Humpback Whale Sexual Behaviour

Male humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) engage in homosexual behaviour.  

I have believed this since 2010, when a group of friends and I observed a trio of whales interacting in manner that I can only describe as intimate. So intimate in fact, that I initially thought the threesome comprised a female and two males.

A recent research note titled An observation of sexual behavior between two male humpback whales(1) published by Stephanie Stack in the journal Marine Mammal Science proves this beyond a shadow of a doubt. The note documents a series of images captured in Hawaii by photographers Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano. While off the coast of Maui in January 2022, the pair held their cameras over the side of the boat as two humpbacks approached. They documented—for the first time ever—sexual intercourse between humpback whales.

The twist?

Both were male.

No one knows why the whales were engaged in this behaviour, how often this might happen, or much else on the topic for that matter. The whale inserting his penis looked healthy. The other was injured, covered with whale lice (Cyamis boopis). It looks somewhat emaciated to me. If you are interested in this subject, it is worth clicking through to read the note and look at the photos.

[As an aside, I once came across an injured humpback that had been entangled in fishing line. It was weak, completely covered with whale lice. A stormed loomed. Skies and seas were dark. Sharks swarmed. A healthy whale was with the injured whale, just like the pair described in the research note. The bond between the two whales seemed strong. It seemed like the healthy whale was attending to the sick one. I could not stay in the water to observe at length though. The sharks smelled death. They were more than frisky, eager to chomp something.]

Reading the research note sparked a flurry of activity on my part. I dug up disks and combed through archives.

In August 2010, friends and I came upon three whales engaged in heated activity—bursts of speed, froth at the surface and such. The first good look I got was this:

humpback whale homosexual activity
Three socialising humpback whale males (License image)

The whale at the top left, the one with lots of scars, was the smallest of the three. It seemed to be the focus of attention. The larger individuals chased, nudged, rubbed against it repeatedly. The smaller whale seemed agitated, often demonstrating what looked like irritation.

The whales moved quickly. They dived often, disappearing and re-surfacing a considerable distance away.

In one instance, I was able to anticipate their dive and meet them at depth, where the trio twirled around one another:

humpback whale same sex intimacy
Whales swimming loops around each other (License image)

It was reproductive season, so my first guess was that we had come upon two males and a female. "It's a threesome!" I declared to the delight of my friends.

As time went by though, I managed to peek under each whale and photograph the relevant parts. 

All three were male.

three humpback whale males
The three males in shallower water (License image)

I dubbed them the Three Amigos as a mnemonic. It's a lot easier to say, "You remember the Three Amigos?" than it is to ask, "Do you remember that really sunny day when we were waaaay offshore and saw a bunch of commotion and..."

Given how quickly the whales moved, our opportunities to observe their interactions were limited. The most striking moment from this encounter was when the three came together and entwined as they swirled upward in this beautiful formation.

male humpback whales intimate behavior
The Three Amigos, an unforgettable sight (License image)

Note the bubbles.

This interaction began with the two larger whales sort of forcing themselves on the smaller one. I'm not sure how else to explain it. In response, the little one expelled a burst of bubbles. I took to be a sign of annoyance. Maybe it was; maybe it wasn't.

Shortly thereafter, the whales picked up speed on a heading further and further from land, meaning we had to part ways. 

I did manage to get one last look as they took off though. Here is what I saw:

humpback whale penis extended
Male humpback whale with penis extended (License image)

One of the two larger whales had his penis extended.

This isn't proof that there was any sexual interaction among the whales, but coupled with the intimate behaviour and constant body-contact, it sure was suggestive. I speculated that there may have been sexual contact that we did not see. I also know that males of other cetacean species have been documented engaging in same-sex interactions, so it was well within the realm of possibility.

The recent research note about the whales in Hawaii lends some credence to such speculation.

As set out in the research note, there have not been many documented observations of humpback whales with their penises extended. In the two decades or so I spent with humpbacks, I can only recall seeing this a handful of times. In most cases, I was too far away to take a photo.

Here is an instance from August 2009 when I was not too far away:

humpback whale male penis extended
Relaxed male humpback whale penis extended (License image)

This whale was relaxed. It had been resting at the sandy bottom with another whale and was just coming up for air. I was unable to confirm whether the other individual was male or female, as the pair departed right after this photo. There was no apparent cause for this whale to have freed willy. I'm sure he had his reasons. 

Another encounter in September 2012 comes to mind. Again, there were three male whales engaged in a frenetic level of activity.

The following photo shows one male nuzzling the belly of another, the one that seemed to be the center of attention in this trio:

humpback whale males possible sexual behavior
One male humpback whale nuzzling another (License image)

This is another view, photographed about 20 minutes after the image above, again with one whale approaching to nuzzle the same whale:

humpback whale homosexual behavior
The same whales getting close again (License image)

I saw the focal whale emit some sort of dark liquid from its urogenital area seemingly in response to the nuzzling, but that happened too far away from me to have any hope of discerning what the substance may have been.

Just like the Three Amigos two years earlier, this trio dived repeatedly, disappearing into the abyss for many minutes at a time.

Once I had confirmed that all three were male, I told friends that the whales might twirl like the Three Amigos. It didn't take long for that prediction to pan out:

three male humpback whales intimate behavior
Twirling humpback whales! (License image)

I dubbed this troika the Three Musketeers as a mnemonic to distinguish from the Three Amigos. For years thereafter I hoped to come across another triad of randy males, but I never did. I even had a name ready...the Three Stooges. C'est la vie.

I'll wrap-up this review of male extensions with another image from 2010, when I saw this:

humpback whale mating
Possible precursor to mating of humpback whales (License image)

The whale in the background was definitely female. She had been parked head-down, fluke-up and flush with the surface. This is a resting position that while not common, is not all that unusual either. I have seen several females do this, but interestingly, never a male. That might just be a coincidence. Or perhaps there is some reason?

humpback whale fluke at ocean surface
Female humpback fluke-up whale resting position (License image)

At one point, the whales seemed to decide together that it was time to head to deeper water. As they commenced their leisurely descent, the male unfurled. I watched it happen. I speculate that mating ensued, but I certainly cannot say that for certain. But at least in this case, I know it was a possibility.


(1) Stack, S. H., Krannichfeld, L., & Romano, B. (2024). An observation of sexual behavior between two male humpback whales. Marine Mammal Science, e13119. mms.13119