Whale Moves 101
The waters around Newfoundland and Labrador represent some of the best opportunities for whale viewing and watching anywhere in the world. Whether playing, feeding or traveling in a group, these leviathans of the sea behave with a purpose and uniqueness all of their own.
Whale activity can be viewed from shore, but if you want to travel to their habitat, a boat or kayak tour is a great way to experience whales awe-inspiring behaviour first-hand (from a safe distance, of course). Their surfacing habits may make you curious as to what exactly the whales are doing as they interact with each other and their environment. To help, we have prepared a list of whale moves to get you up to speed on these majestic mammals.
Breaching and Lunging
To put it in simplified terms, a breach is defined as a jump in which at least 40% of the animal’s body clears the water, while a lunge is a leap with less than 40%. Lunging is often the result of feeding behaviour, while the reasons for breaching are still mostly unknown. We do know that whales are more likely to breach in a group, suggesting that it could be a non-verbal signal, similar to a nod and a wink in local parlance.
There is two types of wave riding; bow and wake. These are interactions with boats: whales, porpoises and dolphins use them the way one racing driver uses another car to "draft" and save energy. Bow-riding is when the whale is in the pressure wave in front of the boat, while in wake-riding they are off the stern of the boat in the wake. Wave riding reduces the energy needed to swim; for example, did you know that a dolphin uses 70% less energy when wave-riding? While it is important that boat tours keep a safe distance from marine life, it is not uncommon for whales to be curious about visitors in their natural environment.
When a whale is spyhopping, they rise from the water and hold themselves vertical, often exposing their entire head. Typically the whale's eyes will be slightly above or below the surface of the water, enabling it to see whatever is nearby on the surface. Spyhopping occurs for many different reasons across a wide variety of species however. In Newfoundland and Labrador, we often see this behaviour where the focus of a whale's attention is on a boat and they pop up to say hello.
Lobtailing and Slapping
Lobtailing is the act of a whale or dolphin lifting its fluke out of the water and then bringing them down onto the surface hard and fast in order to make a loud slap. It is speculated that lobtailing and slapping are forms of non-verbal communication as they can be heard underwater from several hundred metres away. Some suggest that lobtailing in humpback whales is a means of foraging. The hypothesis is that the loud noise causes fish to become frightened, thus tightening their school together, making it easier for the humpback to feed on them.
This one is unique to humpback whales. During this movement, the whale converts its forward momentum into a crack-the-whip rotation, pivoting with its pectorals as it drives its head downward and thrusts its entire fluke and peduncle (the muscular rear portion of the torso) out of the water and sideways, before crashing into the water with terrific force.
When a whale pec-slaps they turn on their side, exposing one or both pectoral fins and they slap them against the surface of the water. The humpback whale’s pectoral fin is the largest appendage of any mammal. The reasons for pec-slapping vary; during breeding season it’s used by both males and females to indicate receptiveness while at other times it is merely a short-distance communication tool.
If you are lucky, you may see a whale at the surface with no forward momentum. When they do this, it is to breathe during sleep periods, taking a turn from sleeping beneath the surface. This intermittent behavior is common in right whales, sperm whales, pilot and humpback whales.
Between May and September, Newfoundland and Labrador is one of the best place to see whales feed, frolic and even breach near our shores. Catching a single glimpse of these majestic mammals is an exciting and awesome experience, whether it's from the deck of a tour boat, the side of your sea kayak, or a seaside trail. Have a picture or video to share from your whale watching experience? Tag #ExploreNL or #WhalesNL in your posts, or reply in the comments below!
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COVID-19 UPDATE: Newfoundlanders and Labradorians get to rediscover home this year, and we welcomed our Maritime neighbours on July 3. Call or connect with operators / venues before you go, as details on the website may be modified by COVID-19. Future travellers from elsewhere, please keep dreaming and check back for travel updates.