Scientists know why whales leap out of water, and it’s probably not what you’d expect

Science may not have all the answers, but it’s just provided some pretty significant insight as to why whales leap into the air. If you didn’t already have a sneaking suspicion as to why whales breach out of the water, here’s the deal: As the BBC puts it, these glorious water acrobatics are basically whales using their bodies to talk.

We may mistakenly take this particularly activity as whales “putting on a show,” or make the assumption that it’s the creatures’ attempt to tell us we’re invading their personal space (like this photographer who got close to a breaching whale), but that’s not even close.

Actually, fellow self-absorbed humans, a study performed by University of Queensland marine biologist Ailbhe Kavanagh precisely outlines how this grand sea gesture allows whales to communicate with each other. Throughout September and October of 2010 and 2011, Kavanagh spent 200 hours observing 76 pods of migrating humpback whales making their journey to the Antarctic.


The study’s findings were published in Marine Mammal Science journal suggests that breaching is more likely to occur when there’s a distance of at least 2.5 miles between humpback whale pods. As Quartz reports, this leaping gesture may serve as an alternative form of communication to the animals, some of which have the capability to emit both low and high-frequency sounds that travel across hundreds of miles.

The findings also explain the science behind why whales slap their fins against the surface of the water.


From Marine Mammal Science:

"We propose that breaching may play a role in communication between distant groups as the probability of observing this behavior decreased significantly when the nearest whale group was within 4,000 m compared to beyond 4,000 m. Involvement in group interactions, such as the splitting of a group or a group joining with other whales, was an important factor in predicting the occurrence of pectoral, fluke, and peduncle slapping, and we suggest that they play a role in close-range or within-group communication."

So, there you have it everyone. Keep on snapping and sharing your selfies from the time a whale photobombed you. Just don’t fool yourself into thinking the whale was actually posing for your benefit.