What is a Humpback Whale?

[Gif by CetaGifs]

Names: Humpback Whale, Hump Whale, Hunchbacked Whale, Bunch
Appearance: Dark grey with some areas of white
Weight: Up to 40 tons (80,000 lbs.)
Size: 48 to 60ft. in length
Lifespan: At least 50 years in the wild
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Megaptera
Species: Novaeangliae


[Mother and calf by Gaby Barathieu]

Humpback Whales are relatively solitary cetaceans; with the exception of pods between 2-15 individuals who have been sighted off the coast of Hawaii - though these pods seem to stay together only for short periods of time. The most common type of pod for Humpbacks is a “cow-calf pod”, which typically consists of a mother and her calf. In many instances, cow-calf pods are accompanied by another adult whale known as an escort. Escorts can be either sex, but are usually reported to be male, and only remain with the cow-calf pod for a few hours.


Humpback whales are baleen whales, meaning that instead of sharp, conical teeth, they have a series of 270-400 fringed, overlapping plates located on each side of the upper jaw. These plates consist of fingernail-like material called keratin that frays out into fine hairs on the ends inside the mouth. Baleen plates serve as a filter for food during feeding. When the whale takes in a large amount of water into it’s mouth, the water is expelled through the baleen plates, trapping food on the inside of the mouth to be swallowed.

[Humpback Whales Coming Up Behind Paddleboarders by Marlin Harms]

Their diet consists mainly of krill and other euphausiids’, capelin, sardines, herring, and mackerel. To feed on schools of herring or mackerel, Humpbacks often hunt cooperatively by herding schools of fish together using bubble nets, created by releasing air bubbles while swimming in circles beneath their prey, causing the fish to swim tightly together and become disoriented. The whales then lunge towards the surface with their mouth open, filtering out the water through their baleen plates and swallowing the fish.


In their wintering grounds, Humpbacks will congregate and engage in mating activities. They are generally “polygynous”, meaning that males will usually mate with more than one female. Males are also known to exhibit competitive behavior, engaging in aggressive and antagonistic actions such as chasing, vocalizing, bubble displays, and tail/rear body thrashing. Often, males will make contact with each other during these bouts - sometimes causing injuries ranging from bloody scrapes to, in one recorded instance, death.

Also on these wintering grounds, males will sing complex songs that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard from at least 20 miles away. He may sing for hours, repeating the song several times. Males in a population all sing the same song, but that song continuously evolves over time. Scientists have studied Humpback songs for decades but still understand very little about it’s function.

[Humpback whale by Arctic Al]

Gestation for females lasts around 11 months, and newborn calves are between 13-16 feet long. Calves are weaned somewhere between 6-10 months. Mothers are very protective and affectionate towards their calves, swimming close and frequently touching them with their pectoral flippers. Breeding typically occurs every two years, but sometimes occurs twice in a three year span.


As early as the 18th century, Humpback whales were hunted by whalers. By the 19th century, Humpbacks were being hunted heavily, particularly in the Atlantic Ocean and to a lesser extent in the Indian and Pacific Oceans. By the end of the 19th century, the introduction of the explosive harpoon allowed whalers to accelerate their take. This, along with hunting in the Antarctic beginning in 1904, caused a sharp decline in whale populations.

However, in the mid-1900′s, The Soviet Union became responsible for perhaps the most horrific environmental crimes of the 20th century.

[Whaling photos from this article]

In 1946, the Slava left the port of Odessa, Ukraine on it’s maiden whaling voyage. It was a factory ship, crewed and equipped to separate one whale every 30 minutes into oil, canned meat and liver, and bone meal. The Slava was bound for the whaling grounds off the coast of Antarctica; the first time Soviet whalers had ventured so far south. In her first season, the Slava only caught 386 whales. However, by her fifth season, the Slava’s annual catch was approaching 2,000. The next year it was 3,000.

Then, in 1957, the ship’s crew discovered such dense populations of Humpbacks off the coasts of Australia and New Zealand, the Slava’s helicopter pilots joked that they could make an emergency landing on the animals’ backs.

In 1959, the Slava was joined by a new fleet led by the Sovetskaya Ukraina, the largest whaling factory ship in the world. By this time, the harpooners were killing whales faster than the factory ships could process them. Sometimes the carcasses would be towed alongside the ships until the meat spoiled, and the flensers would simply strip them of their blubber and toss the rest back out to sea.

During the 1959-60 season, the Soviet fleets killed almost 13,000 Humpback whales and nearly as many the next season, when the Slava and Sovetskaya Ukraina were joined by a third factory ship, the Yuriy Dolgorukiy. Whaling was grueling work, with one former whaler claiming, in a Moscow newspaper years later, that five or six Soviet crewmen died on the Southern Hemisphere expeditions each year.

Still, it was well-paying and glamorous work by Soviet standards. Whalers got to see the world, stock up on foreign products that were prized on the black market back home, and were welcomed with parades when they returned home.

[Whaling photos from this article]

When a fourth factory ship, the Sovetskaya Rossiya, prepared for her maiden voyage in 1961, the men and women who found themselves aboard would have considered themselves lucky. However, when the Sovetskaya Rossiya reached the western coast of Australia late that year, whalers were greeted by a deserted ocean. By the end of the season, the ship had only managed to round up a few hundred animals, many of them calves.

Five years of intensive whaling by the Soviets caused one of the fastest decimations of an animal population in world history - but it happened almost entirely in secret.

The Soviet Union was a party to the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling, a 1946 treaty that limited countries to a set quota of whales each year. By the time a ban on commercial whaling went into effect in 1986, the Soviets had reported killing a total of 2,710 Humpback whales in the Southern Hemisphere.  However, the country’s fleets actually killed nearly 18 times that many - more than 48,000 Humpbacks - along with thousands of unreported whales of other species. Soviet captains had disguised ships, tampered with scientific data, and misled international authorities for decades.

Generally speaking, environmental crimes tend to be the most rational of crimes. Fortunes have been made by selling contraband rhino horns and mahogany or helping toxic waste disappear, while the risks are minimal. Poaching, illegal logging, and dumping are very weakly penalized in most countries, when they’re penalized at all.

[Whaling photos from this article]

However, the Soviet whale slaughter did not follow such logic. Unlike Norway and Japan, the other major whaling nations of the era, the Soviet Union had no real demand for whale products. Once the blubber was cut away for conversion into oil, the rest of the animal was typically dropped back into the sea to rot, or was thrown into a furnace and reduced into bone meal - a low-value material used for agricultural fertilizer.

To this day, there is still no definitive answer as to why a country with such minimal use for whales killed so many of them. Corrected catch records show that Soviet whalers likely killed a total of more than 200,000 Humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere between 1904 to 1980.

Famous Humpbacks

There have been numerous Humpbacks across the world that have made headlines for various reasons. From repeated encounters to pure white whales, they conjure up quite a bit of attention.

In 1985, a 40 foot long Humpback entered San Francisco Bay and was followed closely on the evening news by Bay Area television stations. Nicknamed Humphrey, he spent a few days in the bay before swimming up the Sacramento River and under the Rio Vista Bridge into a freshwater dead-end slough about 69 miles from the ocean.

Various attempts to try and coax Humphrey back to the ocean all failed; and after several weeks of being trapped in the fresh water of the Sacramento Delta brought sighs of physical distress. His skin was beginning to grey, and he was becoming more and more listless as it appeared Humphrey may have been dying.

A last-ditch effort to save Humphrey was soon put together. Louis Herman, a well known researcher of various cetaceans, figured that it would be possible to lure Humphrey out by playing acoustic recordings of vocalizations from Humpback feeding grounds. Dr. Bernie Krause offered recordings he had made and, with the help of a powerful speaker and amplification system borrowed from the Navy, the equipment was rushed to Rio Vista where Humphrey was last seen.

Early the following morning, the equipment was loaded onto a private yacht - donated by it’s owner for the rescue effort - and the speaker was lowered into the water and directed at Humphrey’s last known location in the slough. After beginning to play the sounds, Humphrey emerged from the water at the bow (front) of the ship. The captain quickly started down the river with Humphrey close behind. Numerous fish and wildlife agencies, including the Army’s 481st Transportation Company, were there to assist in the effort as the crew on the yacht led Humphrey the many miles back down the Sacramento River, sometimes stopping the vocalizations and then continuing to play them to keep his interest.

As they approached San Francisco Bay and the water gained in salinity, Humphrey became visibly excited and began vocalizing himself. The crew lost sight of him during the night, but were able to spot him again the following morning and continue to lead him out through the Golden Gate Bridge and into the Pacific on November 4, 1985.

In 1990, Humphrey came back to California and soon became beached on a mudflat in San Francisco bay. He was extricated from the mudflat with a large cargo net with help from the Marine Mammal Center and U.S. Coast Guard. This time around, Humphrey was successfully guided back to the ocean using a “sound net”, in which people in a flotilla of boats make unpleasant noises behind the whale by banging on steel pipes. At the same time, Researchers Louis Herman and Bernie Krause, who were involved in Humphrey’s first rescue, led a team of scientists who used recordings of Humpback’s preparing to feed to guide Humphrey back into the Pacific ocean. Since his second rescue, there has only been one confirmed sighting of Humphrey.

[_MG_1314.JPG by John Edwards]

Another well known Humpback, who is still spotted to this day, is Migaloo - a true Albino male Humpback first spotted in 1991 along the Australian coast. At time of his first sighting, Migaloo was the only known all white whale in the world. He was believed to have been between 3 and 5 years old, and received the name Migaloo - a word from the Australian Aboriginal community in Queensland meaning “white fella”. In 2003, Migaloo was struck by a Trimaran off Townsville, Queensland and still bears the scars on his back today.

In 2004, scientists and researches confirmed Migaloo to be male via analysis of sloughed skin samples. Many people also began to express concern over the possibility that Migaloo was becoming distressed due to the number of boats following him each day. These concerns prompted the Queensland and New South Wales governments to introduce legislation each year to create a 1,600ft. exclusion zone around Migaloo. The fine for violating this law is a hefty $16,500 AUD ($11,826.21 USD).

[Migaloo with dolphin and companion by Migaloo White Whale]

For a number of years, Migaloo was believed to be the only all-white Humpback in the world. Then, in September 2011, an all-white baby calf was spotted in Australian waters. For now, the calf has been nicknamed Migaloo Junior, or MJ, though it is not known for sure whether the calf is really Migaloo’s calf.


In August 2008, the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species changed the Humpback Whales’ listing of ‘vulnerable’ to ‘least concern’, though two subpopulations remain endangered. Apart from extensive whaling in the last two centuries, various other threats post significant danger towards Humpbacks and other species of cetaceans.

[injured humpback whale by Tony Wu]

Entanglement in fishing gear is one of the most prominent towards many species of cetacean. Humpbacks are vulnerable in the sense that they can become entangled and swim off with the gear still attached, or they can become anchored in one place. Incidental “takes” of Humpbacks have been observed off the coast of California and Oregon in the swordfish and thresher shark drift gillnet fishery. Many entanglements have been reported during the annual migration from Hawaii to Alaska; in Hawaii, Humpbacks have been observed becoming entangled in longline gear, crab pots, and other non-fishery related lines.

Ship strikes, harassment from whale watching vessels, and impacts to their habitat are also significant threats to Humpbacks. Ship strikes in the Gulf of Maine and southeastern Alaska have proven to be fatal, while in other places such as Hawaii, no Humpback fatalities have been verified. Whale watching vessels have also been known to come too close or crowd Humpbacks and other whales, causing stress to the animals - some whale watch vessels have even been involved in ship strikes.

[Humpback nicknamed Bladerunner by Ros Butt/Cat Balou Cruises from this article]

Humpback aggregation areas are sometimes disrupted or destroyed due to it being part of a shipping channel, or due to being occupied by fisheries and aquaculture. Military operations and oceanographic research using active sonar are also causing increasing concern.

Despite commercial whaling having been banned by the International Whaling Commission in 1986, whaling for scientific purposes is still allowed to take place - so long as the proper permits are received.

The Japanese Government in particular announced plans to resume Humpback whaling in the Antarctic during the 2007/08 season, starting with an experimental catch of 50 animals per year under scientific permit. However, according to the IWC, Japan has refrained from taking Humpbacks thus far.

Though Humpback numbers were depleted to the point they only numbered in the thousands during the whaling era, they have since recovered strongly to an estimated 60,000 whales worldwide, and their numbers are increasing.

National Geographic | NOAA | Wikipedia | IUCN Red List of Endangered Species | American Cetacean Society | The Marine Mammal Center | | Humpback Whales of Southeast Alaska | Pacific Standard: The Most Senseless Environmental Crime of the 20th Century | Soviet Whaling Vessel Records | Migaloo - x

“What is that Cetacean?” series:
Killer Whale | Narwhal | Beluga Whale | Pilot Whale | Risso’s Dolphin | Bottlenose Dolphin | Vaquita | South Asian River Dolphin | Sperm Whale

GoPro: Humpback Whale Breach | Humpback Whales Feeding | A Surprise Diving Encounter with a Giant Humpback Whale | Humpback Whale Breaches on Top of Kayakers | Humpback Whale shows AMAZING Appreciation After Being Freed From Nets | Norwegian fishermen have close encounter with hunting humpback whales (with captions) | Ingenious Bubble Net Fishing | Diver: I thought the other diver was inside the whale

(If I used an image/gif of yours, and you do not want me to use it, please let me know and I will remove it. Also, feel free to send me an ask, correcting any information.)


Observations of cetacean births are rare as well as are reports of the mother and calf behaviors immediately after birth. Scientists have observed the births of just five species in the wild: Orcas, sperm whales, belugas, false orcas and  grey whales.

The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is the most studied baleen in the world, however no birth has ever been witnessed.

The birth of a humpback was described on the coast of Barra Grande, Bahia, northeastern of Brazil, was observed on August 2007, and published in 2011, but available online recently just in 2014. and is probably, the first record of a birth in this species.

However the area does not represent the main breeding concentration of humpback whales of this population and is characterized by a narrow continental shelf, instead of the wide continental shelf observed in the Abrolhos Bank.

  1. Photo: Stain of blood in the water soon after birth of the humpback.
  2. Photo: A piece of tissue, probably the placenta, floating a few meters from the mother and the calf.
  3. Photo: The calf and its color pattern.

Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae by marlin harms
Via Flickr:
This was taken from kayak which my friend Dennis shared with me. Though the whale show was all too brief, we were surrounded by a feeding frenzy of pelicans, sea lions and Heermann’s Gulls and it was an amazing experience. The frenzy moved around us as the fish moved below the surface. Several times we must have been right about where the fish were, as we had pelicans diving so close to us that we were splashed. Another good day at the office! Port San Luis, San Luis Obispo Co., CA

One thing I love about this photo is how the people in the background are so excited. Seems wild cetaceans inspire awe in even the most jaded folks seeing ‘em!


A new genetic study has revealed that populations of humpback whales in the oceans of the North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere are much more distinct from each other than previously thought, and should be recognised as separate subspecies. Understanding how connected these populations are has important implications for the recovery of these charismatic animals that were once devastated by hunting.

This isolation may explain why the northern swimmers tend to have darker coloring on their underbellies and tails than their southern counterparts. The results suggest the different populations are evolving independently As a result, the populations in the three oceans should be classified as distinct subspecies, the researchers found.

The new findings could mean some humpback populations are more fragile than scientists had thought. Scientists can’t assume dwindling populations in one ocean will be replenished with emigrants from distant oceans.

The study was published today (May 20) in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society B.