Fascinating Humpback Whale Facts

How to Recognize a Humpback Whale (and Other Interesting Facts)

This humpback whale calf was photographed in Turks and Caicos, a site of annual whale mating and calving.
This humpback whale calf was photographed in Turks and Caicos, a site of annual whale mating and calving. Kate Westaway / Getty Images

Humpback whales are large mammals. An adult is about the size of a school bus! While a humpback isn't the biggest whale in the sea, it's one of the best known for its hauntingly beautiful song and for its habit of jumping out of the water or breaching.

How to Recognize a Humpback Whale

Humpback whales are the only whales with tubercles.
Humpback whales are the only whales with tubercles. Nature/UIG / Getty Images

If you're looking for a hump on the back of a humpback whale, you'll be disappointed. The whale gets its common name from the way it arches its back before diving. Instead of looking for a hump, watch for gigantic flippers. The scientific name of the whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "bat-winged New Englander." The name refers to the location where whales were seen by Europeans and to the creature's unusually large pectoral fins.

Another distinguishing characteristic of the humpback whale is the presence of knobs called tubercles on its head. Each tubercle is essentially a gigantic hair follicle, rich with nerve cells. While scientists aren't completely certain of the function of tubercles, they may help the whale sense currents or the motion of prey. They also produce what is called the "tubercle effect," improving the maneuverability of whales in water in much the same way as hooks on an owl's wing improve its flight.

A recognizable feature of the humpback is its baleen. Instead of teeth, humpbacks and other baleen whales use fibrous plates made of keratin to strain their food. Their preferred prey includes krill, small fish, and plankton. If the whale doesn't open its mouth, you can tell it's a baleen if it has two blow holes on top of its head.

Humpback whales use an inventive feeding technique called bubble net feeding. A group of whales swim in a circle below prey. As the whales shrink the size of the circle, the prey become confined in the bubble ring "net," allowing the whales to swim up through the middle of the ring and eat numerous prey at once.

Essential Humpback Facts

Humpback whales swim up through the middle of a bubble net to feed.
Humpback whales swim up through the middle of a bubble net to feed. Grard Bodineau / Getty Images

Appearance: A humpback whale has a stocky body that is wider in the middle than at the ends. The dorsal (upper) side of the whale is black, with a mottled black and white ventral (bottom) side. The tail fluke pattern of a humpback is unique to an individual, like a human fingerprint.

Size: Humpback whales grow to 16 meters (60 feet) in length. Females are larger than males. A newborn calf is about the same length as its mother's head or about 6 meters long. A adult whale may weigh 40 tons, which is about half the size of the largest whale, the blue whale. The humpback's flippers grow up to 5 meter (16 feet) long, making them the largest appendage in the animal kingdom.

Habitat: Humpbacks are found in oceans all over the world. According to NOAA, they migrate further than any other mammal, traveling about 5000 kilometers between feeding and breeding grounds. In the summer, most humpbacks are found in high-latitude feeding areas. In the winter, they frequent warmer equatorial waters.

Habits: Humpbacks travel alone or in small groups called pods of two to three whales. To communicate, whales touch fins with each other, vocalize, and slap fins on the water. Members of a pod may hunt together. Humpback whales propel themselves out of the water, splashing back down in an action termed breaching. According to National Geographic, it's believed the whales may breach to rid themselves of parasites or simply because they enjoy it. Humpbacks socialize with other cetaceans. There are documented cases of the whales protecting animals from killer whales.

Life Cycle: Female humpbacks become sexually mature at five years of age, while males mature at about seven years of age. Females breed once ever two to three years. Whale courtship occurs during winter months after migration to warm equatorial waters. Males compete for the right to mate via a variety of behaviors, including sparring and singing. Gestation requires 11.5 months. The calf nurses off the fat-rich, pink milk produced by its mother for about a year. The lifespan of a humpback whale ranges from 45 to 100 years.

Humpback Whale Song

The humpback whale song is made by moving air back and forth through body passages.
The humpback whale song is made by moving air back and forth through body passages. SCIENCE PHOTO LIBRARY / Getty Images

The humpback is famous for its complex song. While both male and female whales vocalize using grunts, barks, and groans, only the male sings. The song is the same for all whales within a single group, but it evolves over time and is different from that of another whale pod. A male may sing for hours, repeating the same song multiple times. According to NOAA, a humpback's song may be audible as far as 30 kilometers (20 miles) away.

Unlike humans, whales don't exhale to produce sound, nor do they have vocal cords. Humpbacks have a larynx-like structure in their throats. While the reason whales sing isn't clear, but scientists believe males sing to attract females and challenge males. The song may also be used for echolocation or to herd fish.

Conservation Status

Tourists watching Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), South Sandwich islands, Antarctica
Tourists watching Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae), South Sandwich islands, Antarctica. Michael Runkel / Getty Images

At one time, the humpback whale was brought to the brink of extinction by the whaling industry. By the time the 1966 moratorium went into place, it's estimated the whale population had fallen 90 percent. Today, the species has partially recovered and has a conservation status of "least concern" on the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. While the humpback population numbers of around 80,000 put it at minimal risk for extinction, the animals remain at risk from illegal whaling, noise pollution, collisions with ships, and death from entanglement with fishing gear. From time to time, certain native populations receive permission to hunt the whales. 

Humpback whale number continue to increase. The species is curious and approachable, making humpbacks the mainstay of the whale tourism industry. Because the whales have such a wide migration path, people can enjoy humpback whale-watching in both summer and winter and in both the northern and southern hemispheres.

References and Suggested Reading

  • Clapham, Phillip J. (26 February 2009). "Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae". In Perrin, William F.; Wursig, Bernd; Thewissen, J.G.M. 'Hans'. Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals. Academic Press. pp. 582–84.
  • Katona S.K.; Whitehead, H.P. (1981). "Identifying humpback whales using their mural markings". Polar Record (20): 439–444.
  • Payne, RS; McVay, S. (1971). "Songs of humpback whales". Science173 (3997): 585–597.
  • Reilly, S.B., Bannister, J.L., Best, P.B., Brown, M., Brownell Jr., R.L., Butterworth, D.S., Clapham, P.J., Cooke, J., Donovan, G.P., Urbán, J. & Zerbini, A.N. (2008). "Megaptera novaeangliae". IUCN Red List of Threatened Species. Version 2012.2. International Union for Conservation of Nature.