Gay, lesbian and intersex whales: our queer sea has much to teach us

<span>The sighting near Hawaii in 2022 of a male humpback whale penetrating another male has been confirmed in a new study. </span><span>Photograph: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano/SWNS</span>
The sighting near Hawaii in 2022 of a male humpback whale penetrating another male has been confirmed in a new study. Photograph: Lyle Krannichfeld and Brandi Romano/SWNS

Whales are extraordinarily sensuous creatures. Those blubbery bodies are highly sensitive, and sensitised. At social meetings, pods of sperm, humpback and right whales will roll around one another’s bodies for hours at a time. I’ve seen a group of right whales engaged in foreplay and penetration lasting an entire morning.

I have also watched a male-female couple so blissfully conjoined that they appeared unbothered by our little fishing boat as they passed underneath it. And in what may sound like a career of cetacean voyeurism, I have also been caught up in a fast-moving superpod of dusky dolphins continually penetrating each other at speed, regardless of the gender of their partner.

That’s why this week’s report of the first scientifically documented male-to-male sexual interactions between two humpback whales off the coast of Hawaii is not surprising.

It’s easy to visibly identify male ‘homosexual’ sex when an extruded penis can be two metres long

Dr Conor Ryan, hon research fellow at the Scottish Association for Marine Science

The remarkable image of a two-metre whale penis entering another male “leaves little room for discussion that there is a sexual component to such behaviour”, as one whale scientist, Jeroen Hoekendijk at the Wageningen Marine Research institute in the Netherlands, notes drily.

In fact, one of the whales was ailing and there has been speculation that the encounter may not have been consensual or that the healthy whale was actually giving comfort to the other. Whatever the truth, such “flagrant” acts also expose many of our human presumptions about sexuality, gender and identity.

Off the north-west Pacific coast of the US, male orcas often leave family pods to rub their erections against each other’s bellies. But females have also reportedly been seen engaging in sexual contact with one another, too.

Indeed, the graphic accounts of male-to-male behaviour may mask many “unseen” female-to-female sexual interactions.

Dr Conor Ryan, an honorary research fellow at the Scottish Association for Marine Science, notes: “It’s easy to visibly identify male ‘homosexual’ sex when an extruded penis can be two metres long.” It is less easy to diagnose when female sperm whales are seen “cuddling”, as Hoekendijk observes.

Ryan has often witnessed same-sex behaviour between whales and dolphins. “I am interested in the things that we miss,” he says. He has recorded competitive behaviour by humpback whales in groups that seemed to be typically male, such as pursuing other whales.

But they proved, from DNA samples, to be genetically female. He speculates that humpback females may even use whale song – hitherto thought to be the province of mating males.

“If I were a female being harassed by horny males, maybe I would sing too,” says Ryan. “To attract more females, to take attention off me, while masquerading as a male.”


These observations throw up new ideas about the way these animals behave. Whale society is almost overwhelmingly matriarchal. Female sperm whales, for example, travel in large groups – sometimes thousands strong – in which males are only “useful” for their sperm, visiting the groups briefly, then leaving the females to their own society.

Male-oriented science has in the past made various judgments regarding sexual behaviour. But the idea of lesbian whales should not be surprising. Ryan even cites the case of a “non-binary” beaked whale, which was discovered to have both male and female genitalia.

Even identifying as a species can be fluid for cetaceans. In 2022, near Caithness in Scotland, a bottlenose dolphin was found to be identifying as a porpoise, swimming with a pod of porpoises and using their vocalisations. In one of the great queer pairings of the 20th century, Virginia Woolf referred to her lover, Vita Sackville-West, as “my porpoise”.


We cannot know how whales and dolphins themselves regard genital interactions. But in most cases they appear to enjoy them – without, perhaps, the preconceptions we humans as a species have historically projected upon such behaviour. They may make great clickbait on social media, but they have an important relevance for us, too.

The sea itself seems to be a queer place, where gender is at best a slippery notion at times

When the Canadian biologist Bruce Bagemihl published his book Biological Exuberance: Animal Homosexuality and Natural Diversity – listing 450 species exhibiting such behaviour, including whales and dolphins – it was used in evidence in a US supreme court case in 2003 that struck down, as unconstitutional, homophobic “sodomy” laws being used in Texas.

It is telling, too, that the best-known work of literary fiction written about whales, Herman Melville’s 1851 novel Moby-Dick, is a decidedly queer book. Melville conflates the queerness and diversity of his characters – his narrator, Ishmael, is declared married to his shipmate, the multi-tattooed Queequeg, based on a Māori warrior – with the mysterious sensuality of the whales he is describing. He even spends an entire chapter describing a whale’s foreskin, with joyful innuendo.

The sea itself seems to be a queer place, where gender is at best a slippery notion at times. Slipper shells stuck together on the beach, which you might find when beachcombing, are in fact changing sex, from female at the bottom to male at the top. Cetaceans’ genitals are concealed, in any case, in genital slits. Sleek and streamlined, it is as if bothersome sexual definitions were overtaken by the sheer beauty of wondrous hydrodynamics.

So much of what we project on to whales and dolphins is about our own complexes. They seem to lead a free and easy life. They may not possess hands to manipulate, but they have the biggest brains on the planet, and highly sensual bodies to match. Having been around for millions of years, it is tempting to imagine their long-evolved existence as one that is beyond all the things that seem to hold us humans back.

Philip Hoare is the author of several books, including Leviathan, The Sea Inside, and Albert and the Whale