Photographers Document Humpback Whale Sex For The First Time — And It’s Between Two Males

Published March 1, 2024

The sighting occurred in January 2022 off the coast of Hawaii and marks the first observed instance of copulation in the species.

Humpback Whales Having Sex

Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi RomanoThe two male humpback whales photographed having sex off the coast of Hawaii in 2022.

For researchers, documentarians, and tourists alike, it’s thrilling to spot a whale while at sea. But two photographers in Hawaii got an even bigger thrill when two humpback whales circled beneath their boat — and then started to have sex.

Not only do their photographs represent the first documented instance of humpback whales copulating, but the images also feature two male whales. So, what does this encounter between the creatures mean?

A Surprising Encounter With Humpback Whales Near Hawaii

Photographers Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano were in a boat near Maui in January 2022 when two humpback whales suddenly swam near them. The whales circled the boat, one whale apparently pursuing the other, and then began engaging in sexual activity some 15 feet beneath the surface.

The first whale, the pursuer, appeared to hold the other in place with his pectoral fins as he penetrated the second whale. Krannichfeld and Romano observed the whales for about 30 minutes, and National Geographic reports that each sexual session between them seemed to last about two minutes.

Two Whales Near Hawaii

Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi RomanoThe two whales were observed for about 30 minutes, with one seeming to hold the other in place.

“We realized pretty quickly that there was a scientific significance to it,” Krannichfeld told NBC News. Krannichfeld, along with Romano and marine biologist Stephanie Stack, authored a study on the encounter between the whales that was just published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

He added: “Even if there were no articles published or nothing ever came of it, we knew that it was important to the scientific community and those who were studying the whales just because of the unique behavior.”

The behavior was unique indeed. The two whales were known to study co-author Stack, a researcher with the Pacific Whale Foundation. They had been previously identified as #PWF-NP_5016 (Whale A in the study) and #PWF-NP_3754 (Whale B). Both were adults, and both were male.

So, why did they engage in sex? That, Stack says, is the “million dollar question.”

Theories About This Same-Sex Whale Encounter

Though researchers aren’t 100 percent sure why Whale A and Whale B copulated, same-sex sexual relationships have been observed in animals before. Such sexual encounters could be “practice,” could be indicative of a relationship between animals, could be a case of mistaken identity, or could be used to assert dominance.

Male Humpback Whales Copulating

Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi RomanoResearchers aren’t sure why animals engage in same-sex sexual relationships, though they do have a number of theories.

In the case of the whales, it certainly seems like one whale was pursuing the other. The first whale was healthy and uninjured, but the second whale seemed ill and weak. It was emaciated and covered in whale lice, which can occur when whales lose their mobility.

According to NBC News, the second whale may have approached Krannichfeld and Romano’s boat in hopes of using their vessel as cover from the other whale. When this failed, it lacked the strength to fend the stronger whale off — and thus, the encounter unfolded beneath the boat.

Of course, that’s just a theory. Humpback whales “live their lives underwater, a lot of what they do is still very mysterious to us,” Stack told National Geographic. Their lives — including their sex lives — remain a mystery.

“Given how little we understand about humpback whale reproduction, and how much we’re still understanding about their social dynamics,” Stack remarked, “I wouldn’t venture a guess as to exactly what motivated the behavior.”

After reading about the first documented instance of sex between humpback whales, learn the sad story of Tilikum, SeaWorld’s infamous killer orca. Or, discover the astonishing story of Oregon’s “exploding whale” incident of 1970.

Kaleena Fraga
A staff writer for All That's Interesting, Kaleena Fraga has also had her work featured in The Washington Post and Gastro Obscura, and she published a book on the Seattle food scene for the Eat Like A Local series. She graduated from Oberlin College, where she earned a dual degree in American History and French.
John Kuroski
John Kuroski is the editorial director of All That's Interesting. He graduated from New York University with a degree in history, earning a place in the Phi Alpha Theta honor society for history students. An editor at All That's Interesting since 2015, his areas of interest include modern history and true crime.