Humpback Whale

General information
Quick Facts
Order Cetacea
Suborder Mysticete (Baleen)
Family Balaenopteridae
Species Megaptera novaeangliae
Status Endangered
Weight Up to 53 tons, average 30 tons
Diet Krill and schooling fish
Size Up to 62 feet, average 45 feet
Home Populations in all of the world’s oceans

Where Do Humpback Whales Live?

The Singers of the Sea

If you have ever heard recordings of whale songs, chances are that you were listening to a male humpback. The exact reason that the male humpbacks sing is unknown, however, it is generally thought that they are doing it to attract a mate since they only sing in breeding season. These songs are complicated combinations of trills, whines, snores, wheezes and sighs. The songs are often sung in a repeated pattern and can last a few minutes to half an hour. A full performance may go on for several days, with only short breaks between songs. In addition to singing, courtship also involves a synchronized dance between male and female, with both animals surfacing and swimming in unison. Males can become aggressive with each other during mating season, but are otherwise quite docile. 

How Are Humpbacks Different Than the Other Rorquals?

Rorqual whales all have pleats in their throats to allow expansion of the mouth when they are filter feeding. Humpbacks are more distantly related than the other rorquals and their appearance reflects it. In comparison with the other rorquals, humpbacks have very long pectoral flippers, are more robust, and have knobs covering their flippers and face. All mysticetes (baleen whales) are filter feeders. Humpbacks often feed cooperatively by blowing circles of bubbles in the water, corralling the fish. Then one of the whales will swim up through the middle, getting a large mouthful of fish or krill. This is called bubble netting. Humpbacks are also the most acrobatic of all the baleen whales, often breaching high into the air. Humpbacks are the best known of the mysticetes. Scientists have been cataloging pictures of humpback flukes, which are very distinctive, for decades and many whales are individually known.

Human Impact

Humpbacks were hunted heavily in the 1800s and early 1900s. The catch of humpbacks began to decline in the early 1940s after a peak of 12,829 in 1912. Humpback catch reported to the International Whaling Commission was approximately 160,000 from 1910-1985. Because whales are slow growing and slow to reproduce (and perhaps due to some illegal hunting), their populations are taking a long time to recover from the decades of intense hunting. 

Wurtz, M. and Repetto, N. 2003. Dolphins and Whales. White Star S.r.I. Vercelli, Italy Eder, T. and Sheldon, I. 2002. Whales and Other Marine Mammals of California and Baja. Lone Pine Publishing, Canada. 

Artwork Copywrighted 2008