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Why Do Whales Breach?

by Eric Austin Yee

It’s the ultimate goal of many Dana Wharf Whale Watching guests – witness a whale breach! Many have seen it on TV while watching a nature documentary but, you never know when it might happen when a whale is spotted during our trips. Agile humpback whales and gray whales traveling along our coast are the two whales we see at Dana Wharf Whale Watching breach the most often. Watching an animal about the size of a school bus launch almost its entire body out of the water creates a memory our guest will never forget and also brings up many questions. Our naturalists are often asked, why do whales breach. Well…scientists really don’t know, but there are many theories out there why whales possibly demonstrate this amazing behavior. Below are a few of the thoughts researchers have come up with over the years as to why whales possibly breach.

It was once thought that young whales would breach just as a form of play but, upon closer study researchers believe there might be a more beneficial reason. One of the latest and newest theories about why whales breach is that they do it for exercise. A recent study has found evidence that young whales will breach repeated to help build up myoglobin levels in their muscle tissue. Myoglobin carries oxygen in the whale’s muscle tissue and helps the whales breath holding ability while on deep dives.

Form of Communication

When 80,000 pounds of whale goes airborne, there will definitely be a big splash. That big splash could mean a number of things to other whales. That big splash could simply let other whales know that another whale is near. Some thoughts are that it could also be an action to show dominance. Breaching could also be a way of showing potential mates that you are fit and ready to mate.

Looking Around
Launching yourself out of the ocean is a great way to see what is above and around you. One thought is that whales possibly breach to check out their surroundings, such as boats near them or even landmarks to help them navigate along the coast.

Stunning Prey
When a huge creature like a humpback whale lands near or on a school of baitfish, you can imagine that the results will not be great for the baitfish. Slowing down and stunning a school of baitfish makes feeding much easier.

Dislodging Barnacles
If you take a close look at the skin of certain species of whales you will see many little creatures calling the whale home. Barnacles, whale lice, copepods and even remoras can call a whale home. On a large gray whale, these little creatures can actually be in such huge numbers on the whale they can add a few hundred pounds of additional weight to the whale. Breaching could be a way to knock off a few of these hitchhiking creatures if they cause the whale some discomfort.