Male baleen whales sometimes engage in severe battles around mating season, despite their appearance as peaceful creatures. When marine experts fitted a camera on a particularly disruptive male, they received an unparalleled look at what occurs when a renegade starts disrupting the cetacean peace. Dr. Olaf Meynecke of Griffith University is researching humpback whale behavior along Australia’s east coast during the yearly big migration. Because he can only see so much from above the waterline, Meynecke and his colleagues have started attaching cameras to the whales. Meynecke told IFLScience that it does not always work since the waters are too muddy to see anything and the cameras come off.
However, thanks to a sequence of fortunate coincidences, Meynecke was able to capture more than an hour of footage in clear seas, and the camera-bearer was a giant male humpback whale that was causing havoc in the pods.
He harassed a mother and calf at one point, only to have two smaller males get in between him and his objective. “It seemed as though she was pleading with them for help,” Meynecke added.
Male humpback whales display their prowess by slamming into one other and attacking sensitive areas such as the stomach or ear. “We search for scars to distinguish the men and females different,” Meynecke explained. It has even suggested that certain humpbacks utilize their barnacles as weapons, cutting deep into the skin of their opponents. Males will also try to suffocate opponents as they rise to the surface to breathe, obstructing their access to oxygen.
Although stranded whales have been found with jaws that appear to have been shattered in such conflicts, these bouts are rarely fatal. Meynecke said that there have been instances of unusual battle deaths followed by conduct from the victor that has been interpreted as sadness or remorse. Rather than simple situations of the winner instantly mating, like in certain animals, the battles intended to impress females. “The female must be willing,” remarked Meynecke.
In this case, the troublemaker with the camera appeared to realize that, despite his size, he could not beat two other men — one of whom had gotten on top of him – and went on. “It had a pleasant conclusion,” Meynecke added. “He ended up meeting a younger female and doing belly shows for her and calming down.”
Marine researchers use 17-foot (5-meter) poles to deploy suction cups with cameras, despite advised not to touch objects with a 10-foot (3-meter) pole. The work is difficult even at that distance, according to Meynecke of IFLScience. Humans are rarely allowed to go so close to whales.
“We either have to spend a long time getting them to trust us or wait until they are so preoccupied that they don’t notice,” Meynecke said. As a result, he noted, the crew is “not really in a position where we can pick the appropriate animal,” therefore it was pure chance that they acquired one immediately before such an exciting presentation.