The Big Blue Ocean Exploration

Humpback whale mom, baby go ‘kelping’

Cetaceans are seen draping themselves with marine plants in rarely observed behavior off Newport Beach; 'Probably because it feels really, really good'

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Humpback whale observed kelping off Southern California; images are video screen grabs

Why on earth would a humpback whale and her calf spend 15 minutes draping themselves in kelp, and letting the marine plants wash over them like water from a shower?

“Probably because it feels really, really good,” said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a Southern California-based whale researcher. “It’s obvious in the video how much pleasure they’re getting.”

The rarely observed behavior is called “kelping.”

The accompanying footage was captured recently by Capt. Larry Hartmann of the Ocean Explorer out of Newport Landing Whale Watching in Newport Beach, California. (Some of the footage is in slow-motion.)

Hartmann, who also runs Captain Larry Adventures, said the humpback whale mom and baby have been hanging out in local waters for nearly two weeks.

Humpback whale observed kelping off Southern California; images are video screen grabs

Humpback whale observed kelping off Southern California; images are video screen grabs

That in itself is odd, considering that humpback whales are not commonly seen—especially for an extended period—off the Los Angeles-Orange County area.

But this has been a very odd summer off Southern California. Because of unseasonably warm water, it has featured visits by many cetaceans not normally associated with the area, and exotic species of fish, such as yellowfin tuna and mahi-mahi.

El Niño-like conditions, which have warmed ocean surface temperatures into the low to mid-70s, also have caused a major kelp die-off. Large kelp paddies are washing ashore, or following currents out to sea as floating masses, attracting bait fish and, thus, exotic game fish being targeted by anglers.

Humpback whale observed kelping off Southern California; images are video screen grabs

Humpback whale observed kelping off Southern California; images are video screen grabs

Apparently, the floating paddies also create more opportunities for whales to go kelping when the mood strikes them.

“They were just draping it all over themselves,” Hartmann said. “This went on for 10 or 15 minutes. We had the boat shut off completely, and people were really digging it. They thought it was really cool.”

Schulman-Janiger said that gray whales, bottlenose dolphins, and killer whales are among other cetacean species known to practice kelping behavior.

“It’s not common, but it is well-known enough that it has a name,” the researcher said. “Humpback whales seem to really like doing that. I’ve seen them put kelp on their heads, pectoral fins and tails. You tend to see this more with the kids, though. I wonder if the mom would have been doing that if the kid wasn’t there?”

If it feels so good, why not?

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