Typically the term “mugging” brings up negative associations in the mind, such as memories of lost wallets, purses, or jewelery. When it comes to whales, however, the exact opposite is true. The act of mugging by whales is much more of a gift, bringing you amazing memories that will last forever.
The past two days have been spectacular for whale encounters, as we have had the opportunity to observe several large, active competitive groups. However, they have been particularly exceptional due to the fact that we have had two muggings in two days. “Mugging” is a term used when a whale reacts to the presence of a boat by becoming inquisitive, rather than the typical non-responsive behaviour. Whales may even become interested in research divers, which can also be a form of mugging. An inquisitive whale will perform a variety of playful-seeming behaviours, but most importantly they will remain close to their object of interest for a prolonged period of time (often at least an hour).
It is the behaviour seen from a mugging whale that brings the most delight to onlookers, as the whale will roll at the surface, perform multiple spyhops, or even lift an eye out of the water to look directly at you. It is impossible to experience a mugging without the profound lasting feeling that you have truly connected with these massive, amazing, and obviously intelligent animals. I was overwhelmed with just how aware the whales were of their surroundings, as I watched them roll, lift a pectoral fin or fluke, and dive gracefully, remaining a mere foot or two from the boat, all with both eyes closed.
Mugging is most often seen from single whales, but can also occur with pairs, or even occasionally small groups of whales. It is most commonly done by younger whales, known as sub-adults, but adults are also seen performing this activity. Current research by HWRF suggests that females are slightly more likely to mug, but as with all the other tendencies, males are also commonly seen mugging. The mugging that we experienced yesterday was from a sub-adult male, as the sex was confirmed by several photos of the ventral caudal area. Kristen, our diver, was able to obtain some amazing underwater footage of this encounter, and was even able to hear “our” male making social sounds when three other whales briefly approached the area. Today’s mugging was also performed by a sub-adult, but photos and visual checks suggest that it was a female.
The really good news is that mugging is actually quite common. Not only research boats can be mugged, in fact many believe that whales prefer to mug larger boats, such as whale watching vessels. Many lucky tour guests have had the incredible experience of a mugging, and as long as drivers continue to be careful and whales continue to be curious, there is always a chance for this ultra-close encounter, and a day you’ll never forget!
My name is Diana, and for the past two years, I have been travelling between my naturalist position in Tofino with West Coast Aquatic Safaris, and my research intern position with the Hawaii Whale Research Foundation. Throughout my second season with HWRF, I am writing regular blogs, describing my experiences on the water and here in Maui.