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Whales, or to use the scientific word ‘Cetaceans ‘ can spend much of their life below the surface. But once they hit the surface they have many different behaviors we may be lucky enough to see.

striped dolphin
Striped dolphin bow-riding © Laureline Formanek


Dolphins and porpoises are well known for bow-riding. These cetaceans will swim in the pressure waves created at the bow of a boat as it is moving forward. Sometimes it is even possible to witness small dolphins/porpoises bow-riding the waves created by big whales such as blue or fin whales. They may continue this behavior for quite a long time (from minutes up to hours!). Dolphins are particularly good at bow-riding, able to fine-tune their body posture and position so as to be propelled along entirely by the pressure wave, often with no fluke beats needed. While the main reason for bow-riding is to efficiently travel from one place to another without spending too much energy, often it is only done for enjoyment and fun!!!


A Humpback Whale does a full breach!
A Humpback Whale does a full breach! Photo Credit to Captain Yves with a zoom lens.


The whale leaps out of the water head first. Usually, whales and dolphins roll in the air so that they land on their side when they hit the water, creating a lot of noise and a big splash. Researchers generally use the word breaching when at least 40% of the animal body clears the water. Despite its important energetic cost, breaching is often carried out in series. It is not clear for scientists why cetaceans are breaching. A breach might be a sign that the animal is physically fit enough to afford energy for this acrobatic display, hence it could be used for ascertaining dominance, courting or warning. Also, as the noise produced is extremely loud, this behavior might be a way of communicating over very long distances with other individuals. Another widely accepted reason is to dislodge parasites. The cetacean will fall onto its side which will bring down a layer of skin along with the attached parasites. The behavior may also be more simply a form of play or an exuberant display of joy.

whale breaching
Orca breaching © Laureline Formanek

Flippering / Flipper Slapping

A cetacean at the surface rolls onto its side, raises a flipper out of the water, and then hits the surface with it. The whale may do it once or several times in a row. Humpback whales are the most famous flipper slapper, as they possess the longest flippers of all cetaceans (around 1/3 of their body size). The reasons for flippering are probably similar to those of breaching.


tail fluking
Sperm whale fluking © Laureline Formanek


A cetacean lifts its fluke (or tail) out of the water before diving. It flukes in order to descend steeply beneath the surface instead of progressively. Not all cetaceans will show their fluke before diving. The deep sea feeders, like the sperm whales, generally show their fluke when diving whereas the surface feeders like the fin whales never show their tails. There are two kinds of fluking: a fluke-up when the fluke is brought high into the air, clearly showing the undersides (e.g. sperm whales, humpback whales) and a fluke-down when the fluke is brought clear of the water but remains turned down, hiding the undersides from view (e.g. blue whales, Risso’s dolphins).


humpback tail slapping
Humpback whale tail slapping © Laureline Formanek

Lobtailing / Tail Slapping

This refers to when a whale dives down but leaves its tail out of the water, then slaps the surface of the water with its fluke, sometimes repeatedly. The sound can be very loud and may be heard for some distance. Thus, this behavior can be used for long distance communication such as letting other individuals know that there is food here, or perhaps a predator, or to attract a mating partner. Cetaceans can also sometimes display this behavior when they are annoyed. It can be a way of reprimanding another individual of their social group who was naughty. It could also be a form of keeping a predator away or possibly to tell us, humans, to stay away. Last, it can simply be a way to play or socialize. The most frequent lobtailers seem to be the most social cetacean species.

Pilot whales logging © Laureline Formanek
Pilot whales logging © Laureline Formanek


When cetaceans are resting at the surface they look like floating logs. They generally stay still or swim very slowly. In social species (e.g. pilot whales, sperm whales), the individuals generally log very close to each other and face the same direction.

Blue whale spouting © Laureline Formanek
Blue whale spouting © Laureline Formanek

Spouting / Blowing

When a cetacean comes to the surface to breathe, it releases a lot of air, called its spout (or blow), when it exhales. The breath is made of warm air and water droplets. The spout of different types of cetaceans looks quite different. Experienced observers can identify a species of cetaceans from the appearance of the spout on the horizon. Generally the larger the cetacean, the higher the spout (e.g. the spout of a 30m blue whale can be up to 12m high, whereas the spout of a 10m minke whale will only be up to 2m high).

Also, the spout shape varies from one species to another: they can be bushy (e.g. minke whale), straight and thin (e.g. fin whale), or conical (e.g. sei whale). One whale who has a unique and easily recognizable

One whale who has a unique and easily recognizable spout is the sperm whale. While all cetaceans have their blow hole situated on top and in the middle of their head, the sperm whale has his at the front and always on the left side of its head. Thus, instead of being perpendicular to the water surface, the spout of the sperm whale forms a 45° angle with it. It is also particularly useful for whale watchers and researchers as it indicates in which direction the whale is swimming.

Sperm whale spouting © Laureline Formanek
Sperm whale spouting © Laureline Formanek


A cetacean lifts its upper body with at least one eye out of the water. This behavior allows the whale to look around and see what is happening above the water surface. Cetaceans have an excellent vision in the water as well as out of the water.

When dolphins and whales are close to a boat they might spyhop out of curiosity, just to check us out (yes they enjoy “human watching” just like we enjoy “whale watching”). But this behavior actually evolved for a good reason. In some migrating species like the grey whale, spyhopping close to shore allows the whale to recognize some particular landmarks so it knows which direction to take. Another famous example is orcas spyhopping around the sea ice in search of a potential prey (e.g. seal) resting or hiding on an ice floe.

Striped dolphin porpoising © Laureline Formanek
Striped dolphin porpoising © Laureline Formanek


When dolphins/porpoises travel at high speed, they often leap clear out of the water every time they take a breath before reentering head first. It is believed this is to reduce friction on their bodies when they break the surface, which may help to conserve energy and travel faster.

Written by Laureline Formanek – Phd
Onboard Naturalist/Biologist for SpringTide Whale Watching & Eco Tours.

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