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WATCH: Trio of Gray Whales Engage in Complex Courtship Ritual

Feb 13, 2017 01:57 PM EST
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Humpback whales seen under the Golden Gate Bridge
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Mating in threes is not uncommon in whales.
(Photo : David McNew/Getty Images)

The life of whales is still quite mysterious, so the footage of three whales swimming and rolling over each other off the coast of Newport, California quickly attracted a slew of spectators both live and online.

As shown in a video (see below), dolphins linger nearby, but the massive gray whales stole the show as they engage in a rarely-seen interaction. The video was captured by photographer and drone operator Mark Girardeau, who spotted the scene from a Davey's Locker charter boat, according to a report from Mercury News. Whales migrate south annually to the warm waters of Baja, but this trio wasn't on the typical migration path that most of them usually take.

Girardeau said that the whales look like they were "on a mission" due to their position. One of the whales was going sideways while the other was on the opposite direction.

"The whales almost came close to the boat because they were flipping and turning around. The whales didn't seem to be distracted at all by our presence," he described the sight.

Originally, the whale watchers believed that they were witnessing the whales mating. After all, mating in threes -- two males and one female -- is a typical situation in whales. However, a report from National Geographic revealed that the footage actually showed three whales engaged in the act of courtship, not mating.

Christopher Fitzsimmons, an education specialist at the Birch Aquarium at Scripps Institution of Oceanography, said that the rolling and rubbing that can be seen in the drone footage is actually the creatures familiarizing themselves with each other. It's also done to make sure the female is receptive to the advances of the males.

Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University director, Bruce Mate, also agreed that there isn't actually mating taking place in the video, pointing out that while one of the males does have its penis out at one point, the female turned her back, indicating she isn't interested.

Gray whales mate belly to belly. The rolling actions seen in the video might be the female continually signalling her disinterest or she is still testing the male.

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