The humpback whale is a large marine mammal that belongs to one of over 80 known species of cetacea.
These marine mammals are usually identified by their enormous size, majestic whale songs and their aerial acrobatic abilities such as their ability to continuously breach the water in spite of their large bodies.
The Humpback is well-known for its majestic whale songs which are often heard during mating season when groups of male whales sing in order to attract a female to mate with.
In addition to playing a role in their mating rituals whale songs are also believed to play other roles in the humpback whales social structure, however as of now little is known about why they produce these sounds.
Due to their large size the sounds these whales make can be heard many miles away and are described as a combination of moans, howls and cries among other sounds which can go on for hours at a time.
In fact whales that are miles apart can be heard creating the same sounds together in unison and will change their songs in harmony with other whales.
Physical Characteristics and Appearance
When it comes to physical size an adult humpback whale can grow to an average length of 40-60 ft. long and weigh as much as 44 tons.
Note: One of the largest ever recorded humpback whales measured in at 89 ft. long.
These marine mammals are generally either a dark grey or black color with white patches on their stomach and knobs (known as tubercles) covering their head.
From a visual standpoint the humpback whales body is thickest in the middle and tapers down towards the head and flukes.
The whales back is largely flat with a small dorsal fin located down the far side of its back, however when swimming the humpback may arch its back and flukes causing its back to look like a large hump.
In order to navigate the ocean these whales possess a large fluke and unusually long pectoral fins (about 1/3 the length of its body) which it uses for swimming, turning and propelling itself through the water.
Because the humpback is a baleen whale it possess baleen plates instead of teeth.
The baleen plates have bristles attached to them that act as a catchers mitt for capturing various small prey.
The bristles are bunched close together in order to prevent small prey from escaping but are spaced apart enough to allow water to easily pass through.
Another characteristic that is unique to baleen whales such as the humpback is the presence of two blowholes which are located on top of its head.
Diet and Hunting Methods
Because the humpback does not possess teeth and has to swallow its food whole these marine mammals are limited to consuming small aquatic animals.
These whales hunt and feed during the summer months in cold waters and migrate toward warmer tropical areas during the winter months to mate and bare offspring.
During the humpbacks feeding season these whales hunt using a technique known as bubble net fishing which involves a group of humpback whales swimming around their prey in a circle and blowing bubbles around their prey in order to herd the fish into a tight ball.
The whales will also create loud vocal sounds to scare the fish to the surface of the water and slap their fins against the water to stun the fish and immobilize them.
Once the fish are unable to move the whales will swim up and lunge at the fish with an open mouth and engulf hundreds or thousands of small fish in a single gulp while using their baleen bristles to separate the water and debris from their prey.
After capturing a mouth full of fish the humpback will then push the water out of its mouth using its tongue and swallow the remaining prey.
Humpback whales feed most frequently during feeding season and use this time to build up their blubber stores in preparation for mating season.
During mating season humpback whales will fast (stop eating) and live off of the body fat/blubber reserves they acquired during feeding season so that they can focus on migration and mating.
Although they may feed from time to time during mating season it is rare.
Habitat and Migration
Humpback whales are known to migrate to different locations depending on the time of year.
These marine mammals are known for their massive size and haunting whale songs that are often produced during mating season when male humpback whales sing to compete against other males for the right to mate with a female humpback.
In terms of location and habitat humpback whales can be found traveling throughout all of the worlds major oceans.
During the summer months which is their feeding season these whales can be found inhibiting the colder regions of the world such as Alaska and Antarctica where large quantities of fish, squid and krill can be found.
Once the winter time rolls around and large ice caps begin to form these whales can be seen migrating to locations such as Hawaii and the gulf of Maine where they spend the majority of their time mating and bearing offspring.
As with other species of baleen whale the humpback whale has two primary seasons known as feeding season (the summer months) and mating season (the winter months).
During their migration these whales are known to travel as far as 16,000 miles making them one of the furthest migrating species in the world.
Despite being able to consume large quantities of food these whales are known to almost completely forgo eating during the mating months and will live primarily off of the fat stores they obtained during feeding season.
Once these whales have finished mating and bearing offspring they travel back towards the northern and southern polar hemispheres where they can stock up on large quantities of food and prepare for the next mating season.
In many cases the mature and experienced whales will travel ahead of the younger whales during migration trips and lead them to the right destinations.
Interestingly, although these whales can be seen migrating, hunting and mating in large groups they are generally very solitary and non social creatures that prefer traveling alone or in small groups of two to three.
In these cases a pod may consist of a mother whale and her child or two friends that have formed a temporary loose bond.
When it comes to hunting, traveling or mating however several dozen whales may be seen aggregated together and working cooperatively in order to obtain their goals.
During reproduction cycles female whales will bear a single offspring once every 2 – 3 years while they are fertile with the average gestation period lasting 11 – 12 months.
The 11 – 12 month gestation period allows the female whale to return to its warmer, safer mating environment where it can bear its young, nurture it and prepare for the long migration trip back to its feeding grounds.
Although humpback whales can be found throughout all of the worlds major oceans they prefer to feed in colder climates and can be found in high latitude areas such as Alaska and the Antarctic during feeding season and will travel to warmer low latitude areas such as Hawaii and the Gulf of Maine during mating season.
Factors such as climate changes, water temperature and depth, and abundance of food play a major role in determining where these marine mammals feed and give birth.
Humpback whales prefer to feed in areas where large supplies of food are available and mate in warm climates that may provide some safety during mating season when they need to mate, give birth to their newborn babies and nurse their young.
When compared to other animals humpback whales are known for traveling great distances during migration periods and may travel as much as 16,000 miles per year making them one of the furthest traveling animals in the world.
Social Structure and Communication
Humpback whales communicate with one another using loud low-pitched moans, whines and howls.
During mating periods these sounds may be combined to create melodic tones that are often referred to as whale songs.
These sounds can last over twenty minutes per session and may go on for more than twenty-four hours.
Little is scientifically known at this point as to why they create these sounds and what they mean, however they appear to play a role in mating practices.
These marine mammals have also been observed communicating with one another during feeding periods or when they are trying to find other whales in the area.
Another method humpback whales use to communicate is through body language and visual cues such as lunging, tail slapping and breaching the water.
These forms of communication are believed to be used to show dominance, youth and health during mating season in order to prove to other whales that they are healthy, fit and a good partner to mate with.
Some males whales will even charge other males to show their dominance and claim their territory, however it is rare that any serious harm will come to either whale.
As a species humpback whales typically travel alone or in small pods of two or three.
They are largely solitary animals, however they do communicate under certain circumstances such as when hunting for food, mating and during migrations.
When it comes to whale sounds the humpback whale is known to produce the loud melodic tones, however it is only the male whales that are known to produce whale songs.
The whale song consists of a variety of loud low-pitched tones, grunts, moans and whines that can be heard many miles away and is often described as haunting and melodic in nature.
These sounds travel at a deep frequency which measures as low as 20Hz – 10 kHz.
While most people may think of singing involving the use of vocal cords and the mouth, humpback whales do not have vocal cords and are unable to breathe through their mouth so they do not produce these songs the way most animals are known to.
In order for the humpback whale to produce these sounds and create a song the humpback whale pushes air out of its blowhole, which is located on top of its head.
Unfortunately researchers are unsure of why humpback whales sing however they can assume that because it is only the male humpback that sings it may have to do with attracting a female to mate with, therefore it is likely that this song plays a role in their mating rituals.
This assumption is further illustrated by the fact that these sounds are typically heard during mating season and by the fact that when one male humpback makes contact with another singing male humpback it can often cause conflicts to occur.
The whale song is believed to communicate a desire to mate, to show off health and youthfulness, to show dominance and to challenge other males that are competing for the attention of a female humpback.
While whale songs can be frequently heard during mating season they aren’t typically performing during feeding season.
In fact during feeding season these whales are known to make completely different sounds when communicating or searching for food, which further hints at the whale song being used for mating purposes.
Interestingly male humpbacks in the North Atlantic can be found singing the same song in unison even when they are miles apart from one another while males in the North Pacific can be heard singing a different song.
A single song may last as long as 20 minutes and male humpback whales may be heard singing for more than 24 hours at a time.
Over the course of several years the songs these whales sing can change from previous versions.
Lastly, those unfamiliar with identifying whale songs may confuse a whale cry with a whale song.
When these marine mammals lose a friend/family member, feel lonely or are sad they may produce loud moans or whines, which can be confused for a whale song, however these moans are more akin to morning the loss of a loved one or loneliness rather than singing for mating purposes.
Note: Aside from the humpback whale the blue whale is also known to produce whale songs.
Reproduction and Lifespan
When it comes to giving birth female humpback whales are known to reproduce once every two or three years on average while fertile.
The average gestation period (the period between fertilization and birth) for a humpback whale often lasts between 11 and 12 months.
The calves (baby whales) are typically nursed by their mother for the first year and are fed milk daily through the mothers nipples.
The milk carries a very high fat percentage of around 35% which helps the milk travel through the water and to the baby whales mouth.
The mothers milk is packed with essential nutrients and fats to help the child grow and remain healthy during its first year.
Calves can drink as much as 600 litres of milk per day and over the course of several months they can develop a thick layer of blubber which helps protect them from the cold waters as they travel back towards the polar ice caps during their feeding season.
When the young humpback whale becomes sexually mature (usually between the ages of 5 – 9) they may begin mating and reproducing offspring of their own.
In terms of lifespan a healthy humpback whale is believed to have a lifespan of up to 50 years.
Captivity and Threats
Today there are at least 80,000 humpback whales world-wide, however at one point these marine mammals were considered highly endangered due to excessive hunting and commercial whaling.
Since then they have made a huge comeback and are no longer considered a concern from a conservation stand point.
Even though they are no longer considered highly endangered they still face a number of threats from humans such as:
- Noise pollution – As more and more artificial sounds enter the oceans atmosphere growing concerns are developing regarding the likelihood of man-made sounds affecting the hearing of various marine mammal species. These sounds may include sonar, loud jet engines and explosives among other noises.
- Water pollution – Chemical pollution from oil and other toxic chemicals can have a dramatic affect on whale populations and affect their food supply. Poisoned fish could lead to sickness and death among the whales that consume these foods.
- Collisions with boats – The increasing use of commercial/personal boats can lead to congested areas of water that may increase the chances of a whale being struck by a passing boat.
- Overfishing – Areas that are being over fished could lead to shortages in food supplies which could forces the marine mammals to relocate or deal with having difficulties finding food.
Although not fully understood some researchers and biologists are showing growing concerns regarding the impact some of these types of activities can have on various marine life.
10 Fascinating humpback whale facts
- A fully grown humpback whale can weigh more than 5 adult elephants, which measure in at 15,000 lbs. each.
- Humpback whales fast during the winter living off of fat stores they’ve acquired during their feeding season.
- It is estimated that as much as 90% of the humpback whales population was eliminated during the whaling era.
- The only known natural predator to hunt humpback whales is a pack of hungry killer whales. Successful attacks are believed to be rare with most attacks ending up in nothing more than scarring and bruises.
- During mating season only the male humpback whales produce whale songs.
- Consuming a large variety of fish and krill these marine mammals have the most diverse eating habits of all baleen whales.
- The scientific name for the humpback whale is, “Megaptera novaeangliae”.
- Humpback whales are easily identifiable by their abnormally large flippers, big fanned tail and hump-shaped back with a small black dorsal fin.
- Humpback whales can hunt in cooperative groups of 15 or more when searching for food.
- The humpback whale is currently listed as an endangered species and is protected against hunting by law.