface… lets learn more about The Language of The Whales©.
There are a few different reasons why a whale will pec slap and we most often see this behaviour amongst Humpback whales. Pec slapping is a very important way of communication during the most flirtatious time of our Humpbacks social calendar, teaching young calves and deliberately trying to hit each other!
1. Flirty Females
During the winter breeding season female Humpback use pectoral fin slapping as a way of flirting with and encouraging the attention of male Humpbacks. The female whales will lay on their sides lifting one pectoral fin and allowing it to fall to the surface creating a big sound and splash. They will also roll onto their back and lift both pectoral fins out of the water getting double the sound effect this way! This is a very strong message sent to the male Humpbacks in the area who will hear this surface communication from the female and race towards her. Females also release a scent when performing this behaviour and this scent combined with the loud sound of pectoral fins hitting the surface creates an incredible reaction from the male Humpbacks who come from everywhere to meet the female and this is how Humpback competition pods begin!
2. Schools In
On their southern migration back towards Antarctica many Humpback mothers and calves will be sighted. We often witness when interacting with these pods different behaviours being taught by mum to her calf. During these lessons a calf will firstly learn a behaviour and then practice until they get it just right. Pectoral slapping is a very important way for our whales to communicate with each other, especially the next generation of female Humpbacks. Last season we had a young calf practicing her pec slapping for over 30 minutes straight! It is this determination that will help a calf perfect her technique which will be needed as they turn into young adult whales who will begin communicating to each other through this Humpback non-verbal language.
3. Technical Knockout
We have seen in many competition pods and also during playful interaction between Humpbacks a cheeky pec slap that lands perfectly on the whale next to them! When a pectoral fin that is five meters in length and around 1 tonne in weight lands on you it certainly will be felt. Now this usually is not repeated continually like traditional pectoral slapping but still is a way of communicating through slapping their pectoral fins. Humpbacks have perfect control over their pectoral fins and can be incredibly precise when they land them on the waters surface and this precision will be used when wanting to let the other whale next to you to keep their distance and not get too close!
As you can see there are a couple of different situations pectoral slapping will be used and depending on the situation it can be very relaxed, lifting the pectoral up and above the surface and allowing it to fall calmly or sometimes with a little more force and a “flick” of the pectoral fin adds further energy creating an even louder noise, this is used when the whale is wanting to be a little more forceful in their message. Humans will also respond to Humpbacks by waving back… this is always a lot of fun and a very special experience!