Stomach-Churning Photos Show Huge Lice Feasting on Humpback Whale

by Craig Garrett
Breaching Behavior Humpback Whale - stock photo

Giant lice have been pictured living on humpback whales in the waters of Australia and the shocking images are going viral. Annika Dahlberg, a photographer who works at Blue Dolphin Marine Tours in Hervey Bay, Queensland, snapped some pictures of the parasitic passengers riding on a mother and calf whale. Also visible in the photos are barnacles, Newsweek reports. They migrated southward towards Antarctica during the Southern Hemisphere’s summer months.

“It’s difficult to say how many whales we see with the lice as you need a very close look, but we have seen them on multiple occasions over the season. We usually see the lice right at the front of the whale’s face where they congregate,” Dahlberg explained.

“A behavior common in Hervey Bay is known as ‘mugging’ and this is when the whales approach the boat and stay within close vicinity and often doing ‘spyhops,’ rising their heads out of the water to get a closer look at its surroundings,” she told Newsweek. “This is the perfect opportunity for a close look of the whale’s face!”

More on the parasites that prey on humpback whales

Many parasitic species are drawn to whales. Barnacles often grow across their skin and sea lampreys feed on their blood. Lice infest the skin folds of humpback whales, such as nostrils, genitals, and eyes. Up to 7,500 individual lice may be found on a single whale. The lice seen above are known as Cyamus boopis and only attack humpback whales.

“We see the lice on both adults and its young. Most whales only have a small population living on them that are visible to us. The lice look extremely small when you see them but when you think about the whales being up to 15 meters [50 feet] in length, you realize that the lice are quite big. Many of the lice we see would be around 10 millimeters [0.4 inches],” Dahlberg explained.

These lice spend their lifetimes on whales and never drift or swim in the water column. They can go from one whale to another via touch, during activities such as sex or fighting. Also, when humans come into contact with whales, these lice will try to attach themselves to people too.

Australian tour boat operator Peter Lynch weighed in on the lice. “When you do get a very sick or injured humpback whale and its swimming slows down, that whale lice population explodes,” Lynch told ABC News Australia. “We have seen unfortunately in the past, a very sick humpback come into the bay and it had a pink coloration appearance. Its entire body was covered in whale lice.”

Lice infesting whales do eat algae from the whale’s skin. However, their primary diet consists of flaking skin and wound sites. This can cause some damage to the whale’s skin. Some whale behaviors are considered to be attempts to rid themselves of their unwanted houseguests.