No matter what, it is always exciting to spot whales on Monterey Bay, but it is even more thrilling when they exhibit behaviors such as spyhopping. Spyhopping is similar to humans treading water where whales, dolphins, and even sharks control and position themselves vertically with their pectoral fins to visually inspect their surroundings above the water line. When a cetacean spyhops, it vertically pokes it head out of the water in a slow, controlled manner, with their eyes slightly above or below the surface of the water and can last for minutes at a time.
Much to our delight, two of the most prolific spy-hoppers are the orca and humpback whale who are frequent visitors to the Monterey Bay. Scientists have observed that spyhopping occurs frequently when dolphins or whales interact with tourist boats, for they are curious and seem to like checking us out just as much as we enjoy them!
Although spyhopping’s main goal is to see what’s going on, spyhopping behavior is used for different reasons by different species. Humpback whales and dolphins seem to be the most curious often checking out a tourist boat, whereas orcas are thought to spyhop to view prey such as seals swimming near the surface. In the case of predation, multiple spy-hops from different locations followed by a vocalization to group members may prepare the group for an attack. Gray whales, on the other hand, spyhop during migration as a way to hear the surf better since their migration route usually follows the coastline because echolocation is entirely ineffective in the air due to the density between air and water.
In contrast to some of the other powerful acrobatic behaviors like breaching, lobtailing, or pectoral slapping, spyhops are largely powered by the whale’s extraordinary buoyancy controlled in slow movements as opposed to active upward swimming.