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Why do Whales Breach?

By S. Mithra
Updated Jun 04, 2024
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Although marine biologists have paid recent attention to the endangered species of whales, they have not conducted enough research to know exactly why whales breach. Breaching occurs when a whale, especially a humpback, flips itself entirely out of the water, twists in midair, and lands loudly on its side. Tourists on whale-watching tours may think the cavorting mammals breach just to create photogenic moments, but it probably has more to do with communication, comfort, defense, or predatory behavior.

One theory hypothesizes that whales breach as an alternative method of communication, instead of their underwater sonar noises. The smack can probably be heard by other whales for a very long distance. Yet what whales are saying to each other can only be guessed. Are they alerting friends to plentiful food sources? Enticing mates? Or merely announcing their presence?

Another theory is based on the fact that, after breaching, a great deal of dead skin and barnacles are sloughed off from the impact of the landing. Scientists trying to track individual whales based on their DNA noticed this convenient way of collecting genetic material. It isn't known if whales breach intentionally to scrape off the top layer of skin, water lice, or barnacles, much as humans scratch with their fingernails, but it seems plausible.

Perhaps whales have recently developed their frequent breaching as a response to so many barges, boats, ships, and people in the water. Since they have adequate eyesight, it's thought that they leap out of the ocean both to see and be seen by human-driven craft. This gives them time to prepare for a moving ship and also alerts a ship not to come too close to the area where the whales are congregating. This avoids injury to both parties.

Two lesser-known theories have to do with traveling quickly and preying upon fish. Aerodynamically, briefly leaving the water for the air might help a whale swim fast over long distances. Breaching may have energy efficient aspects. Secondly, whales might purposefully land directly on top of prey that otherwise they couldn't consume without getting bitten themselves. The forceful impact has been known to knock prey unconscious long enough for the whale to swallow it.

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Discussion Comments
By anon326123 — On Mar 20, 2013

Has anybody ever thought that they might be trying to communicate with animals on land? It would be a reason.

By anon121065 — On Oct 22, 2010

I think whales have a high emotional capacity and I'm sure they breach for fun among other reasons.

By anon107060 — On Aug 28, 2010

to find a mate.

By anon104453 — On Aug 16, 2010

I am sure that whale breaching is done for the sheer fun of it. I believe whales are expressing their happiness of just being alive. We should all learn a lesson from them.

By anon98320 — On Jul 22, 2010

Just as an FYI, whales are actually known for having poor eyesight. So the idea that they are breaching to "see and be seen by man-driven craft" is therefore, incorrect.

By anon52337 — On Nov 13, 2009

Fun, fun, fun. Whales do have fun breaching! And it probably also removes parasites and might be like a good "backscratch" of some sort. The force with which their huge mass lands obviously scrapes off the dead cells and probably feels amazing. Maybe they are also showing off to the other dudes. "Look how high I can jump!"

By anon40164 — On Aug 06, 2009

Breaching will relieve a lot of pressure on the animal's thoracic cavity. it is possible that they breach before diving for any length of time. this is a good way to fill the lungs.

By anon36861 — On Jul 15, 2009

It isn't for food since the humpbacks down here in the Dominican Republic regularly breach and they do not even have food when they are down here to give birth

By anon10309 — On Mar 24, 2008

Whales expend an enormous amount of energy with every breach (.075 percent of a healthy daily intake of food). I seriously doubt they are doing it to conserve energy.

By anon3184 — On Aug 15, 2007

A friend just went on a whale watch and was told that Whales breach to loosen their bowels and that they often have a bowel release immediately following a breach.

By Dayton — On Jul 06, 2007

It's true! Whales are very intelligent creatures, so it wouldn't surprise me at all to discover that they were just entertaining themselves!

By anon2146 — On Jun 30, 2007

i don't see "for fun" mentioned anywhere. i know that would be my main reason.

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