Whalewatching 2016: Part 4

31 Jan

flukeslap

12 January Cruise

At LAST! The weather is no longer a hindrance to taking decent photos: From the week of 12 January onward, the seas have been unusually calm and the skies clear (except for a couple of days with severe “vog” haze). It’s now well into the first month of the peak of the migration (roughly mid-January through early March). The whales encountered during this cruise displayed a greater variety of surface behavior than previous cruises. I think this might be due to there being more whales present than the previous months, as well as more receptive females present and an increase in the ratio of males to females. These factors may also account for why I’ve begun to see so many surface-active competition pods.

This three-whale competition pod's members each displayed different behaviors as I took the shot: a flukes-up dive, a "round-out" dive and bubble-blowing.

This three-whale competition pod’s members each displayed different behaviors as I took the shot: a flukes-up dive, a “round-out” dive and bubble-blowing. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

This competition pod turned into a three-way pushing and shoving match, looking more liked a rugby scrum that a graceful whale ballet.

This competition pod turned into a three-way pushing and shoving match, looking more liked a rugby scrum that a graceful whale ballet. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

The following is an extreme-distance shot of a solitary adult whale performing a partial breach; I was about a half-mile away and just barely had enough time to get off one good shot.

Shot this breaching whale at the maximum range of my 300 mm lens.

Shot this breaching whale at the maximum range of my 300 mm lens. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

One of the most commonly seen behaviors in surface-active competition pods is bubble-blowing. It’s employed by the males in a comp-pod to confuse its competitors, the idea being to impair another whale’s ability to see the lone female being pursued, giving the perpetrator a chance to slip in close to her and become her primary escort (and maybe get a shot at mating with her).

A competition pod male indulges in some vigorous bubble-blowing, hoping the bubble screen will temporarily blind other combatants so he can slip in next to the female being pursued.

A competition pod male indulges in some vigorous bubble-blowing, hoping the bubble screen will temporarily blind other combatants so he can slip in next to the female being pursued. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A surface-active competition pod whose participants are doing a lot of bubble-blowing. The towers of the Kealia Beach Power Station is visible in the background.

A surface-active competition pod whose participants are doing a lot of bubble-blowing. The towers of the Kealia Beach Power Station is visible in the background. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A behavior known as a “pec wave” is believed to be employed by female Humpback whales to signal that she is “receptive’ and willing to consider mating with a suitable male (but only after leading a pack of suitors all over the bay as she checks them out). The whale usually rolls over onto her side and holds up one of her huge (more than 15 feet long) pectoral, waving it around lazily, occasionally slamming it down hard on the surface (this is known as a “pec slap”). This usually is sufficient to bring in several nearby males who then compete to be her primary escort.

A "pec wave" is believed to be a signal to surrounding male whales that the perpetrator is sexually receptive. All this female managed to attract was a boatload of picture-snapping tourists.

A “pec wave” is believed to be a signal to surrounding male whales that the perpetrator is sexually receptive. All this female managed to attract was a boatload of picture-snapping tourists. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A “head lunge” is a violent surface behavior used by males in surface-active competition pods as a way to intimidate competitors or simply to show aggression or extreme irritation. It involves the perpetrator suddenly thrusting its head out of the water at a shallow angle and then slamming it down hard on the surface (and occasionally on another whale). The following shot was taken head-on of an aggressive male performing a violent head lunge for the benefit of an unseen competitor.

A head-on view of an aggressive male performing a head lunge. It's rare to see this behavior head-on and at such close range.

A head-on view of an aggressive male performing a head lunge. It’s rare to see this behavior head-on and at such close range. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Click HERE to view a photo of a more typical head lunge shot from off to the side of the whale.

 

I like the following shot because it shows a female successfully attracting a male with her pec wave.

A seductive pec wave has attracted the attentions of a hopeful suitor (that's him blowing at the surface to the left).

A seductive pec wave has attracted the attentions of a hopeful suitor (that’s him blowing at the surface to the left). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

In females, pec-waving behavior often is followed by the whale rolling over onto its back and holding both pectoral fins out of the water and gently waving them (see next photo). 

This female rolled completely onto her back and began slowly waving her extended fins above her.

This female rolled completely onto her back and began slowly waving her extended fins above her. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

If a male (usually the primary escort) is close at hand, he will swim through the extended pectoral fins, gently rubbing against or stroking the female’s body. This courting behavior is known as “pec rubbing” (see next three photos).

A willing male suitor soon pops up next to the "waver".

A willing male suitor soon pops up next to the “waver”. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

The male then swims between the extended pectoral fins of the female, appearing to slide gently over her.

The male then swims between the extended pectoral fins of the female, appearing to slide gently over her. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

The two whales continue to float one atop the other for a couple of minutes, then the male is gently rolled off by the female. They continue to swim together for some time afterward.

The two whales continue to float one atop the other for a couple of minutes, then the male is gently rolled off by the female. They continue to swim together for some time afterward. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

Once I figured out what I had just witnessed (I actually had to look this up to understand it), I confess to feeling somewhat privileged and humbled. Whale sex is… beautiful. No one has so far captured it on film, it being a fairly subtle sub-surface ritual. I needed a cold shower after writing this description. I may even start dating again… B-)

The following are some other, less sexually explicit images taken during the anticlimactic (no pun intended) remainder of the cruise. Just read the captions, quietly…

A nice close-up shot of a pec wave.

A nice close-up shot of the ventral (lower) surface of a whale’s pectoral fin. The large knobs on the fin’s trailing edge are tubercles; like those on the whale’s rostrum (or upper jaw), each one holds a single hair follicle to which is connected a blood vessel and a nerve ending. It is believed the hairs serve as environmental sensors much like a cat’s whiskers. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A calf performs an energetic fluke slap.

A calf performs an energetic fluke slap. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A male participant in a small competition pod performs an aggressive head lunge on the fly.

A male participant in a small competition pod performs an aggressive head lunge on the fly. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

A close-up shot of the dorsal (upper) surface of a whale's pectoral fin.

A close-up shot of the dorsal (upper) surface of a whale’s pectoral fin. (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

I particularly like this shot of the beginning of a whale's "blow" because it shows that Humpback whales, unlike most other cetaceans, have a double-orifice nasal opening (similar to our own honkers).

I particularly like this shot of the beginning of a whale’s “blow” because it shows that Humpback whales, unlike most other cetaceans, have a double-orifice nasal opening (similar to our own honkers). (Click on the image to see a larger version.)

 

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