Subject: Southern right whale tail sailing

Mike Williamson (
Tue, 23 Sep 1997 3:29:33 GMT+1200

Dear Vince, 

You asked why whales 'jump out of the water' and also why right whales 
spend long periods of time with with their tails up out of the water, sailing.

In answer to your first question, whales jump out of the water or 'breach' 
for many reasons.  Quoting here from one of the world's right whale experts
Roger Payne's book, 'Among Whales', "Breaching by right whales is not done 
for any single purpose but serves mnay functions: as a social display; as 
a display of strength; as a ritualised escape during courtship; as play
between mothers and calves; as a challenge to other whales; as a threat 
(eg chasing off porpoises); as a means of removing external parasites; as
a means of creating a sound announcing the whereabouts of one whale to the
next; and even perhaps, for unexpected functions like stunning shoals of
small fish that otherwise escape the right whales slow jaws. All species of 
large whales appear to breach, though some do more oftern than others. Fin
whales breach very seldom, whereas for humpbacks and right whales breaching
is a common activity. The function of breaching has not been systematically
studied in  most other whale species so we don't know why they do it. However,
it seems a good bet that breaching in other species is done for reasons
similar to those for which right whales employ it."

As for the 'tail sailing', right whales appear to do this just for fun, as 
a game,  and may spend hours at a time engaged in this activity.

Hope this answers your questions. Thanks for the tip about the 
Cape Town Hermanus right whale page  at
I'll check it out. Have fun at the whale festival. 


Ms. Merel Dalebout
Ecology & Evolution Research Group
Thomas Building, Level 1
School of Biological Sciences
University of Auckland
Private Bag 92-019
Wellesley Street
Auckland, N.Z.
Ph:09-373-7599 ext. 4588
Fax: 09-373-7417