It’s a spectacular, mesmerizing sight, a gigantic mammal flinging itself out of the ocean, seemingly stopping in the air for a brief moment, and then crashing back into the water, creating an explosion of seafoam. The image of whales jumping out of the water is iconic and is often used in many forms of media; the 1990s movie Free Willy is one of the most well-known examples.
However, have you ever wondered why they do it? What is the purpose of them violently bursting out from the surface of the sea? The term experts use for these jumps is breaching, and they have only recently discovered why the whales do it. As it turns out, they use it as a means of communication.
What Is Breaching?
Humpback whales are most often the ones we see breaching. They often expose the majority of their bodies above the surface of the ocean, and many probably wonder why they do it. They do it throughout the year, no matter if it is in their summer feeding grounds or their breeding grounds that they inhabit during the winter. Sometimes they can be caught doing it even while traveling between the two. Naturally, scientists caught wind of this breaching and wanted to explore it further.
Breaching takes a lot of energy, so, weirdly, humpback whales do it while migrating. After all, they do not eat during their migration period, so it is strange that they would choose to consume such large amounts of energy for something that does not serve a purpose. Obviously, it had to mean something, so researchers decided to explore it and find out. The research was performed by observing almost 100 groups of humpback whales while they were migrating near Australia on their way to the Antarctic.
Communication By Leaping Through The Air
While observing the whales, several behaviors were noticed while they were breaching. The whales would slap the water with their fins and tails in specific ways, which had to have a specific meaning. As time went on, the researchers noticed that whales would exhibit this type of behavior more often during windy days or when the other groups of whales were far away. This pointed to the fact that breaching might be used as a means of communication.
Jumping into the air and slapping the water while crashing down creates noise, and this noise helps whales communicate with each other across extremely large distances. This is especially helpful when the weather conditions or boats create sounds that are loud enough to block the vocal noises the whales make. This was the final conclusion and the one that is almost certainly true.
Deciphering what the whales are saying when breaching might be a bit harder, though, but maybe we will figure that out eventually. For now, it is presumed that they use this type of communication to give instructions on when the groups should split apart or come together. Although only the migrating period was researched, humpback whales use breaching throughout the year, but its purpose is most likely the same, no matter where they are. Also worth mentioning is that all species of whales use breaching, and most likely, it serves the same purpose.