Free willy! Wildlife photographers take first-ever photos of humpback whales having sex… and are shocked to realize they’re two males

A series of never-before-seen photos have exposed the hidden world of humpback whales in more ways than one.

For the first time, scientists have photos of humpback whales mating.

And in another first, the scientists said the two ocean giants appear to be males.

Despite the fact that scientists have been closely studying humpback whales for decades, reports of their sexual behavior are extremely rare and never captured on film.

Whale B (top) approached Whale A (bottom) from behind and mated with it. But it is unclear whether Whale A wanted the meeting.

And never before have scientists known that male humpback whales engage in same-sex recreational activities.

However, injury may have played a role, as the male whale on the bottom appeared to be in poor health and was unable to escape the grasp of the whale on top.

However, such behavior is widespread throughout the animal kingdom and has been documented in dolphins, bonobo chimpanzees, Japanese macaques, lions, giraffes, bison, antelopes, walruses and some bird species.

Despite being large and well-studied animals, they can easily stay out of sight of humans while mating. So the sexual behavior of humpback whales has long been a mystery to scientists.

The images were captured by Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano, nature photographers who were on a recreational trip to Maui, Hawaii, when they saw the extraordinary behavior.

One day in January 2022, the whales approached Krannichfeld and Romano’s 26-foot boat off the west coast of Maui.

This stretch of water is a popular location for whale watching in the winter months, when they migrate there to mate and give birth.

The two whales slowly approached their boat, its engines turned off and in neutral. The two ocean giants were on and just below the surface of the water.

The two photographers spotted the whales off the west coast of Maui, a popular spot for whale watching in the winter months.

The two photographers spotted the whales off the west coast of Maui, a popular spot for whale watching in the winter months.

Parasitic sea lice had discolored the skin of Whale A, something that can happen when a whale is injured and has reduced mobility.  Whale biologist Stephanie Stack also noted that it looked emaciated.

Parasitic sea lice had discolored the skin of Whale A, something that can happen when a whale is injured and has reduced mobility. Whale biologist Stephanie Stack also noted that it looked emaciated.

One whale (named Whale A) was closer to the boat as the two approached, followed by Whale B.

Krannichfeld and Romano immediately noticed that something was wrong with whale A: its skin was unusually brown.

They wanted to investigate further, so they grabbed their cameras.

It is illegal in the United States to approach humpback whales in the water, so they dangled their cameras over the side of the boat and started darting away.

They watched as the two circled the boat about six times.

At one point they noticed that Whale B’s penis had elongated. Male whales and dolphins have a penis like other mammals, but when they are not using it for mating, they normally keep it hidden in their genital cleft.

“Whale B repeatedly approached from the back of whale A and penetrated the second whale,” they reported in the journal article describing the encounter.

Each penetration was superficial, they wrote, with Whale B’s penis appearing to penetrate Whale A’s genital slit only “a few inches.”

And each penetration was relatively quick, lasting less than two minutes.

“After the final penetration, Whale B dived and did not reappear,” they wrote. Whale A hung around for a few minutes before he too disappeared from view.

The whole affair lasted about 30 minutes.

After Krannichfeld and Romano took their photos, they approached a whale researcher Stephanie Stacka biologist at the Pacific Whale Foundation.

Together they analyzed the encounter and published their observations in the magazine on Wednesday Science of marine mammals.

Throughout the encounter, photographers noticed that Whale B appeared to be holding onto Whale A with its pectoral fins – the animal’s large front fins.

Whale B (above) had his penis protruded from his genital slit during the entire encounter, which lasted about 30 minutes.  Here he is seen penetrating Whale A's genital slit, which hides his own penis.

Whale B (above) had his penis protruded from his genital slit during the entire encounter, which lasted about 30 minutes. Here he is seen penetrating Whale A’s genital slit, which hides his own penis.

From the very few historical observations of whale mating, it appears important that male whales ‘grab’ the female in this way during sex.

However, some details raise questions about whether the encounter was pleasurable or consensual for both whales.

‘Whale A was visibly emaciated and covered in whale lice (Cyamus boopis) a type of ectoparasite that lives on the skin of humpback whales and can reproduce on whales that are injured and have reduced mobility, leading to the observed skin discoloration previously described,” the team wrote.

In addition, Whale A appeared to have an injured jaw, which would make it difficult for the whale to eat, which could lead to it becoming weak and unhealthy.

Scientists had confirmed in previous studies that Whale A is male and that the male genital slit can be seen here.

Scientists had confirmed in previous studies that Whale A is male and that the male genital slit can be seen here.

During the half-hour session, Whale A appeared to try to get away from Whale B.

From the moment they approached the boat, the photographers wondered if Whale A was using it as an obstacle to help it escape Whale B’s grasp, they wrote.

“But if so, Whale A was moving too slowly to effectively avoid the other animal.”

A jaw injury like the one this whale experienced could occur if it was hit by a boat, the team wrote.

Such attacks can be fatal, but they can also cause an animal to slowly deteriorate and eventually die as it struggles to feed and care for itself.

Unfortunately, that may have been the case with this whale, they wrote.