Did you know that humpback whales are the farthest traveling mammals on the planet, capable of journeying some 3,000 miles per year as part of their annual migration? All that swimming is enough to make any whale absolutely pooped.
While on an expedition to the Caribbean earlier this year, researcher Kieran Bown of PangaMX (follow them on Facebook here) and his team saw the tail of a humpback whale sticking out of the water some distance away. At first they were afraid the whale was dead or grievously injured as the tail wasn’t moving. When they went in to investigate the motionless animal, they found that she wasn’t dead, but rather just dead tired.
“The Humpback was sound asleep, vertically hoisted in the water with the fluke out of the water,” writes Bown in an email to The Dodo. “With the whale being so relaxed, the fluke had fully flopped over and was acting as a sort of stabiliser [sic] at the surface. The whale was completely at peace in the water and remaining silent we floated and observed getting a great look at the giant.”
Equipped with a GoPro camera, quietly entered the water for a closer look. For about ten minutes, the whale continued to dangle there in the water, floating tail-over-head without moving, until she finally woke up to take a breath. It was then that the sleepy humpback realized she was being watched.
“The whale was coming up to breathe, with a slight movement of the fluke and twisting her body using the pectoral fins […] she brought her head up right close to us as if to get a look at it,” writes Bown. “I froze exactly where I was, I had never been approached by a whale before, only observed them as they swam by, it was as if she was checking us out.”
After surveying her watchers, she presumably decided the lingering humans posed no threat and went back to sleep. “It was an experience we would all never forget,” says Bown.
Whales typically sleep at night, which is why it’s uncommon to get footage of them asleep — though there is other remarkable footage, such as sperm whales sleeping in a group.
For humans and non-aquatic animals, respiration is involuntary; we must breathe constantly in order to survive. However, whales and other sea mammals can shut off half of their brain at a time, which prevents them from drowning while they sleep by allowing them to return to the surface to breathe only periodically.