Kelping Whales

Earlier in 2023, we investigated the strange behavior of orcas in Portuguese waters. Not only were they attacking boats, but they seemed to be teaching the behavior to other orcas.

One theory that might explain the behavior relates to fads. The intelligent creatures who run in tight groups sometimes display odd conduct for certain periods, only to drop the trends later. For example, a pod of orcas in Puget Sound wore dead salmon as hats in the late 1980s.

Around the world, another member of the whale family seems to be in the midst of doing its best milliner impersonation.

A humpback whale - photo by Whit Welles

One of the world’s largest species of whale is the humpbackMegaptera novaeangliae can top out over 50 feet in length and weigh up to 40 metric tons. Its distinct shape and coloration, coupled with its fondness for breaching, make it a favorite among whale watchers and cruisers.

And, since 2007, cetologists and wildlife aficionados have had another reason to seek out humpback whales: kelping.

Your dictionary won’t include this bizarre word. Autocorrect continually shifts it to “keeping.” What in the world is kelping?

Kelp washed up on a shore - photo by Sustain sd

Kelps are an order – Laminariales – of brown seaweed. Strangely, they are not plants but stramenopiles, which are composed of organisms called protists. Kelps form “underwater forests” around many of the world’s shallow oceans. They’re wonderful food for the fauna of the seas and humans, too. One hundred grams of kelp will knock off 63% of the RDA of Vitamin K and 45% of B-9!

And, apparently, they make fantastic hats for humpback whales.

A humpback whale putting on a kelp hat - photo by Slater Moore/Awesome Ocean

Researchers began to notice that baleen whales, most notably the humpbacks, were frolicking with brown seaweed, rolling around in the “trees,” pushing them around with their fins, and wearing them on their heads, as if the kelp were dead salmon. 

Lest you believe the kelp somehow mistakenly sticks to the whales, check out footage of kelping in action:

Why are the whales playing with seaweed?

As usual, since we cannot yet directly communicate with cetaceans, a few guesses exist. Researchers combed the internet for photos and videos of whales kelping, in an attempt to understand the behavior. They discovered it was a “global phenomenon;” whales all over the globe were partaking.

Intelligent, top-of-the-food-chain critters tend to have more free time and wherewithal to play than other organisms. Like cats with toys, perhaps the kelp is simply enjoyable to bat around.

Scientist Olaf Meynecke, one author of a recent paper on the subject, surmises a few more utilitarian purposes might exist behind kelping. One reason might be mobility training. Perhaps the whales use the kelp to help them become more nimble. This idea isn’t so far-fetched, as one of the proposed explanations for the orcas attacking boats is to teach their children how to approach prey.

Another notion would make the kelp an exfoliant. Perhaps the whales employ the seaweed as a giant washcloth, wiping away bacteria or parasites on their skin. Conversely, it could be that whales obtain no cleansing benefit from kelp, but enjoy the feeling on their skin. Certainly nothing wrong with a spa day.

Humpbacks and kelp - photos by Olaf Meynecke/Lorinnah Hesper/Kristin Campbell

Perhaps the ultimate answer is a mixture of all the above.

Researchers have noticed a few other species also kelping, including gray whales and right whales. Does this interspecies toy suggest kelp does include a pragmatic property? Or do whales possess playing genes?

No matter the answer, one thing seems to be clear: whales love hats.

Further Reading and Exploration

What’s at Play: Humpback Whale Interaction with Seaweed Is a Global Phenomenon – Jan-Olaf Meynecke/Hilla Kela/Journal of Marine Science and Engineering

Seaweed Interactions by Humpback Whales (Megaptera novaeangliae):
A Form of Object Play?
 – Kylie Owen/Rebecca Dunlop/David Donnelly/Aquatic Mammals

Kelping is a ‘global phenomenon’ sweeping the world of humpback whales, scientists say – LiveScience

What is ‘kelping’? Why whales are making hats out of seaweed – National Geographic

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