The Ocean’s Most Majestic Creatures: Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are one of the worlds largest mammals, nearly doubling the length of an average school bus and weighing in at an astounding 50 tons. These magnificent creatures are known for their beautiful, haunting singing and breaching displays, earning them popularity worldwide. The name “humpback” derived from the fact that, when diving, they will arch their backs, creating a hump-like effect with their dorsal fin.

humpback whales lunge feeding
humpback whales lunge feeding

Their scientific name, Megaptera, means “large-winged,” referring to the 16 foot span of their big flippers. Often black or gray with a white underbelly and flippers, humpback whales can easily be recognized by their round protuberances, found on their heads and edges of their fins and by their unique tail flukes, which, like human fingerprints, are unique to each and every individual. Humpback whales are the friendly giants of the ocean and these majestic creatures have captured the attention of scientists, conservatists and hobbyists alike.

Physical attributes

Although blue whales are the largest whales known to man, southern humpback whales can easily reach up to 60 feet in length and a mature, adult whale can weigh anywhere between 35 and 50 tons, females being generally bigger than males. Northern humpbacks are a little smaller, averaging between 49 and 52 feet in length. The flippers are proportionate to their large mass, reaching upwards of 16 feet, making it the largest appendage known to date and the tail of a humpback whale can grow up to 18 feet wide.

On their wide, broad heads, grow large knob-like masses, called tubercles and contains a minimum of a single stiff hair. Although the original purpose of this hair is currently not known, it is hypothesized that it used as a motion detector, to sense nearby life forms.

Humpback whales are known to be almost black on the upper side of their body, also known as the dorsal side. On their undersides, also known as their ventral sides, their colouring tends to be a mix of black and white. From their mandible (lower jaw) to their belly, humpbacks have ventral pleats while, on their backs, you can find their dorsal fins which varies in shape, size and color, making each whale unique.

The distinctive patterns on their dorsal fins allowed researchers to discover, document and observe the humpback whale’s migration pattern, annual population, sexual maturity and other patterns and social behaviours, exclusive to each individual.

Humpback Whale Baby
Humpback Whale Baby

Natural habitat

Humpback whales travel farther than any other mammal worldwide. They often travel as far as 3,000 miles (5,000 kilometers) from their feeding to their breeding locations.

You’ll be able to find humpback whales in every ocean, in various different locations, depending on the time of year. In the warmer summer months, a large population of humpback whales enjoy spending their time and feeding in The Pacific Ocean, bordering the Gulf of Alaska and migrate as far as California. Others choose to swim in the Atlantic Ocean instead, generally near and around the Gulf of Maine. During the cold winter season, Humpback whales are usually found swimming to warmer waters around the Equator, bordering Hawaii, South America and even as far as Japan and Africa.

There is a small population of humpbacks that prefer to live year-round in the Arabian Sea and normally eat and mate in the location without migrating.

Behavioral patterns

Humpback whales seem to be fairly social creatures, often opting to travel in small groups of 2 or 3 other whales during migration. This small group is referred to as “pods” and is beneficial to all, as they communicate and aid each other in hunting for food. It has been noted that mother and baby whales will occasionally touch each other fins while swimming, an indication of endearment. However, it is not unusual for humpback whales to travel in groups of 12, near calving grounds or even to travel and hunt completely alone. As each individual mammal is different and have their own unique personalities and characteristics, it is entirely up to their discretion, whether they want to be social or not.

 Breaching, stroking and slapping the water are thought by scientists and specialists to be a form of communication, as the actions make a lot of noise, which can easily be heard above and below the water from great distances.

Humpbacks are often acrobatic, launching their large, heavy bodies slightly above the water’s surface and then splashing back down. Due to the fact that they are powerful swimmers, with large tails and massive flippers, the humpback whale may even propel themselves completely out of the water, which is no small feat. This is commonly referred to as breaching. Scientists hypothesize this action to be beneficial, as this move will remove parasites that have attached themselves to the whale. Others believe that humpbacks simple breach because they enjoy doing so.

Another common action, called “spyhopping,” involves the whale rising nose first above the surface of the water and, perhaps most interesting of all, a humpback whale will perform a move called a “penducle throw.” This is when the whale will thrust their rear and tail above the water, twist and then slam their whole lower body down, resulting in a massive splash and loud sound.

Vocalizations: singing & whispering

A humpback whales most noticeable feature is their “singing” or vocalizations. Often described as “haunting” and “eerie,” whales use these many octaves and frequencies to communicate with each other. These noises are a combination of moans and howls and are often incredibly complex. Songs are thought to usually only be sung by males and can last hours, so specialists believe it is linked to finding a potential mate. Afterwards, the singing will start again, with slight variations in sound and pitch, often beyond the limit of hearing for humans. The same songs are sung with slight differences every single year and, when sung, the male will usually float, motionless in the water with its head down.

Although all males sing the same song, differences are heard depending on the whale’s location, almost like an accent. For example, in the North Atlantic, the song differs slightly compared to their brethren in the North Pacific, and may change depending on the time of year.

A male’s song is heard up to 20 miles (30 kilometers) away and have a frequency between 80 and 4,000 hertz. However, “whale whispering” is also a known occurrence, where whales will lower their voices, especially during migrations of baby whales and their mothers to the usual feeding spots. Scientists discovered that their quiet calls are between 40 and 70 decibels lower than their usual pitch and it is thought to serve a purpose: stay under the radar of any nearby predators, such as killer whales, which will keep calves out of harm’s way when migrating. Humpback whales are highly intelligent and they understand when to use their “indoor voices” when needed.

Some may display acts of dominance and aggression when singing and looking for a potential mate.

Dietary requirements

Most whales have a specific built-in mechanism called “baleen” which is a hair-like filter system attached to the upper jaw of baleen whales. Baleen plates are usually about 2 ½ feet in length and each whale contains between 270 and 400 plates in total. They are made of keratin, similar to the material that makes up human hair and nails.

When whales open their mouth to feed, they suck in a lot of water. Their throats contain 12-36 specialized “grooves,” which will expand to contain the water the whale consumes when their mouth is open. They will then push out the water from their blowholes and the baleen will act as a filter to catch krill, fish and other small species, such as plankton, that act as a food source.

Humpback whales have different varieties of feeding methods to choose from. One such variety is called “lunge feeding,” where the whale will propel itself forward and through a large area of sustenance, all while keeping their large mouths open wide. Another form of feeding is called “bubble net feeding,” which is unique to only humpback whales. This method incorporates the humpback blowing a water bubble with their blowhole. This bubble acts like a net, encircling the small ocean life and entrapping them. The whale will then swim towards the makeshift bubble net with its mouth wide open, swallowing their meal whole.

Humpback whales generally hunt and feed in the warmer, summer months, consuming up to 3,000 lbs of food each day. In the colder, winter months, the whales will fast. Their blubber (fat) reserve will keep them nourished throughout these months, as the humpbacks need to focus on migrating and mating, which takes a lot of time and energy.

Mating & offspring

Female humpback whales will conceive and birth a calf every 2 to 4 years, 3 being the average. Males often fight each other for the chance to mate with a single female. The mother will carry her baby to full term within 12 months of conception and, typical of mammals, the calf will be born live. Newborn humpback whales range between 10 and 15 feet in length and can weight up to an astonishing 907 kg (1 ton).

For the next year, calves will nurse their mother’s milk in warm, shallow waters, which contains a hefty 45%-60% fat content and baby whales can consume up to 600 litres of milk every day. Calves are known to at least double in length within the first year of life but do not reach their full size and sexual maturity before 10 years of age.

Humpback whales have live between 45-50 years, with scientists finding it difficult to pinpoint their exact age and natural lifespan due to the absence of teeth, which are a vital necessity when studying animals and estimating age.

Conservation status

The current world population of humpback whales is estimated to be somewhere around 35,000-40,000 worldwide, which is only about 10% of their original populace. However, as recently as a few years ago, more and more humpbacks have been spotted, feeding on California’s coast, now reaching about 1400 whales annually. Commercial whaling is strictly prohibited, in an effort to protect the number of humpback whales alive today and is punishable to the full extent of the law. Currently, they are considered to be “least concern” in terms of endangerment or extinction as, due to whaling laws, humpback whales have been able to regain some of their once great population.

However, Greenland natives have been whaling for many years, long before the prohibition came into effect and this activity has been engrained into their culture. Thus, they hunt and kill a limited number of humpbacks every year. Norway, Iceland and Russia ignore conservation attempts and continue to hunt for sport whereas Japan is known to kill humpbacks for scientific research purposes.

Humpback Whale 3

Humpback whales are generally curious and friendly creatures, venturing close to boats for minutes at a time when spotted. They do not attack ships or have any interest in harming humans, so their gentle nature attracts a large population of whale-watchers annually, bringing in over $20 million in revenue in Hawaii alone.

Whale watching is a hobby that is shared by many and are a great way to observe these majestic creatures without harming them. With their beautiful breaching displays, alluring songs and good nature, it is no surprise that humpback whales are considered to be such a fascinating and charming species worldwide!

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AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY:

Dani Farago is a Dental Technician by trade, focusing on achieving greatness in the dental profession. Although her biggest passion lies in creating beautiful smiles for each and every patient, she enjoys writing in her spare time about her various interests and hobbies. She is a Buddhist, an aspiring minimalist and an ambitious business owner. Dani lives in Toronto with her husband, surrounded by books and houseplants. Fiverr: https://www.fiverr.com/botanicalbuddha