This baby humpback whale could be in a playful mood, but, unfortunately, there aren’t many toys in ocean waters.

If you’re a whale in a playful mood, things might be a little difficult for you. It’s hard to locate handy toys when you’re in deep ocean waters. Perhaps that’s why so many whales have recently been observed—with the help of drone footage—rolling around and “playing” with clumps of kelp and other seaweeds at the water’s surface.

If you see a playful cetacean once, it would be easy to write it off as chance. But if you collect more than 100 examples (as scientists have done) of whales—gray whales, humpbacks, and northern and southern right whales—actively seeking out and playing with seaweed, it’s more likely a universal behavior that’s been going on for a long time.

And, such witnessed interactions between kelp and whales haven’t been fleeting; whales have been seen playing with kelp for up to an hour.


Off Australia’s Gold Coast, whales have been caught on camera enjoying a marine version of a day spa, scratching off itchy skin and parasites and catching up with their cetacean buddies.

In addition to drones, another type of robot is now giving us a unique window into the world of nature. This one takes us into a grove where half a billion monarch butterflies lie sleeping—and it’s disguised as a hummingbird.

Kelp play

Previously, researchers had documented whales rolling in sandy substrates off the Gold Coast, a region south of Brisbane on Australia’s east coast. They postulated that it was a way of removing dead skin cells and parasites—a sort of sandy skin scrub—during the whales’ migrations. But in a new paper, published in the Journal of Marine Science and Engineering in September 2023, scientists analyzed another understudied behavior in baleen (filter-feeding) whales—such as humpback whales—that they had seen in different populations across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres: the whales appeared to be playing with clumps of kelp.

On top of that, this whale behavior with kelp was being seen around the world. And because it’s happening across different populations, state the scientists, it must be important for better understanding the species’ habitat preferences.

Around the world, whales have been seen “kelping” (playing with kelp or seaweed). (a) A humpback whale rostrum (large, flat upper jaw) with brown algae near Perth in western Australia (©Whale Watch Western Australia). (b) Fluke with bull kelp near Newport, California (©Kristin Campbell). (c) Dorsal and back with bull kelp near Ventura, California (©Loriannah Hesper). (d) Pectoral fin with giant kelp near Monterey Bay, California (©Randy Straka Photography).

Using aerial observations, the researchers analyzed three instances of “kelping” on the east coast of Australia along with 100 documented interactions with seaweed from around the world. These interactions included 163 baleen whales, with humpback whales the most prevalent (95 separate events), gray whales (two events), southern right whales (two events) and northern right whales (one event).

Adults formed the largest group of documented interactions (53%), then calves (14%), followed by subadults (1%) and unidentified sizes (32%).

The researchers conclude that the whale-kelp behavior is more common than formerly thought. And while the theory of ectoparasite removal and skin treatment by using brown algae’s antibacterial properties is certainly plausible, it’s now just as credible to believe that the whales are just having fun.

There are two plausible theories for kelping: play and/or self-medication. ©Image adopted from NOAA, 2022.

Hummingbird spy

The annual migration of North America’s monarch butterflies is an amazing and unique phenomenon. The monarch is the only butterfly known to make a two-way migration, such as those made by birds. Unlike other butterflies that can overwinter as larvae, pupae or even as adults in some species, monarchs cannot survive the cold winters of northern climates. Using environmental cues, the monarchs know when it is time to travel south for the winter, employing a combination of air currents and thermals to travel the long distances. Some fly as far as 3,000 miles to reach their winter home.

While monarchs in western North America overwinter in California, monarchs in eastern North America have a second home in the Sierra Madre Mountains of Mexico.

They overwinter in oyamel fir forests at an elevation of nearly two miles above sea level in the same 11 to 12 mountain areas from October to late March.

The mountain hillsides covered with oyamel forests provide an ideal microclimate for the butterflies. Here, temperatures range from 32 to 59 degrees Fahrenheit. If the temperature is lower, the monarchs will be forced to use their fat reserves. The humidity in the oyamel forest assures the monarchs won’t dry out, allowing them to conserve their energy.


One of the most impressive migrations is that of monarch butterflies. According to World Wildlife fund, the monarchs’ 3,000-mile journey from Canada and the U.S. (where they breed) down to the forests in central Mexico (where they hibernate) is the most highly evolved of any known species of their kind. Unfortunately, climate change and other threats are having a considerable, negative impact on this migration.

Scientists categorize monarch butterflies as Danaus plexippus, which in Greek means “sleepy transformation.” And when these butterflies wake up from their winter nap, it is truly transformative—for us as observers.

Watch the video below, from the PBS TV series Nature. In it, a mechanical hummingbird ventures into the heart of a breathtaking monarch butterfly swarm in Mexico and spies on the insects just before they wake up. Like the butterflies, hummingbirds feed on nectar, so the spy hummingbird isn’t seen as a theat. Few filmmakers have been able to capture this spectacle so closely.

Tomorrow’s tools

Knowing what wildlife does when we’re not around is important. The more we can learn about animals’ seasonal use of habitats and how climate change and other human-driven environmental impacts are affecting their behavior, the more we can protect and/or restore the areas they need to survive. But, unfortunately, our very presence can alter what animals do.


In Mexico’s mountain hillsides of oyamel forests, monarchs cluster together to stay warm. Tens of thousands of monarchs can congregate on a single tree. Although a single monarch weighs less than a gram, such large numbers of them sometimes cause branches to break.

New tools, however, are helping to solve that problem. Animatronic “spy cams” disguised as animals to secretly record behavior in the wild emerged in about 2001, and the idea of conservation drones first became prevalent in 2011. I think another groundbreaking conservation tool is probably just around the corner.

And, if it helps to lead us to peacefully coexist with the other beings who share our planet in this time, I’m ready for it.

Here’s to finding your true places and natural habitats,