A set of never-before-seen photographs have exposed the hidden world of humpback whales, in more ways than one.
For the first time, scientists have photographs of humpback whales mating.
And for the first time, scientists said the two ocean giants appear to be males.
Although scientists have closely studied humpback whales for decades, reports of their sexual behaviors are extremely rare and have never been captured on film.
Whale B (top) approached whale A (bottom) from behind and mated with her. But it is not clear whether Whale A wanted the encounter.
And never before had scientists known that male humpback whales engaged in same-sex recreational activities.
However, injuries may have played a role, as the male whale at the bottom appeared to be in poor health and was unable to escape the clutches of the one above.
However, this behavior is widespread throughout the animal kingdom and has been documented in dolphins, bonobo chimpanzees, Japanese macaques, lions, giraffes, bison, antelopes, walruses and some species of birds.
Despite being large, well-studied animals, they find it easy to stay out of sight of humans while mating, so the sexual behavior of humpback whales has long been a mystery to scientists.
The images were captured by Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano, wildlife photographers who were on a recreational trip in Maui, Hawaii, when they saw the extraordinary behavior.
One day in January 2022, the whales approached Krannichfeld and Romano’s 26-foot boat off the west coast of Maui.
This stretch of water is a popular spot for whale watching in the winter months, when they migrate there to mate and give birth.
The two whales slowly approached their boat, which had its engines off and in neutral. The two ocean giants were on the surface of the water and just below it.
The two photographers spotted the whales off the west coast of Maui, a popular spot for whale watching in the winter months.
Parasitic sea lice had discolored the skin of whale A (below), something that can happen when a whale is injured and has reduced mobility. Whale biologist Stephanie Stack also determined that she appeared emaciated.
One whale (nicknamed Whale A) was closest to the ship as the two approached, followed by Whale B.
Krannichfeld and Romano immediately realized that something was wrong with whale A: its skin was unusually brown.
They wanted to investigate further, so they grabbed their cameras.
In the United States, it is illegal to approach humpback whales in the water, so they hung their cameras over the edge of the boat and began taking pictures.
They watched as the two circled the ship about six times.
At some point they realized that whale B had an extended penis: male whales and dolphins have a penis like other mammals, but when they are not using it for mating, they usually keep it hidden inside their genital slit.
“Whale B repeatedly approached from behind Whale A and penetrated the second whale,” they reported in the magazine article describing the encounter.
Each penetration was shallow, they wrote, and Whale B’s penis only appeared to enter Whale A’s genital slit “a few centimeters.”
And each penetration was relatively quick, lasting less than two minutes.
“After final penetration, whale B dove and did not reappear,” they wrote. Whale A floated for a few minutes before disappearing from sight as well.
The whole thing lasted about 30 minutes.
After Krannichfeld and Romano captured their photographs, they approached the whale researcher. Stephanie PilaPacific Whale Foundation biologist.
Together, they analyzed the encounter and published their observations Wednesday in the magazine. Marine mammal science.
Throughout the encounter, photographers saw that Whale B appeared to be holding onto Whale A with its pectoral fins, the animal’s large front fins.
Whale B (above) had his penis extended outside his genital slit throughout the encounter, which lasted about 30 minutes. Here he can be seen penetrating the genital slit of Whale A, which hides his own penis.
From the few recorded historical observations of whale mating, it seems important that males ‘grab’ the female in this way during sex.
However, some details raise questions about whether the encounter was pleasant or consensual for both whales.
‘Whale A was visibly emaciated and covered in whale lice (Cyamus boopis) “a species of ectoparasite that lives on the skin of humpback whales and can proliferate in whales that are injured and have reduced mobility, leading to the perceived skin discoloration as described above,” the team wrote.
Additionally, whale A appeared to have an injured jaw, which they suspect would make it difficult for it to eat and could cause it to become weak and sick.
Scientists had confirmed in previous studies that whale A is a male, and its male genital slit can be seen here.
During the half-hour session, Whale A appeared to be trying to get away from Whale B.
In fact, from the moment they approached the ship, photographers wondered if Whale A was using it as an obstacle to help it escape Whale B’s reach, they wrote.
“However, if so, whale A was moving too slowly to be effective in evading the other animal.”
A jaw injury like the one this whale showed could occur from being hit by a ship, the team wrote.
These blows can be fatal, but they can also cause an animal to slowly decline and eventually die as it struggles to feed and care for itself.
Unfortunately, that may have been the case with this whale, they wrote.