A minke whale seen breaching multiple times on Sunday with its mouth open, revealing the baleen plates it uses to filter plankton, has been a widely-discussed topic on social media.
Mostly because this type of behavior is so rare, but also because it was captured in a photo sequence.
Slater Moore was working on the Ocean Explorer out of Newport Beach in Southern California. The captain was headed toward a blue whale in the distance, but as a photographer Moore knew to keep his camera ready.
Suddenly, off to the right, the minke whale launched almost completely out of the water.
Moore missed the initial breach, but the small whale then breached nine more times, each time a little farther from the boat.
There were nearly 100 passengers on board, and all seemed to be in awe.
“Everybody was freaking out; it was insane,” Moore recalled. “Nobody had ever seen anything like that.”
Minke whales, which average about 26 feet in length, occasionally breach but are not known for this type of behavior, as humpback whales are.
They’ve been seen lunge-feeding in a behavior sometimes referred to as “breach-feeding,” which involves thrust upward while intaking surface krill or schooling fish.
But this minke was not feeding—it’s throat pleats are not distended—and it was fully breaching, with mouth agape. It closed its mouth just before re-entry.
Someone on Facebook joked that it might have been feeding on low-flying pelicans.
Experts chimed in, too, but could not explain the behavior, except to guess it might have been purely for enjoyment.
“They breach because they can,” stated Jonathan Stern, a minke whale researcher.
“I am intrigued by the final little splash of water coming out of the closing mouth … lovely … and she closed it before landing,” Tscherter continued. “I don’t think it’s related to feeding.”
The researcher said this could be a type of “display” or “play” behavior, but said that would have been more likely if there had been other minke whales in the area, and there were not.
“Finally, all I can come up with is that it is a specific behavior of this individual … for whatever reason … so it might give it extra fun to open the mouth.”
For Moore and the passengers aboard the Ocean Explorer, it doesn’t matter why the minke made like a missile over and over again, only that it happened—because it was a phenomenon they probably will never witness again.
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