New Footage May Show Blue Whales’ “Heat Run” for the First Time

Josh Wright

27 Oct 2017

Video captured on NWS trip thought to be landmark discovery

Your next trip with Natural World Safaris may see you at the forefront of blue whale research. Our expert guide and BBC Blue Planet videographer Patrick Dysktra recently filmed what may be the first known footage of blue whales engaging in the courting behaviour known as a “heat run”. Dykstra recorded the footage earlier this year while on a trip with NWS clients off the coast of Sri Lanka. Heat runs involve a male – or males – chasing a single female over considerable distances in an attempt to mate with her. Humpback whale heat runs have been observed and studied numerous times, but this is thought to be the first time that a blue whale heat run has been caught on film. View the stunning video below.

Dykstra joined our Natural World Hero Howard Martenstyn earlier this year to observe blue whale behaviour in the wild, using a drone to capture the footage that has caused such a stir. Graceful and elegant as they move through the water and breach the surface, the pair of whales – likely a male and female – could certainly be engaging in a never-before-seen dance of cetacean courtship.

The first clip from Dykstra’s video, which shows the larger female rolling over to show her underside to the sky, is of particular interest.

As the largest animal ever to have existed on earth, the blue whale must maintain its vast frame by spending most of its time feeding on krill, and as a result it is rare to witness blue whales engaging in any behaviour other than feeding. The female’s roll and the pair swimming in tandem – now breaching, now diving, now gliding – could hint at a complex social interaction. Some blue whale researchers, however, are not so sure.

In contrast to the balletic movements seen in Dykstra’s drone footage, humpback whale heat runs are chaotic, violent affairs.

Multiple males race at high speeds as they tail the female, attacking one another with their mighty tail flukes and even leaping out of the water to crash into their rivals. Described by Earth News editor Matt Walker as "the greatest animal battle on the planet", there would be no doubt as to the nature of the humpback whales’ behaviour if you were ever lucky enough to witness this spectacle first-hand.

Referring to the newly captured footage of the blue whales, marine ecologist Leigh Torres believes “it is a lot of assumption to think this is sexual courting”. Torres has observed two blue whales racing before near New Zealand, with “the most accepted hypothesis [being] that it is a form of male competition”. The gender of the New Zealand whales was not made clear, but if the hypothesis is correct – that the two were both male – and Dykstra’s assumption that his footage shows a male and a female is also correct, this would give further credence to the blue whale heat run having finally been captured on film.

Despite the marked difference between the humpbacks’ ferocity and the blue whales’ rather serene interactions, Dykstra and Martenstyn believe that what they saw is indeed a form of courtship.

The female rolling over is “definitely not normal blue whale behaviour,” said Dykstra. "It's being done to entice or react to the male behind her. As far as we know it's never been filmed before.

Almost hunted to extinction by whalers during the twentieth century and inherently shy, blue whales’ social interactions are not entirely understood. This makes the new footage a significant addition to our existing knowledge. You can join Dykstra as he continues his research into these magnificent mammals in 2018, with a blue whale safari to either Sri Lanka or California. As well as swimming alongside the 200-ton behemoths, you’ll be in the right place at the right time to assist in conservation efforts, making for a truly once-in-a-lifetime experience.


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