Subject: Lobtailing

Tori (
Fri, 30 May 1997 23:14:46 -1000

A third grader in my class here at Smith School in Lincon, MA would like to know
why whales lobtail.

My e-mail address is:
r_scheff@lincnet. org

Aloha Rachel,

In the whale research world, lobtailing is now more commonly referred to as
"tail slapping." To further complicate (or simplify) matters, tail
slapping can be divided into tail slaps or peduncle slaps. To go on, the
tail can also be called a fluke, so you can use the term "fluke slaps."
This would not be the same as a peduncle slap, the peduncle being the
"stalk" of the tail (or fluke). Now, a fluke is actually one half of the
tail, one pointy side. So the whole tail, not counting the peduncle, is
called the "flukes." But I have never heard a tail slap, called a "flukes
slap." Unless everyone just happens to only pronounce one of the s's. I
never thought about that before.
Anyhow, TAIL slapping, is probably aggressive behavior. Most likely to
defend territory. Peduncle slapping, which brings the tail and its stalk
out of the water (I've seen humpbacks do this to all the way to where
the dorsal fin is out of the water, which I guess you could call a BODY
slam!), is a more serious form of a tail slap. Some whales may use tail
slaps in feeding behaviors to help catch prey. Mother whales (cows)
sometimes spank their babies with a little tail slap. or so I've been
told. I've also heard that they will pull the calf under for a little dip
as a discipline measure. I heard this as an explanation as to perhaps why
the pilot whale pulled under the woman who was "playing" with it off the
coast of Hawaii. It grabbed her by the leg and took her under something
like 50 or 100 feet (I think it was 100) and then brought her back up. It
was recorded on a home video and aired on "911" or some TV program like
that. She's lucky she didn't get a peduncle slap! 

Give your student my thanks for his question. I love to see curiousity.
Thanks to you for seeking the answer!