Seal-ed With a Kiss

Animal Courtship & Couples in National Marine Sanctuaries

By Haley Randall

February 2021

Just in time for Valentine’s Day, we’re highlighting some of our favorite examples of courtship, reproduction, and other fascinating animal interactions in your national marine sanctuaries!

All across the National Marine Sanctuary System, wildlife devote different amounts of time and energy to finding and selecting a mate, forming relationships, and raising offspring (or not). From humpback whales that “serenade” their potential mates to corals that “let it all out,” read on to learn more about the birds and the bees under the sea!

All’s Fair in Love and War

Two male Northern elephant seals duke it out during breeding season in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary as females look on. Photo: Robert Schwemmer/NOAA

Love is a battlefield for northern elephant seals (Mirounga angustirostris) – literally! Northern elephant seals can be found all along the West Coast of the United States, including places like Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary and Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Male elephant seals are known for their large, unmistakable nose, called a proboscis.

Though northern elephant seals spend the majority of the year at sea, they come ashore during breeding season in December. These animals are polygamous, and males will challenge competitors for dominance over a group of females. Male elephant seals make for a formidable foe, weighing in at up to 4,400 pounds! Males will also use their inflatable proboscises to amplify guttural vocalizations meant to fend off challengers. If their sheer size and menacing calls don’t scare other males off, northern elephant seals aren’t afraid to resort to violence. Competing males will sometimes engage in combat to establish breeding rights, which can turn bloody.

three humpback whales
Humpback whales begin to arrive in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary in November for the breeding season and will typically remain there until April. Ed Lyman/NOAA, under NOAA Fisheries Permit #14682-38079

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) take a less ferocious approach to outperforming their competitors and attracting a mate – they sing! Researchers believe that humpback whale song plays a critical role in courtship and mating.

Each winter, humpback whales leave their feeding grounds in colder waters and migrate to the warm, shallow seas off the coast of Hawai’i to breed and raise their young. In fact, Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary is the only place in the United States where humpback whales reproduce, which is one of many reasons why this region’s designation as a national marine sanctuary is so important.

Did you know that only male humpback whales sing? As whales begin to arrive in sanctuary waters in November and the breeding season kicks off, the males really crank up the volume. They sing to locate other whales nearby, compete with other males for females and space, and, most importantly, to attract a mate.

Listen to humpback whale song in Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary.

Birds of a Feather

A pair of Laysan albatross gaze out over Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. Photo: NOAA

Albatross are some of the most magnificent birds found in national marine sanctuaries. They are some of the largest flying birds on Earth and have enormous wingspans. The Laysan albatross (Phoebastria immutabilis), which can be found in Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument and are also known by their Hawaiian name mōlī, can have a wingspan of up to seven feet!

Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument encompasses Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge, which is home to almost 75% of the world’s Laysans. This species exhibits a behavior called “nest site fidelity,” which means that a mating pair will return to the same nesting site year after year. Laysans are monogamous, often mating for life, and will engage in elaborate dances to attract partners.

Adult laysan feeding chick
Female Laysan albatross, Wisdom, with a chick at Midway Atoll National Wildlife Refuge. Photo: U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

One Laysan albatross in particular, affectionately known as “Wisdom,” has attracted international attention. Her claim to fame is that she is the world’s oldest known wild bird. Scientists estimate that she is at least 70 years old and has hatched about 35 chicks throughout her life! Despite her age, Wisdom is still laying eggs with her long-term mate, Akeakamai. In Hawaiian, “Akeakamai” means “seeker or lover of wisdom.” How fitting! The pair returned to Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument this past winter and produced an egg which hatched on February 1, 2021, much to the excitement of their fans.

Interestingly, scientists have also documented a number of female-female pairs of Laysans in Hawai’i in recent years. Many of these pairs have been successful in hatching and rearing chicks, which researchers discovered were typically genetically related to at least one of the female caretakers.

Multiple species of puffins can be found throughout the National Marine Sanctuary System - from tufted puffins (Fratercula cirrhata) in Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary to Atlantic puffins (Fratercula arctica) in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary.

Atlantic Puffin on the water
An Atlantic puffin in muted winter colors at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Peter Flood

Similar to the Laysan albatross, puffins often choose long-term mates and participate in a sort of courtship display called “billing,” where the pair will continuously ram or rub their bills together. A mated pair will construct a burrow for their egg together, and will line it with materials such as seaweed, grass, and feathers.

The Feeling is Mutual

Two remoras hitch a ride on a manta ray in Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Beata Lerman

Not all animals pair up solely for reproductive purposes. Many marine species participate in mutualistic relationships, which occur when two different animals form a partnership that benefits them both. You can find lots of examples of mutualism beneath the waves of your own national marine sanctuaries!

Giant manta rays (Mobula birostris), some of Flower Garden Banks National Marine Sanctuary’s most famous residents, are frequently spotted with fish attached to their head or undersides. These fish are known as remoras, suckerfish, or sharksuckers.

While it may appear that the remoras are harming the ray, the two partake in a mutually beneficial relationship. Some of the perks of latching onto a manta ray for a remora include protection from predators, easy transportation, and feeding on the scraps of the manta’s meal. In return, the remora keeps the manta healthy by feeding on any bacteria or parasites attached to the ray’s skin.

Moray eel next to a peppermint shrimp
A spotted moray eel shares its den with a peppermint shrimp. Photo: Rachel Plunkett

Head over heels? More like head over eels! Moray eels like the ones found in Gray’s Reef, Monitor, Florida Keys, and Flower Garden Banks national marine sanctuaries often form a mutually beneficial relationship with cleaner fish and shrimp.

While an open-mouthed moray eel may look fearsome, it may just be assuming a position to invite small fish into its mouth – but not for dinner! Moray eels often host “cleaning stations,” inviting small fish, like gobies and wrasses, and various cleaner shrimp to come eat tiny food scraps, dead skin, or parasites in the eel’s teeth and gills. The eel gets a free “bath” and the fish get a snack – it’s a win-win!

Timing is Everything

Mass spawning events typically occur only once per year, usually in August or September, over a period of three to five nights. Photo: Jonathan Onufryk/Mote Marine Laboratory

Some of the most fascinating examples of reproduction in the National Marine Sanctuary System come from corals and sponges. Corals can reproduce both sexually – which requires both male and female gametes – and asexually, which requires only one parent coral. Stony corals like staghorn and elkhorn corals, which can be found in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary, can actually create new corals when small fragments are broken off during periods of intense wave action or extreme weather events. The broken fragments reattach to a hard surface on the seafloor, and begin to form a new colony. This process is called fragmentation.

However, most corals and marine sponges produce male and female gametes (eggs and sperm) for reproduction. Because these animals can’t move freely like other animals to find a mate, they need to get creative to ensure the future of their progeny. To accomplish this, many corals and sponges will release all of their gametes into the water column at the same time in an event called broadcast spawning. Coordinating the timing of the release to a small window of time increases the likelihood that the eggs and sperm will find each other in the water column for fertilization to take about a long distance relationship!

Scientists don’t yet fully understand what triggers corals and sponges to all release their gametes at the same time, but they believe that a variety of factors play a role in this important process. Lunar cycles and water temperature both may impact these events, and broadcast spawning typically takes place after sunset.

There are so many incredible animal relationships throughout your national marine sanctuaries, from the lifetime partnerships of some avian species, to the amazingly precise timing of coral and sponge spawning events. This Valentine’s Day, show your sanctuaries some love by checking out the videos below about some of the interesting animal relationships mentioned in this story, as well as some others we thought you might like!

Haley Randall is a recreation & tourism intern with NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries.