Whale Behaviour and what it means

This will help you understand why whales behave the way they do and make sense of the spectacular displays

Whale behaviour – what you will see while whale watching in Plettenberg bay

Whales, the majestic giants of the ocean, exhibit a remarkable array of behaviours and social structures that underscore their complexity and adaptability. From the intricate songs of the humpback whale to the sophisticated hunting strategies of orcas, whales demonstrate advanced communication, cooperative behaviours, and protective instincts that are vital for their survival in the vast and often perilous marine environment. This essay explores the intricacies of whale interactions, breeding practices, and community protection, shedding light on the profound social lives of these extraordinary creatures.

The Language of Whales

Communication is at the heart of whale interactions. Whales utilize a rich tapestry of vocalizations, including songs, clicks, whistles, and pulses, to convey information about identity, location, emotional state, and environmental conditions. Humpback whales, for example, are renowned for their complex songs, which can last for hours and travel great distances underwater. These songs are not only a means of communication but also play a crucial role in mating rituals, where males sing to attract females and establish dominance among other males.

In addition to vocalizations, whales employ body language to communicate. Breaching, tail slapping, and pectoral fin slapping and “underwater dancing” that can signal various intentions, such as marking territory, warning of danger, or expressing social bonds. These activities are often observed in social interactions, where whales become playful, protective, cooperative, are feeding.

Whales engage in breaching and fin or tail slapping for various reasons and during their annual migration, are an experience not to be missed.

Why do whales behave this way

It is a way for whales to communicate with each other. The loud sounds produced by breaching and slapping can travel long distances underwater and may serve to alert other whales to their presence, signal danger, or coordinate group movements.

Courtship and Mating during the breeding season often coincides with migration where males may breach and slap their fins or tails to attract females or to compete with other males for mating opportunities.

Breaching and slapping may help whales dislodge parasites or other skin irritants. The impact with the water can help to clean their skin.

Whales appear playful and this might also be a form of play or exercise, helping whales to stay agile and physically fit during their long migrations.

Some scientists believe that breaching and slapping could help whales in navigation by using the impact and sound waves to sense their environment, similar to the way bats use echolocation.

Social structure varies among whale species, with some exhibiting tight-knit family units while others have more fluid group dynamics. Orcas, or killer whales, live in female dominated pods where social bonds are strong, and group members often stay together for life. In contrast, humpback whales have more transient associations, with individuals frequently joining and leaving groups.


Breeding Rituals and Migrations

The breeding practices of whales are as diverse as their social structures. Many species undertake long migrations between feeding grounds in polar regions and breeding grounds in tropical or subtropical waters. These migrations are driven by the need to find optimal conditions for mating, calving, and raising young. Plettenberg Bay and the Cape Coastline have been visited by whales as long as anyone can remember. Plettenberg Bay operated as a whaling station from 1834 to 1916 and is still a migration spot for whales today.

Whales engage in elaborate courtship rituals. Male humpback whales, for instance, perform intricate songs and physical displays including breaching, fin and tail slapping to attract females. In species like blue whales and right whales, males compete for the attention of females through vocalizations and physical confrontations, demonstrating their fitness and strength which is common in many animal species.

Once mating occurs, females give birth in warmer waters where the risk from predators is lower, and the calves can grow in a safer environment. Parental care is vital for the survival of whale calves. Mothers provide extensive care, nursing their young with nutrient-rich milk and protecting them from predators. In some species, such as sperm whales, females and their offspring stay together in matriarchal groups, where older females help care for the young.

Protection and care

Protection within whale communities is achieved through a combination of defensive activities, environmental awareness, and cooperative care. Members of a pod may work together to defend vulnerable individuals, such as calves, from predators like sharks or other predatory whales. Orcas, known for their cooperative hunting strategies, also exhibit strong protective behaviour towards their pod members, especially the young and vulnerable.

Environmental awareness plays a crucial role in the survival of whale communities. Whales use their acute senses to detect and avoid dangers, such as areas with high human activity, which can pose risks from ship strikes and noise pollution. By staying aware of their surroundings, whales can navigate safely and reduce the likelihood of encounters with threats.

Cooperative care is another essential aspect of whale community protection. Individuals other than the mother may help care for the young in whale communities. This behaviour ensures that calves receive continuous care and protection, enhancing their chances of survival. Additionally, social learning within whale communities allows individuals to learn from each other, adapting to changing conditions and improving their ability to respond to threats.


Images gallery courtesy of Ocean Blue Adventures on Facebook

Last words

Engaging with and getting to understand these magnificent creatures complex interactions is a privilege that only a few of ever get to experience. Make it an unforgettable experience

A Whale watching and observation experience second to none

Stay at Emily Moon River Lodge to make your whale watching and nature experience a vacation to remember. Emily Moon is built along the banks of the winding Bitou river, offering unmatched views over the river, reed beds and daily activities of the varied wildlife which call the Bitou river home. Let the wonderful people at Emily Moon take care of all you need, enjoy a drink on the deck overlooking the meandering redd lined River and watch the dusk become night before be delighted with a fabulous meal at Emily’s restaurant or Pizza at Somin’s bar.