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Story highlights

Researchers and members of the public spot massive groups of humpback whales

Whale experts say this is a new behavior pattern

(CNN) —  

Humpback whales are suddenly hanging out in massive, densely packed “super groups” and scientists are trying to figure out why.

It’s a curious phenomenon that’s been spotted off the coast of South Africa by researchers and the general public.

Their meet-up spot is far away from where humpback whales usually summer in the Antarctic. The groups swell from 20 to 200 and they are focused on one thing – feeding.

A "super group" of humpback whales are spotted west of Crayfish Factory on the west coast of the Cape Peninsula, South Africa.
PHOTO: Courtesy of Jean Tresfon
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“When you’re in a small boat with 200 humpback whales around you – they’re 14-meter animals – and you’ve got whales popping up all around you, it’s a really incredible experience,” lead researcher Ken Findlay told CNN.

He and his colleagues from South Africa’s Department of Environmental Affairs believe that these “super groups” feeding together is a relatively recent behavior, they wrote in PLOS One.

They observed the whales lunging, repeatedly diving and letting out the “pungent ‘fishy’ smell of whale blows.” Research cruises observed this behavior in 2011, 2014 and 2015 during the months of October and November, which are spring-summer months in South Africa.

The “super groups” seemed fluid, as some whales joined them but then left. Researchers observed that some whales traveled from afar to join the massive groups.

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As the New Scientist pointed out, humpback whales aren’t known for being social. They’re usually spotted alone, in pairs or in small groups that don’t stay together long.