Just when you think you’ve seen it all, a clip of a whale spewing out rainbows off the coast of Newport Beach, California, appears online and shakes things up. Mark Girardeau and Jason Anderson caught the rare shot while gathering drone footage on a random afternoon.
Whales probably aren’t aware of what’s going on above their heads. When extremely large marine animals come up for air, they expel what they have in their lungs through a blowhole, which causes vapors to appear. As you’re about to find out, this facilitates the actual rainbow.
What’s Going on Here?
It’s important to point out that the mist does not come from inside the whale. During exhalation, densely humid air from the mammal’s lungs is pushed out quickly. As the thick air meets cooler temperatures, it condenses and creates a mass of vapor (along with the condensed air is a bit of mucus).
A whale’s lung capacity also plays a significant role in the rainbow sightings. With the ability to hold 5000 liters or 1320 gallons of air, the amount of vapor created during the process is the size of a massive cloud, allowing the colorful trail to appear clearly.
The uncommon occurrence has to do with how the whale’s body utilizes each breath. It uses roughly 90 percent of the oxygen in its lungs (compared to 15 percent for humans). As a result, the free-diving mammals stay underwater for hours at a time and rarely come up for air, making the event even more special.
After a bit of digging, it turns out whales aren’t the only ones capable of displaying rainbows from their backs. Orcas and other sea animals with large lung capacities and blowholes are fully capable of painting a colorful aerial stream.
How Are Rainbows Formed?
Creating a cloud of mist is only part of the equation needed to create a glorifying rainbow. The other elements have a lot to do with the dispersion of light. Like a prism, when white light enters a tiny droplet, a different color comes out the other side. For a complete display of colors, millions of droplets must be present. Otherwise, you would only see a few colors.
According to the Physicsclassroom.com, the camera shooting the surreal event also needs to be at an optimal position or angle:
“To view a rainbow, your back must be to the sun as you look at an approximately 40 degree angle above the ground into a region of the atmosphere with suspended droplets of water or even a light mist. Each individual droplet of water acts as a tiny prism that both disperses the light and reflects it back to your eye.”
Rainbows can form on any type of droplet, such as mist from backyard sprinklers, waterfalls and in this case, marine animals. However, strong sunlight is also needed for the display to occur. This is why rainbows are often seen after extensive periods of rainfall, when water vapor is abundantly floating in the air and natural light shines brightly from the sky.