Cetacean behaviour

A guide to some of the terminology used to describe the different cetacean behaviours you might see whilst out whale-watching:
Blowing or spouting
Humpback whale blowing

When a cetacean surfaces to breathe, it first exhales explosively and produces a ‘cloud’ of water vapour. This is known as blowing or spouting.
In most smaller species the blow is brief (less than half a second) and hardly visible. But in large whales it may last one or two seconds and can be seen from a great distance - the blow of a blue whale can be around 15m (49 feet) high.
The shape and height of a large whale's blow can sometimes be used to identify the species. For example, a sperm whale's blow is particularly distinctive because its single blowhole is at the front of the head and offset to the left, so the blow is low and angled in that direction.

Striped dolphins porpoising
When smaller cetaceans swim rapidly at the surface, leaping out of the water in a low arc each time they take a breath, this is known as porpoising. Confusingly, the term applies to dolphins as well as porpoises.
Porpoising is an energy-efficient method of travel because air offers much less resistance to movement than water, so the animal uses the momentum it has built up underwater to travel much further when it breaks the surface. This behaviour is often seen when cetaceans are bow-riding.

Pantropical spotted dolphins bow-riding
Smaller cetaceans sometimes purposely position themselves immediately in front of a fast-moving boat or even a large whale, so that they can ride on the pressure wave created by the movement. This is known as bow-riding.
The force of the ‘bow wave’ pushes the animal through the water, so small cetaceans may bow-ride to conserve energy. However, the fact that the animals often swim from some distance away to join a boat or whale suggests that they also bow-ride for fun.

Northern right whale fluking

Many species of cetacean raise their tail flukes out of the water when they dive. The behaviour is most spectacular in the large whale species that have thick layers of blubber. When these animals go on a deep dive, they have to lift their tail flukes high into the air to overcome the buoyancy of their blubber and to thrust their bodies into a more steeply-angled descent.
The large species that usually fluke when they dive are the grey, Northern right, Southern right, bowhead, humpback, blue and sperm whales.

Fin, sei, Bryde’s and minke whales don’t usually fluke, although for some reason the fin whales in Mexico's Sea of Cortez are an exception to the rule.
Lobtailing or tail-slapping

Humpback whale lobtailing

When a cetacean forcefully (and sometimes repeatedly) slaps the surface of the water with its tail flukes, this is known as lobtailing. Most of the  animal's body remains underwater.

Lobtailing produces a conspicuous splash and a loud noise, and may be used to communicate with other cetaceans. It may also be an aggressive behaviour, and some species use their tail flukes to actually inflict injury on competitors (for example male humpback whales competing for a female) or prey (for example killer whales attacking other marine mammals).


Striped dolphin breaching
Cetaceans sometimes leap completely or almost completely out of the water (head-first), and land back on the surface with a loud noise and conspicuous splash. If most of the body remains in the water, this is known as a half-breach.
A breaching animal may twist in mid-air so that it lands on its side or back. Most species are capable of breaching, the exception being an adult blue whale which cannot physically launch its huge weight clear of the water.
There are several explanations for breaching: it could be used to demonstrate strength or aggression, to dislodge skin parasites, or to communicate visually or acoustically. However, as with bow-riding, it often seems that cetaceans breach for the fun of it.
Off the coast of Argentina, breaching is used by dusky dolphins to communicate to fellow animals that an aggregation of fish has been found and that more dolphins are needed to herd the prey into a bait ball.


When a cetacean breaches, it usually falls passively back into the water. But sometimes an animal may actively slam its body (or even its head) onto the water surface as it falls. This makes a particularly loud noise and a conspicuous splash that can be heard and seen from a distance.

Grey whale spyhopping

When a cetacean raises its head vertically out of the water at least high enough for the eyes to be clear of the surface, this is known as spyhopping.
The animal will often rotate slowly, apparently to look at the surrounding area, and then sink back below the water surface with little noise or splash.
Spyhopping is particularly common in killer whales and grey whales.


Flipper-slapping or pec(pectoral)-slapping
Grey whale flipper-slapping

When a cetacean lies on its side or back and slaps one or both pectoral fins onto the surface of the water to make a conspicuous noise, this is known as flipper-slapping. This behaviour is most common in but not exclusive to humpback whales.

Atlantic spotted dolphins logging

When a cetacean floats motionless at the water surface, this is known as logging. Large groups of animals often rest together like this, usually all facing in the same direction.
The general feeding technique used by baleen whales. Food (usually small fish or invertebrates) is trapped when prey-laden sea water is strained through the whale's baleen plates. Particular methods of filter-feeding include skim-feeding, echelon feeding, gulp-feeding, lunge-feeding and bubble(net) feeding.

Bowhead whale skim-feeding

A method of filter-feeding used by some baleen whales, especially the rights whales and bowhead whale. The animal swims steadily and deliberately at or just beneath the surface of the water with its mouth open, continuously filtering the prey-laden sea water through its baleen plates. The whale then swallows the food which is trapped on the baleen.

Echelon feeding

When a group of cetaceans swim in either a V-formation or a diagonal line whilst feeding, this is known as echelon feeding. In bowhead whales, the technique is used in conjunction with skim-feeding to maximise the amount of prey consumed – any prey not eaten by one whale will probably be consumed by the animal behind it.

Humpback whale gulp-feeding

A method of filter-feeding used mainly by the ‘rorqual’ baleen whales. These species all have a series of longitudinal folds of elastic skin that run from the lower jaw back towards the umbilicus.
The folds can expand massively, allowing the whale to gulp huge volumes of prey-laden sea water at a time. The animal then closes its mouth, expels the sea water and swallows the food which is trapped on the baleen.


A method of gulp-feeding used by the ‘rorqual’ baleen whales, most commonly the humpback (in conjunction with bubblenet feeding).  The animal descends below a surface aggregation of small fish or invertebrates, then swims rapidly upwards to burst through the prey with its mouth wide open. The whale then closes its mouth, expels the sea water and swallows the food which is trapped on the baleen.

Bubble(net) feeding

A feeding technique (often co-operative), which is unique to humpback whales. The whales descend below an aggregation of small fish or invertebrates, then swim upwards in a spiral whilst gradually exhaling to produce bubbles. The bubbles rise faster than the whales and form a cylindrical ‘net’ that corrals and traps the prey beneath the surface of the water. The ‘hunt’ often concludes with spectacular lunge-feeding.


Some dolphin species, particularly bottlenose dolphins, clap their jaws together underwater as a display of aggression or strength. Jaw-clapping makes an extremely loud, sharp sound.

Sailing or tail-sailing

This is a behaviour unique to southern right whales (and even then it is only seen in certain populations). The whale hangs vertically, head-down in the water and holds its tail flukes above the surface and at a right angle to the direction of the wind. The animal is pushed through the water like a sail boat. Southern right whales may actually expose their flukes like this so as to lose excess heat – they are large animals with thick blubber that sometimes live in relatively warm waters, and may therefore be in danger of overheating.