Last June, expedition travelers observed an impressive spectacle in Svalbard’s Storfjord: beluga whales mating. However, this was anything but harmonious. Twenty male belugas literally attacked a single female, who suffered several bleeding wounds. Photographer Kerstin Langenberger was able to document this behavior in belugas for probably the first time with photos and videos that she provided to researchers at the Norwegian Polar Institute for analysis. The results have now been published in the journal Polar Research.
In the middle of dense pack ice in the Storfjord between the main island of Spitsbergen and the two islands Edgeøya and Barentsøya, there was a large group of beluga whales (Delphinapterus leucas) on 4 June 2022. Within the group many small, still gray colored juveniles could be observed. After a while, a smaller group of 20 animals split off and began to act very boisterous. The whales apparently did not feel disturbed by the National Geographic Endurance expedition cruise ship, which stayed 100 to 120 meters away.
Why the Beluga group suddenly became so agitated became clear a little later. Everything centered around a female, which was the target of the group consisting only of males. The visibly smaller female already had several bleeding wounds on the head, most likely inflicted by bites from the males.
This behavior, which has been observed very rarely, extended over a period of about 45 minutes. During this time, the 20 males massively harassed the female, lifting her above the water surface several times with their bodies and preventing any escape attempt by the female. It often showed the so-called spy-hopping, presumably to get an overview or to look for a way out.
At one point, three of the males pressed their erect penises against the female simultaneously. Langenberger was able to photographically document at least one successful mating attempt at the water surface. However, the authors assume that several males successfully mated with the female within the 45 minutes. For the female, the mating attempts were probably painful. At least, in the video attached to the study, it can be seen bleeding from the vaginal slit (link to video below).
Such seemingly violent sexual behavior in cetaceans is not unknown, although according to the authors, such fights usually occur only between males. The behavior observed in Storfjord is most comparable to that of bottlenose dolphins (Tursiops truncatus), which also exhibit aggressive behavior toward females.
After evaluating the material, the authors suspect that the observations correspond to normal mating behavior of belugas in the wild. In any case, the extensive documentation of this event contributes to a better understanding of beluga whale mating behavior. In addition, the new observations may provide an explanation for the injuries and scars in beluga whales around Svalbard. Until now, it has been assumed that these originated from the ice or from polar bears.
Julia Hager, PolarJournal
Link to the study: Lydersen C., Langenberger K., & Kovacs K. M. (2023). An observation of white whale (Delphinapterus leucas) mating behavior in the wild. Polar Research, 42. https://doi.org/10.33265/polar.v42.8875
Link to video: https://figshare.com/articles/media/White_whales/22147901
Link to Kerstin Langenberger’s blog: https://islandkerstin.blogspot.com/
More on the subject: