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(Cheryl Carlin)

Big Love

In a mating ritual, male humpback whales leap, splash and fight. But researchers ask: just what does a female whale want?

Most of the violent battles among the males take place underwater. Some fights are deadly, Pack says; one male's battered body was found near a competitive pod 12 years ago. The males lunge forward with open jaws to gouge or scrape a rival, use their heads as battering rams or bash each other with their pectoral fins and flukes.

When the pod resurfaces in the channel, two competitors are oozing blood from their bumpy jaws. Their injuries don't slow them down; they plunge back into the fray. Whitehook smashes a whale on his left with his lower jaw, whacks another with his pectoral fin, then rockets skyward while others crash and heave to get out of his way. Another sprays from its blowhole so close to the boat that a fine mist settles over us.

"Oh, great, whale snot on my camera lens," mutters one of the crew.

Whitehook continued his daredevil displays, but was his behavior a prelude to mating? "We wish we knew," says Herman. "We've traveled with many, many competitive pods, and we've both gone in the water and filmed them after a deep dive. But this behavior that you've seen today: does it mean that she'll choose Whitehook for her mate? Or does it mean that he's already mated with her? We don't know. We guess that he's the one she favors, since she lets him stay with her. Maybe one day, we'll be lucky."

Virginia Morell has written about the Zuni Indians, climate science and wildebeests for Smithsonian.

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