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Whale Behaviors

What is that whale doing?

A Look at the Behaviors of Whales

The whales of Stellwagen Bank exhibit a diverse array of behaviors. However, our understanding of the nature of these behaviors remains unclear. Following is a pictorial of easily identifiable behaviors of finback, minke, and humpback whales.


Surface Behaviors

Surface behaviors range from low active behaviors such as logging to intermediate active behaviors such as spyhopping and traveling.  More energetic behaviors include flipper slapping, lobtailing, breaching or jumping and kick feeding.  While there are many theories about why whales jump, flipperslap or lobtail, there are no definitive answers.  Theories include exercise, plat, territorial displays, ridding of parasites(grooming), aggression and communication.  However, it is possible that depending on the social and environmental factors, any of these (or a combination) could explain the nature of these spectacular behaviors.



A powerful surface exhalation that can be up to 20 feet high.


Logging – Humpback Whale

A possible resting state.  The whales lie horizontally at the surface without swimming.


Fluking Dive – Humpback Whale

An arch of the back and raising of the flukes resulting in a dive.


Close Boat Approach

A whale or group of whales orient to the vessel, curious of their surroundings.


Spyhop – Humpback Whale

A slow, vertical rise – head first – out of the water.


Flippering – Humpback Whale

On its side or back, the whale raises one or both flippers and slaps the water’s surface.


Lobtailing – Humpback Whale

Head down, belly up or down, the whale raises its tail and slaps it on the water.


Chin Breach – Humpback Whale

A jump, head first.  The whale slaps its lower jaw and ventral surface on the water.


Tail Breach – Humpback Whale

A jump, tail first, out of the water. The whale generally lands on its side.


Spinning Head Breach – Humpback Whale

A jump, head first. Flippers extend and the whale spins until landing on the water’s surface with a large splash.


Breach – Minke Whale


Kick Feeding – Humpback Whale

The whale creates turbulence at the surface by slapping the water with its tail or head.  Associated with feeding behavior.


Bubble Cloud – Humpback Whale

The whale exhales underwater releasing a cloud of small bubbles that may entrap schooling fish or cause them to clump.  Associated with feeding behavior.


Bubble Net – Humpback Whale

A precise, circular net of bubbles blown underwater that may entrap schooling fish or cause them to clump.


Lunge Feeding – Humpback Whale

Fast, horizontal surfacing, mouth open.  Associated with feeding behavior.


Open Mouth – Humpback Whale

Surface feeding, through a bubble cloud or net with mouth open and ventral pleats expanded.


Dragging – Humpback Whale

After engulfing food and water, the whale swims at the surface, tail down, body bowed in snake-like posture, slowly expelling water through its baleen plates.


Side Lunge – Finback Whale

On its side, the finback whale bursts through the water, mouth open, engulfing water and prey.  Associated with feeding behavior.


Humpback Calf Behaviors

Calves tend to spend more time at the surface and display more surface behaviors. This could be play or learning.