Whales Performing Synchronized Swimming?

Written by on November 27, 2012 in Marine Life

Emily Tripp

Long-finned pilot whale.

Long-finned pilot whale. Photo credit: Danielle Cholewiak, NEFSC/NOAA.

New research reveals that long-finned pilot whales use synchronized swimming when they sense danger.

Researchers studied and analyzed the association patterns between individual whales living in the Strait of Gibraltar and Cape Breton in Canada, hoping to gain an understanding of their social system.  There are about 300 pilot whales living in the Strait of Gibraltar and they remain there year-round, but little is known about their social structure.

“The important point is that we compared two different populations: one inhabiting the Strait of Gibraltar which is exposed to predators (boats in this case) and another with an ecotype where there are not so many boats (Cape Breton in Canada).  The pilot whales are social species and we were interested in seeing how mothers teach their young, for example.  We observed that they use synchronized swimming when in danger,” Renaud de Stephanis, researcher of the Biological Station of Doñana and coauthor of the study explained to SINC.

The researchers collected data from 1999 to 2006 and took 4,887 dorsal fin photos of whales in Gibraltar in order to compare them to the whales in Canada.

“They swim in complete synchrony both in the Strait of Gibraltar and Canada.  When sea traffic or whale watching vessels are nearby, the whole group collectively reacts to such external stimuli.  When we arrived at the watching area they were swimming at their normal rhythm but after 10 or 15 minutes near to them, the mothers and their young began to swim in a synchronized manner in alert position.  This is a sign of affiliation to the group,” the researchers explained.

The team determined that the presence of vessels not only changes swimming patterns, but diving behavior as well.

“When we began observing the whales up close, they tended to spend quite some time on the surface.  However, the longer we spent nearby, the longer they stayed under water.  This behavioral change could affect their energy levels, since they then have to make more of an effort to protect themselves and their young.  In turn this limits hunting time, which means that they cannot feed their young properly,” they said.

Ship traffic at the Strait of Gibraltar.

Ship traffic at the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo credit: Emily Tripp.

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Copyright © 2012 by Marine Science Today, a publication of Marine Science Today LLC.

About the Author

About the Author: Emily Tripp is the Publisher and Editor of MarineScienceToday.com. She holds marine science and biology degrees from the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Master of Advanced Studies degree in Marine Biodiversity and Conservation from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. When she's not writing about marine science, she's probably running around outside or playing with her dog. .

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