Why Do Whales Breach?

Written by Jen Flatt Osborn
Published: November 28, 2021
Image Credit slowmotiongli/Shutterstock.com


Ever seen a whale jumping out of the water? If you have, you’ve seen a whale breaching. Yet another question on your mind might be “why do whales breach?” After all, while breaching might look fun, there’s no food to be had. Let’s dive into why whales breach and the reasons scientists have pinpointed when studying breaching behavior!

The Background on Breaching

Humpback Whale breaching
A humpback whale breaching

Image CreditMartin Prochazkacz/Shutterstock.com

It’s a brilliant display of, well, a lot of things.

“Cetacean researcher Hal Whitehead defines a breach as any leap in which at least 40% of the animal’s body clears the water, and a lunge as a leap with less than 40% clearance.”

— Wikipedia

Lots of whale species breach, but it’s the right whale, humpback whale, and sperm whales that seem to do it most frequently. Their water surface activity is breaching and slapping their tails and “flippers” against the water.

The Society for Marine Mammalogy published a finding in their Marine Mammal Science Journal that describes their exhaustive study on why whales breach. They followed, monitored, and recorded 94 whale groups/pods to examine their behavior.

Why Do Whales Breach?

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Sperm whale breaching off the coast of Pico Island, The Azores, Portugal.

Image Creditwildestanimal/Shutterstock.com

The specific behavior they were focused on was whale breaching — also known as cresting — and to answer the question,

“Why do whales breach?”

In the study, each behavior was observed to be a form of communication. Not only did they find the whales communicating within their pods, but also to whales located thousands of miles away. And the methods differed greatly.

Studies found that cetaceans/whales used their…

  • Pectorals (flippers)
  • Flukes (tails)
  • And peduncles (the area between the dorsal fin and the flukes)

…to communicate within the group or to those close by. In-group communication seemed to occur often when pods split up or joined together.

However when pods were beyond 4,000 miles away, breaching was prominent and reoccurring. The bigger the splash, the further the sound travels. And it helps that sound travels faster in water than in air.  

Whales hear ultrasonically and infrasonically depending on their species. Plus, sound and communication is critical to the species for navigational, feeding, breeding, and social purposes.

So put it simply, much of whale’s breaching behavior is as a form of communication. However, researchers have discovered that breaching may have other benefits as well.

So whales breach. But the answers as to why the phenomenon happens continue.

Additional Reasons Whales May Breach

Loudest Animals: Blue Whales
The biggest animal in the world, a blue whale, breaches and displays its back from dorsal fin to tail flukes.

Image CreditWild_and_free_naturephoto/Shutterstock.com

As noted above, there seems to be more to breaching than communication alone. Courting behavior, signaling a warning, or even to establish dominance have all been reasons given by scientists as to why whales breach.

Asking the question might be similar to asking humans the question “Why do you run?”  The reasons could be:

> For exercise
> Out of fear
> To travel
> For the love of it

Only each of us, individually, would know the reason for it.

As we learn even more about the species and their behavior, hopefully we’ll be let in on more of their secrets. We’ve discovered some of the reasons why they jump out of the water, but… 

Only the whales know when they’re breaching:

  • To communicate
  • To finalize a rise from the depths
  • To warn others in their pod
  • To flirt
  • During a feeding frenzy
  • To stun or scare prey
  • To dislodge parasites from the skin
  • As a form of play
  • For pure joy…

Are all additional reasons whales may breach. We’re just fortunate they’ve displayed this primal behavior to us.