Researcher Kieran Bown of PangaMX was on an expedition to the Caribbean Sea earlier this year when he and his group saw the tail of a humpback whale sticking up off in the distance. At first, they feared that the motionless animal might be injured or dead — but as they got closer, it became clear that the whale was actually just dead tired.
“The Humpback was sound asleep, vertically hoisted in the water with the fluke out of the water,” writes Bown in an email to The Dodo. “With the whale being so relaxed, the fluke had fully flopped over and was acting as a sort of stabiliser [sic] at the surface. The whale was completely at peace in the water and remaining silent we floated and observed getting a great look at the giant.”
Bown, equipped with a GoPro camera, decided to enter the water to get a better look at the dozing whale. For about ten minutes the humpback continued to simply float tail-over-head without moving a muscle until finally she woke up to take a breath.
It was only then that the sleepy whale realized she was being watched.
“The whale was coming up to breathe, with a slight movement of the fluke and twisting her body using the pectoral fins [...] she brought her head up right close to us as if to get a look at it,” writes Bown. “I froze exactly where I was, I had never been approached by a whale before, only observed them as they swam by, it was as if she was checking us out.”
But apparently the sight of a few little humans lingering around her was not enough to disturb her from resting a little longer. After a few deep breaths at the surface, the whale resumed her up-and-down position and presumably went back to sleep.
“It was an experience we would all never forget,” writes Bown.
Whales typically sleep at night, which makes this a rare encounter — though other remarkable footage has been captured of sperm whales napping too, and as a group, no less.
Unlike humans and other non-aquatic mammals, respiration is not involuntary for whales and dolphins. In order to keep from drowning as they sleep, these animals shut off half their brain at a time, allowing them to return to the surface periodically to breathe.