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Humpback Whale

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Short Description

The Humpback Whale is a baleen whale (filter feeder) and a rorqual whale that sings amazing songs. The name humpback describes the motion it makes as it arches its back out of the water in preparation for a dive. It performs complex and cooperative feeding techniques. Humpbacks live in pods and have 2 blowholes. They have huge, mottled white flippers with rough edges that are up to one-third of its body length; these are the largest flippers of any whale. The deeply-notched flukes (tail) are up to 12 feet (3.7 m) wide. Humpbacks have a small dorsal fin toward the flukes.

Long Description

Humpback whales grow to be about 52 feet (16 m) long, weighing 30-50 tons. The females are slightly larger than males, as with all baleen whales. The four-chambered heart of the average humpback whale weighs about 430 pounds (195 kg) - about as much as three average adult human beings!

There are distinctive patches of white on underside of the flukes (tail) that are unique to each individual whale, like a fingerprint.
They have 14-35 throat grooves that run from the chin to the navel. These grooves allow their throat to expand during the huge intake of water during filter feeding.

Humpback whales (like all baleen whales) are seasonal feeders and carnivores that filter feed tiny crustaceans (krill, copepods, etc.), plankton, and small fish (including herring, mackerel, capelin, and sandeel) from the water.
They are gulpers (not skimmers), filter feeders that alternatively swim then gulp a mouthful of plankton or fish.
An average-sized humpback whale will feed twice a day, and eat 4,400-5,500 pounds (2000-2500 kg) of plankton, krill and small, schooling fish each day during the feeding season in cold waters. They hunt in groups and have developed a method of rounding up highly concentrated masses of prey that is called bubble-net feeding.

Social Groups and Activity
Humpbacks travel in large, loose groups. They develop a strong and lasting bond between mother and calves.
Humpback whales can dive for up to 30 minutes and to a depth of 500-700 feet (150-210 m). They are very acrobatic, often breaching high out of the water and then slapping the water as they come back down. They are commonly seen to do the following:
Spyhopping in which the whale pokes its head out of the water for up to 30 seconds to take a look around.
Often they stick their tail out of the water into the air, swing it around, and then slap it on the water's surface; this is called lobtailing.

Humpback whales normally swim 3-9 mph (4.8-14 kph), but can go up to 15-16.5 mph (24-26.5 kph) in bursts when in danger. 

Humpback whales are the noisiest and most imaginative whales when it comes to songs. They have long, varied, complex, eerie, and beautiful songs that include recognizable sequences of squeaks, grunts, and other sounds. The songs have the largest range of frequencies used by whales, ranging from 20-9,000 Hertz. Only males have been recorded singing. They sing the complex songs only in warm waters, perhaps used for mating purposes. In cold waters, they make rougher sounds, scrapes and groans.

The gestation period is about 11-12 months and the calf is born tail first (this is normal for cetaceans) and near the surface in warm, shallow waters. The newborn instinctively swims to the surface within 10 seconds for its first breath. Within 30 minutes of its birth the baby whale can swim. The baby is nurtured with its mother's milk and is weaned in about 11 months. The mother and calf may stay together for a year or longer. Calves drink 100 pounds of milk each day. Humpback whales reach puberty at 4-7 years old, and maturity at 15 years. A calf is born to a female every 1-3 years.

Humpback whales have a life expectancy of 45-50 years.
It is estimated that there are over 10,000-15,000 humpback whales world-wide. Humpback whales are an endangered species.


Humpback whales live at the surface of the ocean, both in the open ocean and shallow coastline waters. When not migrating, they prefer shallow waters. They migrate from warm tropical waters where they breed and calve (and don’t feed) to arctic waters where they eat. They travel over 3000 miles (5000 km) during migration times. 

There are 3 separate populations of humpbacks:- 

  • Those living in the North Pacific Ocean
  • Those in the North Atlantic Ocean and
  • Those roving the oceans of the Southern Hemisphere.

Most people consider the North Pacific and North Atlantic part of the same population

Distribution Map

Humpback Whale  Distribution Map


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