Humpback Whales Caught on Video Using Their Flippers for Propulsion - Atlas Obscura
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Humpback Whales Caught on Video Using Their Flippers for Propulsion

It’s never been documented before.

Busted.
Busted. Christopher Michel/CC BY 3.0

Even with their massive fore-flippers, humpback whales propel themselves almost exclusively with their just-as-massive back tail. But for the first time, researchers at Stanford have captured a humpback moving itself forward by flapping its flippers. Sort of like a bird.

In a video shared by Stanford University, a pod of whales can be seen milling about when suddenly, one of them gives a big push with its front flippers, in a motion that the story compares to that of seals or penguins. The footage was recorded by a camera mounted on another humpback to capture how the creatures move in their natural interactions. Clearly it didn’t disappoint.

The moment when the whale flaps its flippers is short, but telling, since it was previously thought that they were simply used for steering. In fact, among hundreds of hours of footage of hundreds of whales, the behavior is only seen twice. Its rarity has led researchers to surmise that such movement is only used for short, powerful bursts of speed, which require a lot of power from the whales.

Now if we could just decipher their songs…