Baleen whales may appear to be peaceable beasts, but the males can get into vicious fights around mating time. Marine biologists attached a camera to a particularly troublesome male and got an unprecedented insight into what happens when a renegade starts disturbing the cetacean peace.
Dr Olaf Meynecke of Griffith University is studying humpback whale behavior during the annual great migration down Australia's east coast. There's only so much he can see from above the waterline, so Meynecke and colleagues have taken to sticking cameras on the whales. Often it doesn't work too well, with the waters being too murky to see much, or the cameras falling off, Meynecke told IFLScience.
However, in an extraordinary series of lucky events Meynecke not only managed to get more than an hour of film in clear waters, but the camera-bearer was a large male humpback that was going from pod to pod being disruptive. At one point, he hassled a mother and calf, only to find two smaller males impose themselves between him and his target. “It was as if she called on them for protection,” Meynecke said.
Male humpbacks use their vast size to engage in shows of strength, ramming into each other, and targeting vulnerable spots like the stomach or ear. “One way we tell the males and females apart is by looking for scars,” Meynecke said. There is even speculation some humpbacks deliberately use their barnacles as weapons to cut deep into opponents' flesh.
Males will also get on top of opponents as they come to the surface to breathe, trying to cut off their access to air.
These fights are seldom to the death, although stranded whales have been found with jaws apparently broken in such fights. There are reports of rare deaths in combat followed by behavior from the victor that has been interpreted as grief or regret, Meynecke added.
The fights are to impress females, rather than straightforward cases of the winner automatically mating, as in some animals. “The female has to be willing,” Meynecke said.
In this case, the camera-bearing trouble-maker eventually appeared to accept that, despite his size, he couldn't beat two other males – one of whom had got on top of him – and moved on. “It had a happy ending, he ended up meeting a younger female and doing belly displays for her and calming down,” Meynecke said.
Aware of advice not to touch things with a 10-foot (3-meter) pole, marine biologists use 17-foot (5-meter) poles to deploy suction cups with cameras attached. Even at that distance, the task is a challenge, Meynecke told IFLScience. The whales seldom let humans that close. “We either have to spend a long time to get them to trust us,” Meynecke said, “or wait until they are so distracted they don't notice.” Consequently, he added, the team are “not really in a position where we can choose the right animal,” so it was a stroke of sheer good luck they got one just before such an interesting display of behavior.