Migrating Naturalist: The Whale Wing-Man

An extreme close-up whale chin! Look for the tiny hairs, and sea lice. (The above image was taken under NOAA-Fisheries Permit #587-1767-01)

A while back, I wrote an excitement-drenched blog about humpback whale mugging, and how amazing these encounters can be. I had mentioned that it is much more likely to see this fascinating behaviour from younger whales, and also from females. Today was one of those days that reminded us that no matter what trends you uncover, wildlife will never cease to surprise you.

Around mid-afternoon, we began to observe a potentially exciting competitive group, moving along quickly with lots of surface activity. However, shortly after joining them, we found one large whale seemed to be tracking the boat, and surfacing unexpectedly close. At first we thought that perhaps this whale had been chased out by another competitor, veering over to us as an evasion tactic. We quickly realized that he was actually mugging us when he spyhopped directly beside the boat, evoking shrieks and laughter from the crew. I had an eagle’s-eye view from the upper tuna tower of this massive whale sitting just below our hull, appearing ready to pick us up on his back. He had bright white pectoral fins, which made him easy to track as he rolled and circled us. Two times he popped up just off the bow, sending a shower of whale snot (or, more politely, whale breath) over the crew sitting up front.

However, this whale was not alone. Shortly after the mugging began, another whale from the initial group (identified as a likely male) also moved close, although it did not seem interested in the boat. Our diver in the water later reported that this other whale had been circling around the other and producing bubble blasts, often used to signify agonistic intentions. From this, we can infer that this second whale was traveling with our mugger in a pair, and was unhappy that his ‘buddy’ was hanging around the boat for so long. Shortly after this second whale passed by a few times, the pair moved off together.

This is extremely interesting behaviour, because it adds weight to a new theory which has been gathering strength with recent research. It suggests that male-male interactions are not as purely competitive as we thought, and they may actually work cooperatively in activities such as mating (as one person put it, acting as a “wing-man”). This is one possible explanation for why other males will often approach a single singing male. Observations like the one we had today are particularly exciting, as they may shed some light onto new ideas about humpback whales, and help us interpret their lives a little more clearly. It is days like these that remind me that as researchers we are constantly learning, which is one of my favourite parts about the work. We can never begin to assume we know everything about what we study, especially when whales are involved.

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