Two male humpback whales captured having sex in world-first photos

Maui-based photographers captured a sexual encounter between humpback whales for the first time ever, later learned that both animals were male.

Maui-based photographers captured first-ever instance of a sexual encounter between humpback whales and later learn that both whales are male.
Image: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano via Pacific Whale Foundation

In a world-first, photographers have captured images of two humpback whales having sex. According to experts, this is the first time the animals have been documented engaging in any kind of sexual activity, but what is really special about these new photos, is that both of the humpback whales are male.

The photos, published on February 27 in the journal Marine Mammal Science, show the two bulls engaging in penetrative sex. The discovery comes after decades of marine biologists closely chronicling the creatures. 

Alongside the photos, taken by Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano, Marine Mammal Science published a report penned by marine biologist Stephanie Stack. According to the report, Krannichfeld and Romano’s photos were captured in the waters west of the Hawaiian island of Maui in January 2022. 

“We realized pretty quickly that there was a scientific significance to it,” said Krannichfeld. “Even if there were no articles published or nothing ever came of it, we knew that it was important to the scientific community and those who were studying the whales just because of the unique behavior.”

Stack reported that the sexual encounter occurred between a strong, healthy male humpback, and an injured or unhealthy humpback, with the weaker of the two being penetrated by the stronger. According to Stack’s report, the weaker whale was visibly emaciated and covered in an external parasite, known as whale lice, that can affect a whale’s mobility. 

Stack went on to suggest that the only reason the team might have been able to capture the photos was that the injured whale likely approached the photographer’s boat to seek cover from the other male. Krannichfeld made clear in the report that none of the team approached the bulls or entered the water to swim with them after they’d approached, both of which are illegal. 

According to the report, the weaker whale attempted to escape from the larger but eventually failed and succumbed. The weaker whale was then penetrated as the healthier male held it in place with its pectoral fins. 

The encounter, the biologists reported, lasted for approximately 30 minutes roughly 15 feet below the surface of the water.


According to Krannichfeld, when he returned home after taking the photos, he immediately knew that he had captured “a once-in-a-lifetime encounter.”

“The whales are a big part of our lives here in Maui,” he said. “Everybody that’s involved with them and who photographs them kind of realizes that that’s never been captured. Mating and birth are two main things that are still kind of unknown.” 

Krannichfeld, who owns a photography gallery in Maui, later shared the photos with Stack, who identified both humpbacks as male. The photographer has since said that sharing the photos with the scientific community is “an honor”.

“I’m constantly taking photos of the whales and essentially making a product of them,” added Krannichfeld. “So it’s nice to be able to feel like I’m giving something back to the whales, [helping] people understand them better.”

Same-sex behaviour has never been documented in humpback whales and the authors of the report noted that they were unsure if same-sex behaviour between two healthy male humpbacks would occur. However, homosexuality is generally accepted as a common occurrence throughout much of the animal kingdom, with creatures such as lions, bears, and caribou all known to engage in same-sex behaviour. In the world of marine mammals, walruses, Amazon river dolphins, gray seals, and orcas have been known to engage in same-sex behaviour as well. 

Most famously, however, penguins have risen to prominence in the LGBTQ+ community given their propensity for choosing same-sex partners, and even raising chicks together. 

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