Fin whales are the world’s second largest whale species and can measure 80-plus feet, and weigh as much as 70 tons. Because of their immense size, they almost never breach, which makes the rare photo accompanying this story all the more striking.
The image was captured May 22 in the Strait of Gibraltar by a researcher for the Spanish cetacean conservation group, CIRCE (Conservación, Información y Estudio sobre cetáceos).
CIRCE posted the image and a YouTube video to its Facebook page last week. The video footage shows two of three breaches–the first at 3 seconds and the second at 1:15–and reveal that the cetacean is almost leaping completely free of the water.
Fin whales, second in size only to blue whales, are incredibly sleek and can swim at bursts of up to 23 mph, which helps explain how this particular whale was able to make like a surface-to-air missile in the Strait of Gibraltar.
It’s unclear why the whale jumped, just as nobody is 100% certain why any of the smaller species of whales sometimes breach.
Humpback whales are famous for breaching, along with other surface behavior that could possibly represent a form of communication. Some scientists theorize that gray whales breach in an attempt to shake barnacles free of their skin.
But fin whales, like blue whales, typically do not break the surface in any type of breaching behavior.
"It's a very rare behavior," said Alisa Schulman-Janiger, an American Cetacean Society researcher. "It's rarely observed and even more rarely captured on camera. If one does happen to breach, what are the chances that you're going to be ready with a camera?"
Schulman-Janiger runs the ACS-L.A. Gray Whale Census and Behavior Project from the Palos Verdes Peninsula in Los Angeles County.
Fin whales, for the past severl years, have been spotted feeding in nearshore waters off Southern California. In the project's 31 years, volunteers have seen only a handful of fin whale breaches. That includes a phenomenal display last month, when one or possibly two fin whales breached 20-plus times.
The fin whale, named because of a prominent dorsal fin far back on its body, feeds predominantly on shrimp-like krill and schooling bait fish. The whales are found worldwide but are considered an endangered species, numbering about 40,000 in the northern hemisphere, and 15,000 to 20,000 in the southern hemisphere.
The amazing photo of the Strait of Gibraltar breach inspired many comments on the CIRCE Facebook page, mostly in Spanish, but with some English-language commentary, such as “Good grief. Imagine the splash!” and “Raw power… totally impressive.”
Another commenter asked, "Is this for real?," and others also thought it might have been photoshopped. Were it not for the supporting video footage, these would have been valid observations.
–Pete Thomas, via GrindTv Outdoor