Whales are some of the world’s largest and most fascinating creatures, and their mating behaviors are just as interesting as their size. How do whales mate? Like humans, male whales have a penis and female whales possess a vagina. These creatures often mate in a belly-to-belly position while suspended underwater or even swimming. This article will explore how whales breed with different species and what makes this process unique.
Here’s the answer: How do whales mate?
Whales belong to the order Cetacea, which also includes dolphins and porpoises. There are two types of whales: baleen whales and toothed whales. Baleen whales, such as humpbacks and gray whales, feed on small prey by straining it from the water through comb-like plates in their mouth. Toothed whales, such as sperm and killer whales, hunt for larger prey and use their teeth to catch it. Both types of whales have unique mating behaviors, and we will look at both.
Baleen whales mate during their migration to warmer waters. Humpback whales, for example, mate in tropical waters during the winter months and give birth in the spring. During the mating season, males compete for a female’s attention, often engaging in vocal and physical displays. Humpback males, for example, will sing complex songs that can last for hours, while male gray whales may engage in physical displays such as head-butting.
Once a male has the attention of a female, the two whales will engage in a mating dance. This dance can last for hours and involves the two whales swimming together in circles, rolling, and touching each other with their flippers. During this dance, the male will release his sperm, and the female will become pregnant.
How often do baleen whales mate in a year?
Baleen whales typically mate once a year while migrating to their breeding grounds. The exact timing of mating varies between species, but it naturally occurs during the winter when the whales are in warmer waters. For example, gray whales mate in the lagoons of Baja, California, and Mexico, while humpback whales mate in the waters off the coast of Hawaii and the Caribbean. 
The length of the mating season also varies between species, but it typically lasts several weeks to a few months. During this time, male whales will engage in vocal and physical displays to attract a female, and the female will mate with several males to ensure successful fertilization.
It’s worth noting that not all baleen whales will mate every year. Some individuals may skip a year or more between mating seasons for various reasons, such as poor health or food availability. Additionally, the frequency of mating can also be influenced by environmental factors, such as changes in water temperature or food availability.
Toothed whales mate differently than baleen whales. Male-toothed whales often compete for females’ attention, called “competition pods”. It is a term used to describe a group of male-toothed whales, such as dolphins or orcas, competing for access to a female for mating purposes.
During the mating season, these males will form a temporary social group, or “pod,” and engage in aggressive behaviors, such as physical displays and vocalizations, to compete for the attention of a female. For more detail on the pod, see our article What is a group of whales called?
The dominant male in the pod will typically be the one who mates with the female, while the other males may form subgroups or disperse to find other mating opportunities.
The mating process for toothed whales is brief and typically lasts only a few seconds. The male will position himself alongside the female and insert his penis into her vaginal tract. The male’s penis is retractable, and he will control the timing of its extension and retraction during mating.
How often do toothed whales mate in a year?
The frequency of mating in toothed whales can vary widely between species and populations. Some species of toothed whales, such as the sperm whale, may mate every two to seven years, while others, such as the bottlenose dolphin, may mate several times a year.
The exact timing of mating in toothed whales is also highly variable and can depend on some factors, such as the species, geography, and population size. For example, some species of toothed whales mate in the spring or summer, while others may mate during the fall or winter.
Like baleen whales, the frequency of mating in toothed whales can also be influenced by environmental factors, such as changes in water temperature or food availability. For example, if food is scarce in an area, female-toothed whales may be less receptive to mating, or males may be too weak to compete for the attention of a female.
Gestation and Birthing
Once a female whale has mated, she will carry her calf for several months, depending on the species. For example, humpback whales have a gestation period of 11-12 months, while sperm whales have a gestation period of 14-16 months. During this time, the female whale will feed on rich, fatty milk known as “whale milk” to provide nutrients for her developing calf. For more detail on whale gestation, see our article How long are whales pregnant? (in different species)
When it’s time for the calf to be born, the female whale will swim to shallow waters where she can give birth. The calf is typically born tail-first, which helps to prevent injury during delivery. The calf will nurse from its mother for several months, drinking large amounts of her rich milk to continue to grow and develop.
More facts about whales mating
Once a female has become pregnant, the mating process is not over. Female whales often mate with multiple males during a single mating season, which can result in the calf having various fathers. This is known as polyandry and is thought to occur for several reasons.
For example, it allows the female to receive multiple fertilizations, which increases the chances that one of the fertilized eggs will develop into a healthy calf. Additionally, it helps to spread the genetic diversity of the population, which is essential for the species’ long-term survival.
Environmental factors, such as changes in water temperature or food availability, can also impact whale mating behaviors. For example, if food is scarce in an area, female whales may be less receptive to mating, or males may be too weak to compete for the attention of a female. Climate change and other human activities, such as ocean noise pollution, can also impact the mating behaviors of whales. For example, increased noise in the ocean can interfere with the vocal displays of baleen whales, making it more difficult for them to find a mate.
In conclusion, whales mate in various ways, depending on the species. The mating process can be complex and involves physical and vocal displays and the use of pheromones. Additionally, environmental factors can impact the mating behaviors of whales, making it more difficult for them to find a mate and reproduce. Nevertheless, despite these challenges, whales have successfully reproduced and continued their species for millions of years, making them truly remarkable creatures.