Humpback Whale    ::    Megaptera novaeangliae
Song and Society, Competition and Courtship

Our coverage of North Pacific humpback whale behavior in the Hawaiian islands is sufficiently deep that we have separated it into three portfolios which are only sparsely populated at the moment:

  • Humpback competitive groups underwater
  • Humpback competitive groups seen from the surface
  • Humpback noncompetitive groups including singers, inquisitive whales, mother/calf and resting groups

Please note that all of the humpback whale photographs and captions are a product of research conducted by Hawaii Whale Research Foundation, under the direction of Dr. Dan R. Salden.  Photographs were taken under NOAA Fisheries and State of Hawaii scientific research permits and may not be copied or used without explicit written permission.

About Competitive Humpback Whales

    These is much to say on this subject!  Competitive behaviour among humpback whales is a fascinating and complex  phenomenon.  Hawaii Whale Research Foundation studies long-term social affiliation among humpback whales  ::  Do the same whales affiliate with one another repeatedly over their lives?  In the course of trying to answer this question, it is most useful to observe groups of adult humpback whales (as opposed to singletons and mother/calf pairs).  Many of these groups display the competitive behaviors described in these portfolios.

    When two or more males -- escorts -- accompany a female, competition among the escort males may ensue. The competiton may be low-level, consisting of threatening body gestures or positioning, and the challenge may be over quickly. On the other hand, competition may be intense, with all the whales in the social group expending great energy to maintain a fast swimming pace and avoid collisions and rushes between the challenging escorts. In such a group, body to body contact is common between challenging escorts, usually the result of glancing or direct blows with pectoral fins, flukes and rostrums.

    Researchers strongly suspect that the object of the competition is the female, or at least a position alongside or flanking the female. By maintaining a position alonside the female, in spite of maneuvering, blows and threats by challenging escorts, the primary escort may be trying to prove to the female that he is a worthy mate or consort.

    When observing a competitive group, our most important research tasks are to obtain photographs of fluke undersides (for comparison with our database) and to identify the focal whales within the group: the female, the primary escort who has the optimum (usually closest-flanking) position relative to the female, and the one (or several) challenging escorts who are most intent on displacing the primary escort from his place. Typically there is a primary escort who is contending with a single challenging escrot.  However, there are groups in which no single escort has a dominant position (that we can discern) and can be termed the primary escort.  At other times the primary escort is easy to identify, but (unfortunately for him) he will have not one but several direct challenges from other escorts, any one of which might displace him to become the new primary escort.

    Competitive groups can range in size from three whales (female, primary escort and challenging escort) to two dozen or more. They almost always contain a single adult female who is at the center of the action. Large groups may contain many inactive escort males that, for the time being, are simply observing the activities and perhaps waiting for an opportunity to make their own challenge.  The role of primary escort may change suddenly, and it can be difficult to know when the change has taken place.


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