Over the years, various videos (such as the one below) have recorded portions of the mating process. The newly released photo, however, is the first to show the actual act of humpback whale copulation, according to Australian photographer Jason Edwards. He took the image.
Edwards, who works for National Geographic, told reporters that he was stunned by the "brief but tender" whale moment, which occurred in waters off Tonga.
"It was amazing," he said. "There were four or five males vying for her attention and while the larger ones were busy jostling each other, the smallest one swam away with the female. Their coupling lasted less than 30 seconds, which might explain why it's never been captured on film before."
The male wooing occurs during what are known as "heat runs." That's what has been videotaped before. Even this activity is quite dramatic, with the nearly 50-foot-long and over 88,000-pound mammals jostling to get their desired mate.
In terms of this particular humpback whale couple, The London Telegraph reported that "the female allowed the male to grapple her on a slight angle, sliding in from behind until his belly touched. Placing a pectoral fin over her flank, he stroked her gently during the act. After the pair broke apart, the female released a burst of bubbles from her mouth, rather than through the spout."
Edwards explained that "the purpose of this bubble release is still unclear, however it may have signalled to the male that the reproductive act was over."
The image was actually taken in the spring of 2010 and was just released. It had been set aside as Edwards and researchers developed a thesis on humpback whale mating and other behaviors.
These whales might be the most romantic marine mammals. Consider, for example, that bottlenose dolphin males have been known to rape females. Humpback whale sex might be short in duration, but it looks pretty sweet.