Humpback whale rolls over and plays dead


Screen grab from Blue Dolphin Marine Tours video

Humpback whales have been observed practicing various types of behavior, but not many will roll over like a dog and play dead just inches from the boat.

Passengers out of Blue Dolphin Marine Tours in Queensland, Australia, were in awe Tuesday while watching one of the gregarious mammals turn completely over and remain motionless for about 30 seconds, as if wanting its belly rubbed.

“This clip shows how trusting the whales are of us (and yes, it was very windy),” states a post on the company Facebook page.

A spokesperson for the company said via Facebook message that three humpbacks have been extremely curious during the past few days in Hervey Bay, but did not respond when asked how rare this particular behavior is.


Humpback whale exhibits similar behavior two years ago off Monterey, California. Credit: ©Jodi Frediani

However, we showed the clip to two California experts who observe humpback whales frequently in Monterey Bay, and each declared that the roll-over-like-a-dog behavior is rare. But not unprecedented.

Jodi Frediani, a naturalist and photographer, recalled a similar encounter two years ago with a whale that remained upside-down for two hours (see photo at right).

“I believe they are looking at the underside of the boat, best done with two eyes from the ventral side, a.k.a. upside-down,” Frediani said. “The whale we had doing that moved all around the boat from bow to stern and back. Fluke out part of the time, but upside-down, except to breathe!

“Since it’s the only one I’ve seen do that for an extended period, I suppose you could say it is rare. Rarer still was a humpback mom we had on the Silver Bank [in the Dominican Republic] this spring, who just hung upside down in the water in between breaths, while her calf rested beneath her back.”

Richard Ternullo, a researcher and captain for Monterey Bay Whale Watch, answered:

“I would have to say this a rare behavior, since I’ve never seen it. Cetaceans seem comfortable inverted as well as right side up. Still a remarkable behavior, another example of just when you think you’ve seen it all…"

–Find Pete Thomas on Facebook and Twitter