Whales are mammals just like humans. Like all land mammals we breathe involuntarily without having to think about it, our bodies just do it for us automatically. Maine mammals on the other hand spend their lives underwater. They are described as being conscious breathers as they have to actively decide when to breathe.
Whales breath through nostrils or blowholes located on top of their heads. They cannot breath through their mouths. Baleen whales like Humpbacks, Right and Blue whales have two blowholes, located side by side. Toothed whales like Sperm and Beluga whales have one blowhole; as do Dolphins and Killer Whales.
Humpback whales have lungs the size of a small car and when they take a breath they exchange up to 90% of their lung capacity. They exhale with great force! The existing air has been estimated to be travelling in excess of 300 kilometres per hour. We see this as the whales ‘spout’ which can be up to four meters high and is actually any water around their blowholes being blown clear.
Humpbacks usually take a series of breaths between shallow dives as they recharge their blood with oxygen. This is called their up time. At the end of their last breath they will commence a deep dive by arching their backs and sometime lifting their tails clear of the water and commence an extended time underwater commonly referred to as their down time.
Most spectacular of all the whale behaviours, breaches are when the whale jumps clear of the water. It is also sometimes referred to as cresting. Manly whales species such as Humpbacks, Right, Sperm, Orca and dolphins are famous for breaching.
Breaching is defined as being different to lunging or porpoising as they are done intentionally, with more than 40% of the animal leaving the water and are not as a result of another activity such as feeding.
Many reasons have been suggested for why whales breach. It may be to communicate with other whales nearby, dislodge parasites from their skin, stun prey or simply for fun.
Chin Slap (Head Slap)
The whale raises its head clear of the water and slaps it on the water surface. This would be considered more of lunging behaviour than breaching.
Peck Slap (Pectoral Slap, Flippering)
The whales raises one or both pectoral fins clear of the water and slaps them on the water surface.
Tail Slap (Lobtailing)
The whale lifts its tail clear of the water and slaps it on the water surface. To do this the whale usually hangs vertically in the water with just its tail above the surface, it then uses its muscular tail to beat the water, whereas Dolphins tend to remain horizontal to the water surface.
Tail slapping may be to communicate with other whales nearby, scare prey, defence or display.
Tail Throw (Peduncle Throw)
A tail throw is a very energetic and violent action where the whale virtually pivots on its head and violently swings its tail and peduncle (rear part of its torso) clear of the water and crashing them onto the water with terrific force.
Tail throws usually take place as part of the mating activities and may be in response to the challenges of a competitor.
When a whale wants to see something above the water it can raise its head clear of the water and take a peak. Usually it holds itself vertically in the water so that its eyes are clear of the water. This behaviour is very common amongst Orcas when they are hunting seals that are resting on top of the sea ice. Humpbacks are also known to do this out of curiosity when they want to check out a nearby whale watching boat. Who’s watching who ha?
As mammals our brains need to enter an unconscious state while we are asleep in order to function properly. That’s fine for land based mammals but impractical if you’re a marine mammal living underwater and have to be conscious to remember to swim and to breathe.
So whales and dolphins sleep by shutting down one half of their brain at a time. In this way the animal is never completely unconscious, but it still gets the sleep it needs. When whales are sleeping they may be observed moving slowly on the surface. Sperm whales have been seen in groups hanging vertically with their heads near the surface.