Whales will poke their heads above the surface in order to get a better view of their surroundings, a maneuver known as spyhopping. Above, an inquisitive gray whale spyhops near Baja California, Mexico.

Photograph by Caitlin Scully, MyShot
  • Spyhopping is a behavior exhibited by cetaceans, such as the gray whale above, and some sharks. When an animal spyhops, it vertically pokes its head out of the water.

    Most oceanographers say spyhopping simply lets the animals get a better view of activity near the water's surface. Sometimes, animals spyhop with their eyes above the water (as this whale is doing), and sometimes the animal's eyes are just below the surface.

    Because the eyes of spyhopping cetaceans often remain underwater, some oceanographers think spyhopping may have more to do with a whale's hearing than its vision. Close to the surface, a gray whale like this one can better hear the waves near the surf line, which mark its migration route.

    Whales and dolphins spyhop for long periods of time, up to 30 seconds. During this time, the cetaceans don't move their tail or flukes to remain upright. Instead, they use their pectoral flippers to keep them afloat, similar to a person treading water with their arms.

    Some toothed cetaceans, such as killer whales, seem to use spyhopping to view prey, such as seals, swimming near the surface.

    Baleen whales, like this one, often spyhop near whale-watching boats—demonstrating that they may be as curious about us as we are about them.

  • Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry
    baleen noun, plural noun

    flexible, horn-like substance hanging from the upper jaw of certain whales, used to strain plankton from seawater when feeding.

    behavior Noun

    anything an organism does involving action or response to stimulation.

    cetacean Noun

    type of marine mammal, such as whales and dolphins, whose body is similar to a fish.

    fluke Noun

    either half of the triangle-shaped end of a whale's tail.

    killer whale Noun

    carnivorous whale, actually the world's largest species of dolphin. Also called an orca.

    migration route Noun

    path followed by birds or other animals that migrate regularly.

    oceanographer Noun

    person who studies the ocean.

    pectoral flipper Noun

    limblike structures located on the side of the body of marine mammals.

    prey Noun

    animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

    spyhopping Noun

    behavior where an aquatic animal pokes its head vertically out of the water.

    surf line Noun

    point in the ocean at which waves begin to break.

    vertical Noun

    up-down direction, or at a right angle to Earth and the horizon.

    wave Noun

    moving swell on the surface of water.