Skip to content
Blue whale blow © Tim Stenton

What are whales doing when they…

Breaching humpback whale


A whale breaching or jumping out of the water is an incredible sight to see. The whale launches most, or all of their body out of the water headfirst and lands with a huge splash. The crash can be heard by whales a very long way away. Whales may breach at various times for different purposes. They may be communicating with other whales, trying to dislodge parasites, stunning fish, or simply jumping for joy!


Whales breathe through their blowholes (nostrils) on top of their heads.  They breathe out a lot of air with great force and the resulting spout or blow is caused mainly by warm air and water droplets, plus any water around their blowholes which is blown clear.

Whale spouts vary in shape and size from species to species. Minke whales have low and bushy ones, humpback whales, fin whales, and blue whales have tall, column-like blows, sei whales have conical blows, sperm whales have lopsided blows to the left, and right whales have v-shaped blows.

Fluke Up

When a whale is ready for a deep dive, they arch their back and point their head downwards, sometimes their enormous tail flukes lift out of the water – a fluke up. This gives the whale an extra push to dive steeply downwards.


Lobtailing means tail slapping at the surface. The whale usually hangs vertically with just their tail above the surface. Lobtailing may be a way of communicating with other whales, scaring prey (kick feeding), showing that they are annoyed, telling off another whale, defending themselves from a predator, telling us humans to stay away, or it may sometimes be a social or playful activity.

Reflection flipper slapping
In this picture, Reflection is 'flipper slapping'.

Flipper Slap

A whale rolls onto their side or back and lifts their flipper out of the water and slaps it down onto the surface. They may do it once or several times in a row. Humpback whales are the most famous flipper slappers, as they have extremely long flippers. They may flipper slap to communicate with others, remove parasites, or just for fun.


When whales are sleeping, they may rest together at the surface, all facing the same way and moving very slowly - they look like floating logs.


Some whales like to poke their head out of the water to look around at their surroundings above the surface.  This is called spyhopping.  Whales may spyhop out of curiosity, especially if a whale-watching boat is around. Sometimes they are looking for something to eat – orcas do this when hunting for seals resting on ice floes.

Head slap/chin slap 

A whale lifts their head up and out of the water, then slaps it down with a large splash.

Tail throwing

A whale swings or throws their tail clear of the water and slaps it hard onto the water’s surface. Tail throws usually take place as part of mating shenanigans when males compete for females.

Orca spyhop
An orca spyhops

About Alison Wood

Ali is WDC's Head of education. She also edits our children's magazine, Splash. She previously spent many years coordinating our research and conservation projects around the world. Her favourite species are river dolphins.

1 Comment

  1. B on 26th October 2022 at 2:56 pm

    Cool 😎

Leave a Comment