Reproduction is serious business for humpback whales on their winter breeding grounds. When males arrive they are eager to find a mate. If a receptive female is in the area a “rowdy” group can form. This happens when multiple competing males fight to become her primary mate, known as an escort.
A typical rowdy group consists of 3-6 males but groups as large as two dozen or more whales are sometimes encountered. Being in the vicinity of up to 20 huge humpback whales brawling for dominance makes for an extremely exciting afternoon. This is a behavior is only seen on the breeding grounds. We are lucky to witness it almost every week on the Silver Bank.
The competition can be very physical, with males pushing or ramming each other with their heads. They might strike one another with the bony ‘anvil’ on the bottom of their chin. Or, use their flukes and pectoral fins to hit other whales. They’ll also snap their jaws or make loud trumpeting sounds. Intimidating peduncle throws, lunges and breaches are frequent. They may even try holding each other down underwater. It’s quite a scene!
Injuries are common. They include heavy scratches caused by barnacles. Often their tubercles (the knobby bumps on their heads) are rubbed raw and bloody. Sometimes their dorsal fins can even be snapped off.
The competitions can cover many miles and last for hours as the males jockey for position. Always, within the group there will be a single female, setting the pace.
We encounter rowdy groups almost every week. Having a ringside seat to this breathtaking feat of nature is one of the most exhilarating experiences you can have on the Silver Bank without getting in the water. It’s one of the most thrilling wildlife encounters in the natural world.