The first ever photos of sex with a humpback whale involve two males

For the first time, photographers have captured two humpback whales mating. When they showed their images to a marine mammal expert, she confirmed that both participants were male, reaffirming that same-sex sexual behavior is widespread among animals. However, there are questions as to whether in this case both whales were happy with the situation.

Whales are big, but the ocean is bigger, so there’s plenty of room to hide if they don’t want people spying on their private moments. Despite humpback whales being one of the most studied whale species, there is no record of how they mate until now.

PhD candidate Stephanie Stack of the Pacific Whale Foundation was approached by two photographers who had photographed two humpback whales during a recreational trip near Maui. Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano contacted Stack because they knew they had something unusual, but they didn’t realize how special their discovery was. Not only was it a first, but what they had seen was a same-sex coupling.

Humpback whales are indeed more than equipped for their size

The whales were sighted off the coast of Maui, Hawaii.

Image credits: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano

“Despite being well studied for decades, the sexual behavior of humpback whales has largely remained a mystery until now,” Stack said in a statement to IFLScience. “This discovery challenges our preconceptions about humpback whale behavior. While we understand the complex social structures of these incredible creatures, witnessing the copulation of two male whales for the first time is a unique and remarkable event.”

Stack and other researchers would like to expand the collection of observations of humpback whales, including by looking at how common same-sex encounters occur relative to copulation overall. Was it purely coincidental that the first recording of humpback whale sex involves two males, or are such encounters as common – or even more so – as between males and females? Evidence for the latter includes a forty-year-old account of a sub-adult male rubbing his penis against an adult male’s genital slit. In that case, the copulation was out of human sight.

Humpback whales feed in polar waters during the summer in the respective hemisphere and then migrate to spend the winter in the tropics, where they give birth and raise their young. If, as expected, most sex also takes place in warmer waters, this should increase our chances of catching whales in the act. However, to date, even reports of penile extrusion, in which cetaceans sacrifice hydrodynamics for mating preparation, are rare for humpback whales.

Intriguingly, the few cases of penile extrusion include five reports of humpback whales pointing their penises at other males. However, four of these involved males were competing for access to a fertile female, so we may have seen a literal cock-swinging contest with one whale trying to gain priority.

“In male cetaceans, homosexual activity may involve the insertion of the penis of one male into the genital cleft,” Stack and co-authors note in their account of the event. Previous sightings have involved smaller and more common species, such as the famous horny bottlenose dolphins.

While some people may suggest that male whales do it because it feels good, biologists look for evolutionary explanations. “The purpose of non-reproductive behavior is varied; proposed functions include learning or practicing reproductive behavior, establishing or strengthening relationships of dominance, forming social alliances, and/or reducing social tensions,” the report said.

If the reason we haven’t witnessed humpback whale copulation before is because they avoid the presence of humans, then this pair was an exception. They approached the photographers’ boat and even circled it several times as the mating took place.

Unfortunately, this may not be because they were exhibitionists, but a result of the possibility that the interaction was non-consensual. One whale, named A, was unhealthily thin and infested with parasites, probably the result of a ship attack on its jaw.

Humpback Whale A has formed an S-shape, probably associated with stress or avoidance of danger

Humpback Whale A has formed an S-shape, probably associated with stress or avoidance of danger.

Image credit: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano

Images of the tail fins of both whales were uploaded to the Happywhale.com database, allowing researchers to identify both whales. Whale B has been in the database since 1993, indicating that age does not hinder the humpback’s sexual activity. Images of their genitals were also added to the database, with online whale privacy not yet considered a thing.

Reports of same-sex sexual activity and other behavior then considered “deviant” were once suppressed by scientists concerned about the implications the public would draw. However, now they have been documented in so many species that some researchers have proposed that this could be the norm what we would perceive as bisexuality.

The report has been published open access in the journal Marine Mammal Science

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