Gray whales III: spy hopping, breaching and more

Much of the time the huge grey shapes cruise along like the submarines in Das Boot, but some behaviors are more interesting.

They do vocalize, and while they are in the calving lagoons they mainly make the so-called ‘knock’ call. Its function is unknown. You can hear this and other calls here:

Gray Whale

They roughhouse. The mother below pushed her way under her baby, and shoved him out of the way. It wasn’t clear whether she thought he was too close to our boat, or whether she wanted to be the one to get stroked instead, or indeed whether it was deliberate, an accident, or a game. The baby was fine.


Their behavior can also be more dramatic. Sometimes after a tail fluke, signaling a deep dive…


… they reappear in a breach, an explosive sudden leap which lifts at least  40% of their body out of the water. Because it happens without warning, getting a photo is sheer luck, but I did manage one:


Somewhat easier to photograph are their ‘spyhops’. This is a wonderful name for a maneuver in which they slowly and steadily lift their head vertically out of the water till their eye is at the waterline. They can stay like this for some time, which makes photos easier. You can see the eye in this one:


and here you can see the grooves that allow their throats to expand hugely to hold vast volumes of food, mud, and water.


It used to be thought that spyhops were so they could have a good look around, but it appears that their eyes do not always clear the water, and in any case their above-water vision is as bleary as our below-water vision. Their function remains a mystery, and our guides preferred to call them “heads-up” instead.

One last close-up:


And off they go:


[I’m going to do one more short post on the history of gray whale whaling and their subsequent revival, for those of you who are interested. If not, skip it and we will return to the spring in Maine after that.]


7 thoughts on “Gray whales III: spy hopping, breaching and more”

  1. They’d come alongside in the evening to have their heads scratched with a deck brush, they’d never tire of it.


    1. That conjures up a wonderful image! And this was when you were filming there, so it was well before us tourists had arrived, right? So interesting that they seem to be drawn to people.


  2. Moira,

    this must have been an almost overwhelming experience and one where you sometimes wish you’d forgot the battery to your camera and could just take it all in? So, thanks for sharing!



  3. Moira,
    Thanks for this fabulous description and accompanying photos that give one a close-up of our marvelous encounter. I just love all of it. You brought it back as a remembered happy time to warm us up in this dark winter of disease. Aloha nui. Constance


  4. You zoomed in much closer than I did. The heads up that shows the eye is particularly impressive. Oh, to be with them again. Of course, they are speeding to the north right now, all those hungry mothers.


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