Humpback whale facts – a complete guide to one of the world’s most distinctive marine mammals.
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a species of baleen whale known for its distinctive body shape, acrobatic behavior, and complex vocalizations. Named for the arched, or “humped” shape of its back when diving, this marine mammal can grow up to 52 feet (16 meters) in length and can weigh as much as 30 tons, making it one of the largest whale species.
Humpback Whale Facts at a Glance
- Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae
- Type of Animal: Mammal
- Animal Family: Balaenopteridae
- Where Found: Worldwide distribution
- Length: 13–16 m (43–52 ft.); some individuals can reach 19m (62 ft.)
- Weight: 25 to 30 metric tons (27.5 to 33 short tons); larger individuals weigh 40+ metric tons (44+ short tons)
- Conservation Status: Least Concern
- Other interesting Humpback Whale facts: humpback whales undergo one of the longest migrations of all mammals.
Humpback Whale Video
Watch the amazing video below to see Humpback Whales in the wild:
Meet the Humpback Whale: Introduction
With its long pectoral (side) fins, bumpy head, and “humpbacked” body shape made prior to diving, the humpback whale is one of the most distinctive whale species.
The humpback whale is a favorite among whale-watchers due to its spectacular ‘breaching’ behavior, in which the whale launches itself from the water.
The humpback whale’s scientific name, Megaptera novaeanglia, means ‘big-winged New Englander’. This refers to the whale’s long pectoral fins (its ‘wings’) and to the fact that the whale was at the time associated with the New England coastline.
The humpback whale is known for its songs. These long, complex sounds are produced by male whales, and can be heard from many miles away.
The humpback whale was hunted almost to extinction. Conservation measures have seen an increase in the humpback whale population. Today the humpback whale’s conservation status is ‘Least Concern’.
Humpback Whale Family & Relations
The humpback whale is a baleen whale. Baleen whales make up the parvorder Mysticeti, which is one of two main whale groups. (The other group are the toothed whales of parvorder Odontoceti).
The mouths of baleen whales contain baleen plates. These comb-like structures are used to filter small animals from the water.
The humpback whale is a member of the Balaenopteridae family. Members of this family are also called ‘rorquals’.
Rorquals can be recognized by the folds of skin under their mouths. The grooves allow the mouth to expand greatly in order to take huge gulps of food-filled water when the whale is feeding.
How to Recognize a Humpback Whale
The humpback whale is dark gray / black on its back, and mainly white on its front.
The humpback whale’s most distinctive feature is its long pectoral fins. (Pectoral fins are the fins found on either side of a whale or fish’s body.)
The humpback’s pectoral fins can be a third of the length of the whale’s body (up to 4.6 m / 15 ft.) – the longest limbs of any mammal! The front of each pectoral fin is heavily ridged.
Humpback Whale Tubercles
Rounded bumps called tubercles cover the humpback whale’s head and lower jaw. Each of these is a hair follicle containing a stiff hair. It is thought that these may provide the whale with sensory information such as movement in the water.
How to Tell Humpback Whales Apart!
The undersides of the humpback whale’s large flukes have distinctive white markings. (The word ‘flukes’ is used to refer to the tail fins of whales and dolphins.) Individual whales can be identified by these markings.
Humpback Whale Length & Weight
While not as large as fellow rorquals the blue whale and the fin whale, the humpback whale is still one of the largest animals alive today. It grows up to 19 m (62 ft.) long, although most are shorter.
Females are longer and heavier than the males. An average female humpback whale is around 13.7 to 16 m (45 to 52.5 ft.) long. An average male is 12.2 to 14 m (40 to 46 ft.) long – that’s longer than a bus!
Humpback whales weigh between 25 and 30 metric tons (27.5 and 33 short tons), although particularly large individuals can weigh over 40 metric tons (44 short tons)!
Where Does The Humpback Whale Live?
Humpback whales are found throughout the world’s oceans. There are several distinct humpback whale populations, and these tend not to mix.
The North Atlantic and North Pacific humpback whale populations spend the summer in their northern feeding grounds. The Southern Ocean populations spend summer feeding in the cold southern waters. In the winter all of the populations migrate to warmer waters nearer the Equator, where they mate and give birth.
Humpback Whale Migration
Humpback whales undertake one of the longest migration journeys of any mammal on Earth, covering up to 16,000 miles (25,000 kilometers) annually.
The whales spend their summer months in polar waters, particularly in the North Atlantic and North Pacific, where they feed intensely on krill, plankton, and small fish, accumulating a thick layer of blubber.
As winter approaches and food becomes scarce, the whales migrate to warmer, tropical waters to breed and give birth. Each population follows distinct migratory routes, with a high degree of site fidelity – they return to the same locations year after year. This predictable behavior has made them a favorite for whale-watching tours, aiding in their conservation and raising awareness of the challenges they face due to climate change and human activities.
Not all humpback whales migrate. A small population remains in the Arabian Sea all year round.
Humpback Whale Surface Behavior
The humpback whale is a favorite on whale watching safaris on behalf of its spectacular surface behavior.
Humpback whale surface behavior includes breaching, spyhopping, pec-slapping, lobtailing and penduncle throwing.
Humpback whales frequently ‘breach’, throwing themselves partially (sometimes almost fully) out of the water and returning with a tremendous splash.
Spyhopping is when the whale ‘treads water’ with its head and shoulders held out of the water. This lets the whale see what’s going on above the surface!
Pec-Slapping and Lobtailing
Pec-slapping and tail slapping involve the whale coming to the surface and slapping either its pectoral fins (side fins) or flukes (tail fins) against the surface, making a huge splash. This may be a means of communication between humpback whales.
Penduncle throwing involves the whale throwing the rear half of its body and flukes out of the water in a powerful motion. It may be a sign of aggression against other humpback whales.
Humpback Whale Song
The humpback whale is famous for its song. This consists of complex series of moans, whoops and cries that lasts between 10 and 20 minutes. Humpback whales will repeat their songs continuously for many hours. Humpback whale song can be heard 20 miles (32 km) away.
You can hear the whale’s mysterious song in the video below:
All of the whales in a single population sing the same song. Over time the song gradually changes.
No one really knows why whales sing. It may be a means of attracting females, issuing a challenge to other males, or establishing dominance.
Humpback Whale Diet & Hunting
The humpback whale feeds on krill (a small shrimp-like crustacean that is eaten by many whales), and various small fish such as herring.
The humpback whale eats by taking a huge mouthful of food-filled water. The water is then expelled through the comb-like baleen plates in the top of the whale’s mouth. Any food in the water is caught in hair-like bristles that project from the baleen plates. The food is then swallowed.
Humpback whales utilize a variety of hunting methods. One of these is bubble net feeding. This involves a group of whales forcing a shoal of fish into a tunnel created by bubbles blown by the whales. When the fish are herded into a sufficiently small area the whales swim through the shoal, taking thousands of fish at a time.
How Much Food Do Humpback Whales Eat Per Day?
A single humpback whale can eat around 1360 kg (3,000 lb.) of food each day.
Humpback Whale Life Cycle
Humpback whales congregate in warm equatorial waters during the winter after their long migration from northern and southern Polar Regions.
Despite their peaceful reputation, the whales can become aggressive during the breeding season. Males will form groups around a female and fight each other for the right to mate with her.
Females give birth around 11.5 to 12 months after mating, and have a calf every 2 to 3 years. Being mammals, the mothers feed their young with milk produced by glands in their own bodies.
The calves feed on their mothers’ milk for around a year before they start catching their own food. Humpback whales reach sexual maturity at between 6 and 10 years old.
The lifespan of a humpback whale is around 50 years.
Is The Humpback Whale Endangered?
The humpback whale is not an endangered species. Despite being hunted almost to extinction, the humpback whale has made a comeback, and today is rated ‘Least Concern’ by the IUCN.
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