Whales are some of the worlds most loved marine life, they are clever, huge and beautiful. Sighting a Humpback whale in the wild is special, as these gentile giants are sought after in some areas of the world for their meat and fat as a delicacy.
Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world. Their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big wing of New England.” This refers to their giant pectoral fins, which can grow up to 16 feet long, and their appearance off the coast of New England, where European whalers first encountered them. They have dark backs, light bellies, pleats on their throats, and a small hump in front of their dorsal fin, leading to the common name of “humpback.”
This blog article will unpack some of their characteristics and behaviours of these gentle giants. To learn about specific things, use the headings below to guide you. Otherwise continue through this article and enjoy learning about these amazing animals.
This amazing clip, narrated by Sir David Attenborough, gives an overview and insight into the amazing lives of Humpback whales. This footage is unbelievable- certainly not to be missed.
10 Quick Facts
- Humpback whales sometimes blow bubbles to create “fishing nets” to trap their food.
- Humpback whales in the Arabian Sea are the only ones which don’t migrate to polar waters to eat
- Humpback whales are relatively slow swimmers
- Humpback whales spend roughly 90% of their time beneath the waters surface
- The Humpback whales baleen is made up of keratin, the same substance that makes up human hair and fingernails
- Only male Humpbacks “sing”, their song is the most complex in the animal kingdom
- Every humpback whale has a unique pattern of pigment and scars on its underside
- Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection.
- Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old.
- Humpbacks usually travel alone or in small groups called pods of two to three whales.
Humpback whales grow to be about 52 feet (16 m) long, weighing 30-50 tons (27-45 tonnes). 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.
Humpbacks come in 4 different colour schemes, ranging from white to gray to black to mottled. There are distinctive patches of white on underside of the flukes (tail). Humpbacks also have huge, mottled white flippers with rough edges that are up to one-third of its body length. These markings are unique to each individual whale, like a fingerprint. The humpback’s skin is frequently scarred and may have patches covered with barnacles.
Humpback whales 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. They have small, round bumps on the front of the head (called knobs or tubercles), edging the jaws.
The deeply-notched flukes (tail) are up to 12 feet (3.7 m) wide. Humpbacks have a small dorsal fin toward the flukes.
The physical features of these whales are what defines them and makes them recognisable. The size of these whales can be associated with roughly the same size of a school bus.
Humpback whales are known for their magical songs, which travel for great distances through the world’s oceans. These sequences of moans, howls, cries, and other noises are quite complex and often continue for hours on end. Scientists are studying these sounds to decipher their meaning on a continuous basis. It is most likely that humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates. Humpback calves are known to “whisper to their calves” as well.
This form of communication shows their remarkable intelligence, Dolphins and other members of the whale family are also known for the sounds they use to communicate.
Humpback songs appear to be shared by all singing members in the same area of the ocean: as the song changes, all members sing the new song. The same song is sung in spite of the great distance between groups in the population (up to 5000km). This sharing of songs may occur when groups intermingle during migration or in shared summer feeding grounds.
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, perhaps used for locating large masses of krill (the tiny crustaceans that they eat).
Behaviour and Parenting
These baleen whales (baleen referring to the filter system in their mouths) are found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish. Humpbacks migrate annually from summer feeding grounds near the poles to warmer winter breeding waters closer to the Equator.
Mothers and their young swim close together, often touching one another with their flippers with what appear to be gestures of affection. Females nurse their calves for almost a year, though it takes far longer than that for a humpback whale to reach full adulthood. Calves do not stop growing until they are ten years old. It is believed that these animals share a close bond with their offspring and are very protective. If ever sighting a whale, it is important to ensure one never goes between the mother and calf. The chances are, the humpback whale will respond in a protective and aggressive manner.
Swimming, Breaching, and Displays
Humpbacks are powerful swimmers, and they use their massive tail fin, called a fluke, to propel themselves through the water and sometimes completely out of it. These whales, like others, regularly leap from the water, landing with a tremendous splash. Scientists studying their behaviour aren’t sure if this breaching serves some purpose, such as cleaning pests from the whale’s skin, or whether whales simply do it for fun.
A favorite of whale watchers, they also slap the water with their flukes and pectoral fins, rise nose-first out of the water (called “spyhopping”), and do penducle throws, a behavior unique to this species in which they raise their entire rear torso and tail out of the water, twist, and slam their lower half down onto the ocean surface. Rarer displays include flaping their fins like wings and occasionally gathering in “super groups” of as many as 200, though scientists don’t know why.
Scientists studying their behaviour have many myths to bust and understanding to gain on humpback whales behaviour. But, perhaps this is what makes them quite special. They are mysterious and fascinating, wether we understand what they do or not.
Habitat & Ecology
Humpback whales make extensive seasonal migrations between high latitude summer feeding grounds and low latitude wintering grounds. Winters are spent mating and calving in warm sub-tropical waters, with an annual migration back to colder waters to feed.
In the northern hemisphere, humpback whales are found in the north Pacific, from South-East Alaska, Prince William Sound, and British Columbia and migrate seasonally to Hawaii, the Gulf of California, Mexico and Costa Rica. Humpbacks from the Western Aleutians and Bering Sea migrate to the Northern Marianas, Taiwan (China), Japan, the Philippines and Korea.
In the North-West Atlantic, humpbacks are found in summer feeding areas off Iceland, southern Greenland, Norway, Svalbard and the eastern seaboard of Canada and the United States. This population migrates south to the Caribbean and south from the southern Bahamas to Grenada, the Grenadines and Venezuela.
Whales of most species also prefer to swim in deep waters, shallow waters can become very stressful for humpback whales in particular whom are very big. They do, however, tend to hug the coastline of where they reside- this is believed partly to be due to the food available nearer the shore as apposed to in the deep.
Humpbacks are baleen whales, which means they filter their food through baleen plates. They strain krill, anchovies, cod, sardines, mackerel, capelin, and other schooling fish from the waters. Some humpbacks have been observed creating “bubble nets” to catch their prey.
The whales dive deep then swim up in a spiral pattern, while releasing a steady stream of bubbles from their blow holes. As the bubbles rise they form a “net” that surrounds the whales’ prey. The whales swim up through the centre of the bubble net and feed on the prey trapped inside.
The diet of these gentle giants also substantiate reasons why they are found in every single ocean around he world. Their food is in abundance. The seasons do drive where they migrate to, as their tiny feed thrives under specific and seasonal conditions.
Humpback whales have complicated and misunderstod courtship behaviours. Often, many males will surround a single female hitting each other in a competition to get close to her. Females become pregnant about every two to four years, and are pregnant with each calf for about 11 to 12 months.
The calves can grow 0.5 metres per month while nursing on their mother’s rich milk (and up to an estimate of 50 kilograms daily in their first year of life). So naturally the calves often also double in size in their first year of life. Females nurse their new born calves in warm, shallow water. Because of an absence of teeth (which can be used to estimate age in other mammals), it is difficult to tell the age of a humpback whale but they are believed to live to eighty years old.
At one time, the humpback whale was brought to the brink of extinction by the whaling industry. By the time the 1966 moratorium went into place, it’s estimated the whale population had fallen by 90 percent. Today, the species has partially recovered and has a conservation status of “least concern” on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species.
While the current humpback population numbers of around 80,000 put it at minimal risk for extinction, the animals remain at risk from illegal whaling, noise pollution, collisions with ships, and death from entanglement with fishing gear. From time to time, certain native populations also receive permission to hunt these innocent whales.
The threat to ocean marine life must always remain a priority. The mass commercial fishing as well as increased transport on the seas is a major concern. And with the Coronavirus (Covid 19) effects on the world, one positive can be drawn in its decrease in artificial traffic in the ocean, skies and on land. Allowing nature to ‘make a come back’ in some areas on the globe.
What is undeniable is that Humpback whales are energetic and fascinating whales. Their behaviours that remain unknown to scientists are just some of the things, that make people drawn to their playful nature. Humpback whales, as long as much of marine life should be protected at all costs.
Are you interested in seeing these amazing whales for yourself? We have compiled a list of a few organisations we believe will help you on your mission to see them in the Wild:
Liquid Dive Adventures is based in the region of Tofo, their expertise and respect for this whale species is admirable!
Ocean Odyssey is a tour operator based in South Africa- a major hub of whale populations. Their dedication to whale conservation is awesome!
If you found this blog post interesting, please leave a comment below and perhaps have a look at these other interesting blogs which may tickle your fancy; Best Places to Swim or Dive with Orcas ; Spectacular Diving Experiences: The Sardine Run and When and Where to dive with Tiger Sharks .
Lastly, this is a video worth watching. It shares the story of a humpback whale trying to protect a diver from a tiger shark circling which she didn’t realise was there.