Understanding Whale and Dolphin Behavior

01
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Introduction

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Photo © M Swiet / Getty Images.

Whales, dolphins and porpoises, collectively referred to as cetaceans, are difficult to observe in the wild. They spend most of their time fully submerged and without a boat, an oxygen tank, and diving certificate, you're bound to miss out on the majority of their activities. But on occasion, cetaceans do pop out of the sea for a moment or two and a whole vocabulary has emerged to described the things they do during these brief surface visits. The terms in this article describe the various gestures you might see if you're lucky enough to spot a whale or dolphin at the surface.

02
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Feeding

Photo © Carlos Davila / Getty Images.

Baleen whales use baleen to filter food from the water. Baleen is a fibrous yet elastic structure that enables some whales to filter food from the water for ingestion. Baleen is composed of keratin and grows in long thin plates with brush-like, frayed edges that hang down from the animal's upper jaw.

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Breaching

Photo © Brett Atkins / Shutterstock.

Breaching is among the most spectacular of cetacean behaviors that you might observe because it involves the cetacean emerging partially or fully from the water. During a breach, the whale, dolphin or porpoise launches itself headfirst into the air and then falls back down to the water (often with quite a splash). The smaller cetaceans such as dolphins and porpoises can launch their entire bodies out of the water but larger cetaceans (for example, whales) usually emerge only part of their body during a breach.

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Tail Breaching or Peduncle Slapping

Photo © Paul Souders / Getty Images.

If the cetacean performs a breach in reverse-that is, it launches its body out of the water tail-first before flopping back down to the surface-then this behavior is referred to as tail breaching or peduncle slapping.

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Fluking

Photo © Paul Souders / Getty Images.

Fluking is a tail movement made prior to a deep dive which sets the animal up at a good angle to descend rapidly. Fluking is when a cetacean lifts its tail out of the water in an arch. There are two types of fluking, a fluke-up dive (when the tail arches enough so the underside of the fluke is revealed) and a fluke-down dive (the tail does not arch as much and the underside of the fluke remains facing downward toward the surface of the water).

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Lobtailing

Photo © Pixel23 / Wikipedia.

Lobtailing is another tail-related gesture. Lobtailing is when a cetacean lifts its tail out of the water and slaps it against the surface, sometimes repeatedly. Lobtailing shouldn't be confused with fluking or tail breaching. Fluking precedes a deep dive while lobtailing is performed while the cetacean is submerged just below the surface. And tail breaching involves launching the rear part of the body out of the water and letting it flop down whereas lobtailing is simply the slapping of the tail against the water's surface.

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Flipper Flopping

Photo © Hiroyuki Saita / Shutterstock.

Flipper slapping is when the cetacean rolls onto its side and slaps its flipper against the surface of the water. Like lobtailing, flipper slapping is sometimes repeated several times. Flipper slapping is also called pectoral slapping or flipper flopping.

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Spy-hopping

Photo courtesy US Antarctic Program.

Spy-hopping is a term used to describe when a cetacean pops its head out of the water enough to expose its eyes above the surface and have good look around. To get a good view of everything, the cetacean may rotate as its head is out of the water to look around.

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Bow Riding and Wake Riding

Photo © Kipzombie / iStockphoto.

Bow riding, wake riding, and logging are all behaviors that can be viewed as 'recreational behaviors'. Bow riding is a behavior most closely associated with dolphins. Bow riding is when a cetacean rides the bow waves produced by boats and ships. The animals are pushed along by the bow wave and often weave in and out in groups trying to get the best position for the best ride. A similar behavior, wake riding, describes when cetaceans swim in the wake of a ship. When bow riding or wake riding, it is common for dolphins to jump out of the water (breach) and perform twists, turns, and other acrobatics.

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Logging

Photo © James Gritz / Getty Images.

Logging is when a group of cetaceans (dolphins for instance) floats in a group just beneath the surface. All the animals face the same direction and are resting. Often, a little bit of the animals' backs are partly visible.

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Spouting and Beach Rubbing

Photo © Paul Souders / Getty Images.

Spouting describes a cetacean's exhalation (also called its 'blow') when it surfaces. The term spout refers to the spray of water that is produced by the exhalation, which often serves as a good way to spot a surfacing whale when you're whale watching.

Beach rubbing is when a cetacean rubs itself against the sea floor (for example, against the rocks near the shore). This helps them groom, scraping parasites free from their skin.