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Why do humpback whales wear seaweed wigs?

Alison Wood

Alison Wood

Ali is WDC's education projects coordinator. She is the editor of Splash! and KIDZONE, our magazine and website for young supporters.

Whales and dolphins never stop amazing us and there’s so much we don’t know. These intelligent beings have complex social structures and cultural behaviours like us, and one of their many mysteries is ‘kelping’ - or wearing and playing with kelp. While we don’t fully understand why they do it, we have some ideas.

Humpback flipper with kelp
Humpback flipper with kelp

Whilst we might dislike encountering kelp whilst swimming in the sea, humpback whales seem to love it!

All over the world, humpback whales have been photographed playing with clumps of floating kelp. They roll in it, dive through it and even lift it onto their bodies and tail flukes. A favourite game seems to be flinging kelp from their flippers onto their heads, creating a seaweed wig. Sometimes they play together and pass kelp to one another.

Humpback whale

Can you help protect these intelligent, sentient beings?

While kelp shares some characteristics with plants, it is not classified as a plant. It is a type of brown seaweed or algae that grows underwater. Unlike plants, kelp lacks true roots, stems, and leaves. Instead, it has structures like holdfasts for anchoring, blades for photosynthesis, and a stipe for support - perfect adaptions for living underwater. It grows in cool, coastal seas, forming underwater forests that, during stormy conditions, can dislodge and float off in tangled rafts on the ocean surface. You might have seen these heaps of slippery kelp washed up on beaches by stormy seas.

Kelp forest
Kelp on beach Allison Cherry

Consider this: a clump of kelp that you've seen on a beach may have once been played with by a humpback whale!

Humpback whales actively seek out seaweed and appear to thoroughly enjoy an hour or more playing with it. Remarkably, whales do this in completely different parts of the ocean all over the world, suggesting that it’s an important behaviour. But why they do it remains a mystery.  We have some good theories though and we think that ‘kelping’ offers whales multiple benefits:

Whale fun

Humpbacks often play alone with kelp and seem to enjoy it. Interacting with objects is good for improving their coordination and mobility skills, but much like us, whales experience pleasure, so perhaps it’s just good fun. ‘Kelping’ can also be a social activity, and whales rolling around in kelp together may strengthen their bonds and share an experience that brings them closer.

Two humpback whales breaching together
Who knew kelp could be so fun?

Whale massage

Humpback whales' heads and faces are covered in knobbles or bumps called tubercles, each containing a single hair that acts like a cat’s whisker. These hairs play a crucial role in providing sensory information about the whales’ surroundings. This might explain why humpbacks most commonly place kelp on their heads and faces. The resulting seaweed massage, gliding over the sensory hairs, is undoubtedly therapeutic for them and probably feels very nice!

Humback tubucles
humpback knobules 2 Christopher Swann

It's possible that humpbacks just enjoy the feeling of kelp sliding over the bumps on their faces.

Whale skincare routine

Kelp has antibacterial and antifungal qualities, making it a natural remedy for reducing whale skin infections – an oceanic equivalent to a face cleanser. Humpbacks likely use the kelp to dislodge barnacles and lice that build up on their skin and cause irritation. It provides the whales with a natural exfoliating scrub that removes dead skin and parasites.

Humpback whale with barnacles on its face/head
Humpbacks often rub against objects to remove barnacles. It's possible they use kelp in a similar way.

Whale mouth hygiene

Humpback whales are filter feeders so they have a diet primarily consisting of microscopic organisms like plankton and krill, as well as small schooling fish. They gulp enormous mouthfuls of seawater containing their prey and use their baleen plates to filter out the water. While they don’t eat kelp, the act of using it as a mouth hygiene tool may be yet another benefit for the whales. Deliberately placing kelp in their mouth may serve as a unique form of oral care, potentially helping them floss or clean the hard-to-reach areas inside their mouths.

Humpback whale feeding
Humpback whale playing with kelp

Seaweed or dental floss?

Whale craze

In addition to widespread humpback whale ‘kelping’, gray and right whales have also been observed interacting with seaweed.  This widespread affinity for kelp suggests that it likely has numerous benefits for whale health, wellbeing, and social interactions worldwide. The captivating world of these magnificent beings continues to unfold, revealing fascinating insights into their behaviour. As we delve deeper into understanding these giants, the more we discover and the more we’re amazed by.

If other whale species play with kelp, we can only assume it's an important behaviour.
If other whale species play with kelp, we can only assume it's an important behaviour.

Kelp Forest Protection is Urgently Needed

Kelp forests are underwater ecosystems that are vital for maintaining a healthy ocean and supporting a wide variety of marine life. Like their land-based counterparts, these forests play an important role in capturing carbon, helping us tackle the climate crisis. But kelp forests around the world have been rapidly declining over the past few decades due to rising ocean temperatures caused by climate change. Scientists have found that when heat waves push ocean surface temperatures to 18-20°C, kelp begins to die.

Kelp ecosystems are vital for the health of the ocean and the health of our planet.
Kelp ecosystems are vital for the health of the ocean and the health of our planet.

Considering the critical role kelp forests play in maintaining the health of the ocean, and their seemingly significant impact on the wellbeing of whales, it’s essential to protect these ecosystems from further climate-induced damage. We must protect them, not only for the health benefits that whales derive from them, but because they will help us overcome the climate crisis and provide home and shelter to numerous species, thus halting the destruction of nature.

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