If you’ve ever been whale watching, you may have witnessed them breaching. Whales are majestic creatures that captivate our imagination with their immense size and incredible acrobatic displays. One such display is breaching, where a whale propels itself out of the water and crashes back down with a resounding splash. While breaching may seem like a random behaviour, scientists have identified several possible reasons why whales engage in this impressive feat. In this article, we will explore three potential explanations for why whales breach: communication, territorial claims, and parasite removal.
1. Whales Breach to Communicate
Communication plays a vital role in the social lives of whales, and breaching is believed to be one way they convey messages to others in their pod. The powerful splash and sound created by breaching can travel vast distances underwater, allowing whales to communicate with individuals that may be far away. It is thought that breaching serves as a long-distance visual and acoustic signal, alerting other members of their presence or signalling important information such as mating readiness or the location of food sources.
2. Whales Breach to Claim Territory
In the vast oceans, territory is crucial for whales to establish their dominance and secure resources. Breaching can be a display of strength and power, serving as a territorial claim. By breaching, whales showcase their physical prowess and send a clear message to other individuals or competing pods that the area they occupy is their territory. This behaviour helps establish boundaries and can help reduce potential conflicts between rival groups.
3. Breaching Removes Parasites
While breaching is visually striking, it also serves a practical purpose for whales. The forceful impact with the water dislodges and removes parasites that attach themselves to the whale’s skin or in their mouths. The sheer force of the breach, combined with the pressure and shock of hitting the water, can effectively dislodge these unwanted hitchhikers. This behaviour helps whales maintain good health and hygiene, reducing the risk of infections or other health issues caused by parasites.
4. Breaching to Assist Hunting
Breaching can assist whales and dolphins in completing a successful hunt. The force and sound of a breach can be disorientating and intimidating to prey. The species we see this most commonly with is the Orca (Killer Whale) who will completely launch themselves clear of the ocean below to ensure the loudest impact possible. The prey they target in Australian waters includes Humpback Whales, Blue Whales, Minke Whales and Beaked Whales. The family pod of Orca will work as a team to breach around their prey to disorientate, confuse and panic that individual. During one extraordinary event our research team documented the first ever full Blue Whale hunt involving Killer Whales.
Sadly for the Blue Whale it ended in a successful hunt and one of the reasons why was the coordination the Orca had of organising their breaching to take control of the Blue Whales movement. The number of Orca involved in the hunt numbered 75 individuals and half positioned themselves to the left of the Blue Whale and during the chance relentlessly breached over and over. The right side of the Blue Whale observed those Orca keeping very quiet which allowed the Blue Whale to think that it was a safer area to swim towards. Instead the Orca now had complete control of where they could manoeuvre the Blue Whale to assist in completing the hunt quickly.
5. Breaching for Visual Observation
Breaching has been used to assist whales and dolphins to get a better visual on their surroundings. Although not as common as a spy hop, breaching enables them to see what is happening above the oceans surface. Breaching for this reason is often used when navigating through busy areas close to the coastline.
Whales breaching is a captivating spectacle that leaves observers in awe. While the exact reasons behind this behaviour may vary among different species and populations, scientists have identified three possible explanations: communication, territorial claims, and parasite removal. Through breaching, whales can communicate with others over long distances, establish their dominance and claim territories, and rid themselves of pesky parasites. Understanding the motivations behind this behaviour adds to our knowledge of these magnificent creatures and deepens our appreciation for their complex lives in the vast ocean ecosystems.
Remember, breaching is just one aspect of the rich tapestry of whale behaviour. Further research and observation are necessary to fully comprehend the intricacies of their actions and their significance in the broader context of their lives.