Whales, the world over have been observed to leap into the air and crash back into the water, slapping their tails and fins as they touch the water. This behaviour of whales is called breaching. Clearly, it requires a lot of energy and is observed when whales migrate and are fasting. Scientists therefore inferred that there must be a reason for this cetacean behaviour.
Marine biologist from University of Queensland, Ailbhe Kavanagh started looking for answers to this query by observing 76 groups of humpback whales on Australia’s Peregian Beach migrating to Antarctica for more than 200 hours. Their findings were published this January in the journal Marine Mammal Science.
Here is what they found. Breaching, fin or tail snapping is a way that whales communicate with each other and may be tell others their location.
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Breaching is found to be more common when pods of humpback whales are at least 4000 metres or 2.5 miles apart. On the other hand, fin or tail slapping is more frequent as groups split or come together. Thus these patterns suggest that breaching is for long distance communication and slapping of tails is for close-range communication. The sound produced when a whale slams its enormous body into the water, like a drum, can travel long distances.
Chris Parsons, a cetacean biologist at George Mason University in Virginia, not associated with this research explain the whale behaviour this way,
“Even though these whales can produce calls that travel great distances, if there’s a lot of noise, it might be easy to drown out. Leaping up in the air and splashing down is equivalent to the really keen kid in a classroom jumping up and down waving his arms.”
Whale communication is a remarkable mystery. Whales have an elaborate system of communication which includes a set of low-frequency moans, grunts, and knocks or higher-frequency cries and whistles for different purposes such as navigation, food-gathering and communication across hundreds of miles of ocean.
Though it is still a challenge for researchers to decipher the entire range of communication of whales, they have however been able to detect regional accents and specific calls for family units, locations, and even “names” of a sort.
While newer equipment and computational technologies are available and are being put to use in an effort to translate cetacean sounds, humans producing noises are drowning out the whale sounds and complicating the task. The silence of the seas is being disturbed by motors, underwater explosions, and other man-made din.
At least now we know that the giant leap into the air made by whales is also a way they ‘talk’ to each other.