Whales consist of one of the largest families of mammals, with 75 “toothed” whales and another 16 “baleen” whales in the family.
Like other animals, they are incredibly diverse in behavior, social structure, and size. In fact, the smallest “whale” is a dolphin – meaning this group is incredibly diverse in temperament and in size.
So, are whales friendly? They can be! However, like any other wild animal, dolphins are not domesticated. This means they’ll never be as “friendly” or as docile as something like a cat or a dog. And, in any case where you’re interacting with a wild animal, you run the risk of them startling, getting defensive, and you getting hurt.
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Do Whales Like Humans?
Whales have been known to exhibit significant curiosity about humans. Videos of whales swimming alongside boats and alongside divers are extremely common.
That’s even more true when you broaden your definition of “whale” to include other cetaceans.
Dolphins, porpoises, and whales are a single large group with few distinctions between them other than size and social behavior.
In fact, while the Delphinidae are a family (dolphins), they’re classified as whales. And, that family includes bottlenose dolphins, whale dolphins, and even Orcas, also known as killer whales.
Within this group, there’s quite a bit of diversity in cognition, playfulness, and curiosity. Bottlenose dolphins, for example, are extremely well known for playing around with ships and people.
Of course, they’re also known for getting startled and attacking humans on occasion.
Others, like Beluga whales, are also extremely well known for surfacing near humans. Belugas are considered one of the friendliest types of whales, simply because they often interact with people.
You might also see sperm or humpback whales on a cruise such as between Oregon and Alaska. These large whales often come up to large ships and swim alongside them.
That can make for a beautiful view while the whale keeps up. And, with most of us thinking of whales as “gentle giants”, few of us are afraid of accidents happening when they do.
Other types of whales can be significantly more solitary. Or, less friendly. For example, sailors off the coast of Spain and Portugal were issued warnings to stay in port at night, after a series of Orca attacks on boats in August 2022.
So whales don’t always “like” humans. However, they can be significantly curious and even seem to be friendly or at least tolerate touch and interaction.
Why Are Whales Curious About Humans?
Cetaceans are notoriously curious about boats, ships, and people in general. For a large part, that’s because they’re naturally curious about many things in the water.
In fact, the entire family is marked by playfulness. Whales, dolphins, and porpoises all exhibit behaviors characterized as playful.
That includes behavior you might expect from human children. For example, chasing each other and mimicking each other’s behavior.
Whales also play with other objects, tease other animals, and even use other fish and objects as balls or toys.
It makes sense that they’d be interested in new and unknown objects in their environment.
That natural curiosity is what leads whales to see what’s happening when a ship passes through the water or a diver does.
It’s also why people interacting with orcas by talking to them, splashing the water, or throwing them
Here, it’s important not to do this, because orcas interacting with your boat can be dangerous.
Can You Go Swimming With Whales?
There are plenty of ways you can go swimming with whales. In fact, numerous tours exist to help tourists go to see whales, swim with them, or share water with them.
If you broaden your definition of whales to dolphins, there are also dozens of marinas where you can literally swim with dolphins.
However, if you’re thinking of whales, you probably want something bigger like a beluga or a gray whale.
Unfortunately, there are no guarantees you can go swimming with a beluga. If you do, you’ll normally need diving equipment and a lot of patience to even get close to one.
Plus, like any other wild animal, it isn’t always safe. At any point where you go swimming with a large mammal, you run the risk of it hurting you.
That’s even true with baleen whales, which don’t have teeth and can’t bite you.
Whales, dolphins, and porpoises attack things when they are scared, when startled, or when they get hurt. And, if something else startles them, they could attack anyway.
No one wants to be in the way of a whale when it hits you full-on.
Do Whales Have A Good Relationship With Humans?
Whales have a long history with humans but for most of history, it’s been relatively bad. In fact, even today, whales are still hunted in much of the world.
Even dolphins are hunted in parts of Southeast Asia and Japan.
This means that if you see a whale in the wild, it could have had an extremely negative experience with humans in the past. Approaching a whale in the wild can be dangerous, even if you’re on a boat.
Do Whales Have Emotions?
Many whales experience what most humans interpret as bonding and emotions.
These include strong mother-calf bonds, attachment to other adults, distress, loneliness, and even periods of what could be called grief.
Like many mammals, whales use social bonds to ensure survival. In fact, most whales have a rich social life, comprised of play, learning, social activities, and group hunting.
Whales also communicate in dialects, with different pods or groups using different pitches and tones in their songs. Adding or losing an individual can change the song for the entire pod.
And, whales communicate things like social status, relationship status, and even nuance in their songs.
Of course, not all whales are the same. Humpback whales, which are mostly solitary, have much less diverse and communicative songs.
For example, the solitary males all sing the same song while they are of breeding age.
So, whales have rich social lives, bond with their parents, bond with “friends”, and display emotions similar to what other mammals do.
However, they are not emotionally literate or responsive anywhere near even the range, just like a very young human child.
Are Whales Dangerous?
Yes, whales are dangerous. Whales are large marine animals mostly weighing upwards of 100 pounds (for the smallest).
The largest whale, the Antarctic blue whale, can weigh over 400,000 pounds.
In addition, whales are wild animals. They can be startled, frightened, and hurt.
When they do, they will react like wild animals. That is, to either rapidly retreat or to attack what they deem to be the source of danger.
Even pods of dolphins have been known to attack humans. And, if you’re in the water, there’s very little to protect you from dolphins or whales attacking you.
That’s opposed to the view that many people have of whales as extremely gentle mammals. However, while they are calm and mostly don’t care about human activity, they can be startled.
The sound of an engine, a loud noise, unexpected motion or touch, unfamiliar stimulation (e.g., someone throwing them a ball), or stress (from being in an unfamiliar situation) can all result in panic. When that happens, you don’t want to be around a whale.
What does that mean? Respect that a whale is a large and potentially dangerous animal and maintain some distance if you want to stay safe.
Are Whales Gentle?
Whales vary quite a bit in temperament, size, and eating habits. For example, baleen whales use large plates to strain large particles (like fish) out of their water so they can swallow plankton.
Orcas on the other hand attack and eat seals and other human-size wildlife. Dolphins regularly eat a wide variety of small marine life like octopuses, shrimp, squid, and fish.
However, most whales are calm in temperament.
This means they are relatively unlikely to startle, are not disturbed too much by humans swimming around them, and don’t attack people on sight. Often, they will display curiosity instead.
At the same time, whales of all types also engage in play, some of which can be quite vicious. Dolphins are known to kill porpoises by playing with them.
The same holds true for other fish, which whales will simply bat around with their noses – often until long after the animal has died.
So “gentle” is a broad term. Are whales gentle compared to sharks? Yes. Are they gentle in comparison to a domesticated dog raised in a good environment? Not at all.
Whales are wild animals, which means they will never be friendly like you’d expect a dog or a cat to be. However, whales are curious and often inquisitive about human activities.
Tourists and people on boats often get to delight in seeing these large marine animals swimming up and around boats. For the most part, that’s completely safe.
However, whales aren’t tame or domesticated, you shouldn’t try to pet them, and you should try not to startle them, especially if you’re in the water.