The majestic humpback whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, is a type of baleen whale. Known for its distinctively shaped body with long pectoral fins, the humpback whale has captivated the attention of humans as long as we’ve looked to the seas.
They can weigh up to 30 tons, and they may swim almost 20,000 miles in a single year. Unfortunately, that attention led to extreme predation, and the humpback, like many other whale species, was once the target of industrial hunters.
The whaling industry nearly drove this species to extinction. However, thanks to conservation laws, there are now almost 100,000 humpbacks singing their underwater songs in the waters of the globe. But what does the future hold for this captivating, massive animal?
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The humpback is a sight whale watchers travel great distances to see. There are some telltale traits to help identify it from other whales breaching the sea’s surface.
A typical, mature humpback whale measures about 40 to 50 feet in length. That’s about 12 to 16 meters, making this sea giant longer than a school bus.
At its maximum weight of more than 60,000 pounds, a male humpback is heavier than 35 Formula One cars, with their drivers!
The humpback’s scientific name, Megaptera, translates to “large-winged” and references the notably wing-like flippers on the animal’s sides.
But the humpback moniker references the rounded hump of its dorsal fin and back as it dives, a distinctive look that sets this massive seafarer apart from the form of other whales.
The long flippers are most often white, but the bulk of the body of a humpback is gray or black. Each whale has its own pattern of colors, particularly under its tail.
Scientists believe that each humpback’s tail fluke has a unique ‘fingerprint’ of colors. Female humpbacks are typically larger than the males, weighing up to 80,000 pounds, and sometimes reaching a length of 60 feet.
The humpback’s dorsal fin may be short and close to the body or quite long and curved. All humpbacks have tubercles, rounded bumps, on both their jaws.
These bumps appear similar to warts and can be found anywhere forward of the whale’s blowhole and on the leading edges of its flippers.
Humpbacks can have a lifespan of anywhere from 45 to 100 years on average. A baby humpback gestates inside its mother for approximately 12 months before birth.
Humpbacks tend to be promiscuous, with many sexual partners throughout their life. Female whales reach sexual maturity between the ages of six and ten and then will usually give birth every two years, in the months between December and February.
A calf typically weighs around a ton when born and is already about 15 feet long. They stay near their mother, feeding off her milk, for about eight months.
By the time the calf has weaned and ventures out on its own, it may be 24-27 feet long. It’s thought that only male humpbacks perform the singing behavior they are famous for, but that the song changes every year.
Interestingly, it seems that all male humpbacks sing the same song, with only minor changes.
Each vocalization lasts for up to twenty minutes, and then the whale repeats itself while hanging motionless in the water, head down. Scientists believe that this behavior is related to asserting dominance for attracting mates.
The humpback can be found in large bodies of water worldwide. They seem to follow a pattern of migration from colder waters in the summer where they feast and warmer waters in the winter.
They have distinct groups that travel the world together, ranging the oceans on a fairly predictable migratory schedule and route.
Whales can live anywhere from the deepest oceans to the inland seas of the Mediterranean. As their population recovers from the effects of the whaling industry, they seem to have an expanded presence, and more are spotted in places like the Persian Gulf, Sea of Japan, and the English Channel each year.
Some pods of humpbacks don’t migrate. For instance, there is an identified group that stays in the Arabian Sea year-round.
The humpback whale is a predator. It maximizes its consumption through specialized hunting techniques, and huge quantities of food, water, and other objects may end up in its cavernous mouth. They feed only in certain months, as they follow their migration pattern.
The humpback consumes fish and shrimp as the central part of its diet. Krill are a preferred food source, and these small crustaceans are eaten in vast quantities. As a species of baleen whale, humpbacks have throat pleats that can expand.
Most humpbacks have between 14 and 35 pleats, and when they open, vast amounts of water enter their mouth, along with any fish in it.
Then, the water is strained through their baleen, trapping the food in their mouth and allowing them to consume it.
Sometimes, the humpback will swim in a straight line, lunging through schools of fish and trapping huge amounts of fish and water for straining.
Other times, these intelligent swimmers will perform a technique called ‘bubble net feeding,’ sometimes even in concert with other whales.
They will blow bubbles from their blowholes as they swim, encircling fish in a wall of ascending bubbles.
They swim tighter and tighter, forcing the fish into a narrow column. Then, the humpback will plow through the concentrated mass of prey for a massive, efficient bite. They are the only species of baleen whale known to feed cooperatively.
The humpback is so large that only other whale species and the great white shark are known to attempt to feed on them.
Humpbacks often wear scars of these battles, and they usually survive the fight and may even have cooperative defenses. Scientists believe humpbacks work together to protect smaller calves from predators.
Of course, in addition to their natural predators, humpbacks face threats from humans as well. Once hunted in the extreme for their blubber, oil, meat, and even bones, these whales were nearly hunted to extinction.
Now, hunting the humpback is mostly banned. But they still face threats from human activities that can injure them or disrupt their migration.
Ocean-going vessels and loud propellers may affect their navigation abilities, and large trawling nets can cause humpbacks to become entangled.
The specter of climate change may have an effect on humpbacks as well. Even small changes in ocean temperature may affect their feeding, breeding, and migratory patterns, regardless of whether the temperature changes are a natural phenomenon or caused by human activity.
The humpback’s most prolific predator has been humankind. Now, with moratoriums on hunting and harvesting the humpback, their most common predators are killer whales and great white sharks.
The humpback, like other whales, uses sounds for communicating and perhaps even navigating.
The noises of the world, like boat propellers, and other noise pollution, tend to disorient these massive creatures and may injure them.
Most parts of the world consider the humpback whale as endangered. However, their population has rebounded significantly. Accordingly, Australia has removed the humpback from its list of endangered animals.
- Humpbacks travel and hang out in disorganized pods, and they can travel the globe within their lifetime.
- A rare albino humpback whale was spotted off the east coast of Australia in 1991 and named “Migaloo,” an indigenous Aussie word for ‘white fella’—he was spotted again in 2014 and may still roam these same waters.
- The US National Parks have provided sanctuary for humpbacks in places like Glacier Bay and Cape Hatteras Seashore, and scientists think these are essential areas for recovering humpback populations.