Two male humpback whales seen mating for first time ever

WAILUKU, Hawaii — A romantic vacation to Hawaii is a common sight to catch on camera — except when you’re talking about whales! In a groundbreaking discovery off the coast of Maui, researchers have witnessed a pair of humpback whales mating for the first time ever. However, researchers say these observations are even more monumental, since the act involved two males.

This observation, made on Jan. 19, 2022, and detailed in a study published by the Pacific Whale Foundation, challenges our understanding of whale behavior and adds a fascinating new layer to the complexity of marine mammal social interactions.

Humpback whales, known for their majestic breaches and complex songs, have long captivated scientists and the public alike. Traditionally, much of their behavior, especially regarding reproduction, has remained shrouded in mystery due to the difficulties of observing these colossal creatures in their natural, deep-sea habitats. The recent findings, therefore, represent a significant leap in our knowledge, shedding light on behaviors that have never been documented before.

The story begins with a chance encounter by photographers Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano, who, while boating off Maui, noticed two humpback whales approaching their vessel. One of the whales appeared emaciated and covered in whale lice, indicating poor health, likely due to a ship strike, while the other seemed to be in much better condition. As the whales circled the boat, the healthier whale began exhibiting sexual behavior towards the injured companion, using its pectoral fins for what appeared to be attempts at intercourse. This behavior was captured in a series of photographs, marking the first time such an event has been documented among humpback whales.

Male Humpback Whales mating
Researchers have witnessed a pair of humpback whales mating for the first time ever. However, researchers say these observations are even more monumental, since the act involved two males. (Credit: Pacific Whale Foundation)

This incident is not just a curiosity but opens a window into the complex and varied social behaviors of whales. Homosexual behavior is not uncommon in the animal kingdom and has been observed in many species, including dolphins and other cetaceans (aquatic mammals). However, the explicit documentation of such behavior in humpback whales, especially in a context that may suggest elements of compassion or dominance, provides new insights into the social lives of these enigmatic giants.

The observation raises numerous questions about the motivations behind such interactions. While the purpose of nonreproductive sexual behavior in the animal kingdom is varied and can include social bonding, practice for reproductive acts, establishing dominance, or reducing social tensions, the specific context of this encounter — between an ailing whale and a presumably healthy one — adds layers of complexity. It may suggest a form of social interaction not previously considered in humpback whales, perhaps a misplaced mating attempt, a gesture of social affinity towards a weakened peer, or a demonstration of dominance.

Moreover, this documentation highlights the vital role of citizen scientists and photographers in marine research. Without the keen observation and quick reporting by Krannichfeld and Romano, this remarkable behavior might have remained unnoticed. It underscores the potential for collaboration between the public and scientific communities in expanding our understanding of the natural world.

The health disparity between the two whales, particularly the injured one, also provides a somber reminder of the threats humpback whales face from human activities, such as ship strikes. Such encounters can lead to severe injuries or even death for these magnificent creatures, pointing to the importance of marine conservation efforts to protect them in their natural habitats.

The discovery is published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.


  1. No different than a prison encounter. The stronger male is showing dominance over a weaker male. It’s called RAPE. Not a “sexual encounter”. No love stories over this please.

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