Whale Migration

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) migrate to warm waters to give birth. This image shows a female and calf in Vava'u Island Group, Tonga. Cultura/Richard Robinson/Cultura Exclusive/Getty Images

Whales may migrate thousands of miles between breeding and feeding grounds. In this article, you can learn about how whales migrate and the longest distance a whale has migrated.

About Migration

Migration is the seasonal movement of animals from one place to another. Many species of whales migrate from feeding grounds to breeding grounds - some traveling long distances that may amount to thousands of miles.

Some whales migrate latitudinally (north-south), some move between onshore and offshore areas, and some do both.

Where Whales Migrate

There are over 80 species of whales, and each has their own movement patterns, many of which are not yet fully understood. In general, whales migrate toward the colder poles in the summer and toward the more tropical waters of the equator in the winter. This pattern allows whales to take advantage of the productive feeding grounds in colder waters in the summer, and then when productivity lowers, to migrate to warmer waters and give birth to calves. 

Do All Whales Migrate?

All whales in a population may not migrate. For example, juvenile humpback whales may not travel as far as adults, since they are not mature enough to reproduce. They often stay in cooler waters and exploit the prey that occurs there during the winter.

Some whale species with fairly well-known migration patterns include:

  • Gray whales, which migrate between Alaska and Russia and Baja California
  • North Atlantic right whales, which appear to move between cold waters off the Northeastern US and Canada to waters off South Carolina, Georgia and Florida.
  • Humpback whales, which move between northern feeding grounds and southern breeding grounds. 
  • Blue whales. In the Pacific, blue whales migrate from California to Mexico and Costa Rica.

What Is the Longest Whale Migration?

Gray whales are thought to have the longest migrations of any marine mammal, traveling 10,000-12,000 miles round trip between their breeding grounds off Baja California to their feeding grounds in the Bering and Chukchi Seas off Alaska and Russia. A gray whale reported in 2015 broke all marine mammal migration records - she traveled from Russia to Mexico and back again. this was a distance of 13,988 miles in 172 days.

Humpback whales also migrate far - one humpback was sighted off the Antarctic Peninsula in April 1986 and then resighted off Colombia in August 1986, which means it traveled over 5,100 miles.

Whales are a wide-ranging species, and not all migrate as close to shore as gray whales and humpbacks. So the migration routes and distances of many whale species (the fin whale, for example) are still relatively unknown.

References and Further Information

  • Clapham, Phil. 1999. ASK Archive: Whale Migrations (Online). Note: Accessed online October 5, 2009. As of October 17, 2011, link no longer active.
  • Geggel, L. 2015. Gray Whale Breaks Mammal Migration Record. LiveScience. Accessed June 30, 2015.
  • Journey North. 2009. Gray Whale Migration (Online). Accessed October 5, 2009.
  • Mead, J.G. and J.P. Gold. 2002. Whales and Dolphins in Question. Smithsonian Institution Press: Washington and London.