Humpback whales can be found worldwide in all of the world's major oceans. They travel great distances every year and have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet - some populations swim a whopping 5,000 miles from tropical breeding grounds to colder, more productive feeding grounds. They eat shrimp-like crustaceans (krill) and small fish, straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates, which act like a sieve. To find out why we are so fascinated by these majestic marine mammals check out our top ten humpback whale facts below…
1. The name is well suited
Humpback whales are named, predictably, after an obvious hump in front of their small dorsal fin and are therefore easy to identify compared to some of the other baleen whales. This hump is emphasised when they raise and bend their backs in preparation for a dive. They have dark backs ranging in colour from dark grey to blue-black, and paler bellies. Other distinctive features include knobby heads and jaws, long flippers and broad tail flukes.
2. Humpback whales live all over the world
Humpbacks roam all over the world, but exactly where they may be found depends on the time of year. In the summer, humpbacks will travel away from the tropics to high-latitude feeding areas such of the Gulfs of Alaska or Maine and towards Antarctica. During the winter, they swim to warmer waters closer to the Equator, around the Pacific, South America and Africa. The exception is the humpbacks that live in the Arabian Sea. They stay there year-round, eating and mating all in the same area! Scientists believe there are 14 distinct populations worldwide, and within these populations are separate breeding stocks.
3. They are known for their long-distance migrations
Humpbacks seasonally migrate towards and away from the equator and researchers have recorded individual whales swimming for as long as nine weeks non-stop. These trips between their feeding and breeding grounds can cover distances of 5,000 miles or more!
4. Humpback whales are famous for breaching and showing their tails when they dive
These dramatic displays are often observed by whale watchers, and humpbacks are actually one of very few whale species that demonstrate this behaviour on a regular basis. The displays can sometimes be for fun, but are mostly the result of complex group communications and behaviours.
5. They have the longest pectoral fins of any whale
The Latin name for humpback whales is Megaptera novaeangliae, with 'Megaptera' meaning 'big-winged'. So you can see why the humpback's pectoral fins can measure up to one-third of their total body size! The fins can grow to nearly 16 feet long and although they may look overly long and cumbersome, scientists have found that they are extremely hydrodynamic and manoeuvrable.
6. Male humpbacks are famous for singing songs to the females they are courting
The songs are unique to each whale and the breeding stock they belong to, for instance, whales in the North Atlantic sing a totally different song to those in the North Pacific. A male may sing for hours, repeating the song several times. All males within a breeding stock will sing the same song and songs may change gradually from year to year. While the specific song can last anywhere from 10-20 minutes, it is repeated for hours at a time. Whale songs can be heard up to 20 miles away and have a frequency of between 80-4,000 hertz (the lower limit of human hearing is 20 hertz).
7. Humpback whales are baleen whales
Humpbacks belong to a group of whales called Baleen whales (rather than the toothed whales, such as sperm whales). This means that rather than teeth, they have 270 to 400 fringed overlapping plates hanging down from each side of the upper jaw. These are called baleen plates which are made of keratin (the same material as human hair and nails) and can reach 30 inches long.
8. Humpbacks mostly dine on small fish, krill (tiny crustaceans) and plankton
To eat their prey, they take large gulps, as below their mouths are 12 to 36 throat grooves that expand to hold the water they take in. The baleens filter this water, keeping the fish and other goodies in the whale for digestion, and then the two blowholes on the whale's back expel it the remaining water.
9. Their unique hunting method is called ‘bubble netting’
Although humpbacks are traditionally solitary or travel in smaller pods, they gather in groups to hunt. Humpback whales will hunt and feed in the summer, stocking their immense blubber reserves in preparation for fasting during the winter mating and migration season. During their feeding season, groups of humpbacks will dive deep and then swim up in a spiral pattern; releasing a curtain of air bubbles to corral and disorientate fish prey. In season, humpbacks can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food per day.
10. A female humpback has a baby every two to three years
A female humpback will carry her young for a gestation period of 12 months, after which point the calves are born live. New-born calves will measure between ten and 15 feet and can weigh up to a tonne. After they are born, calves will nurse for around one year and will double in length during their first year; continuing to grow up until they are around ten years old. Their mother's milks is around 45-60% fat content and calves can drink up to 600 litres of milk per day!