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Humpback Whale - Megaptera novaeangliae

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Humpback whale

Humpback Whale Statistics

Maximum length: 18m (59ft), average 12.9 m (42ft) males, 13.7 m (45ft) females.
Adult weight:
 around 25 - 35 tonnes, maximum of around 48 tonnes.
Life span: 50 years
Sexual maturity: 4 - 7 years
11-12 months
Birth length: 4 - 5m (15-16ft)
Birth weight: 2000kg (4400lbs)
Dive duration: up to 30 mins, usually only 6 - 7 mins
Distribution: all oceans, Humpbacks don't appear to cross the equator so populations separated.
Current world population:
30 000 - 40 000 / pre-whaling 100 000

Humpback whales are so called because of the habit of raising and bending the back in preparation for a dive, accentuating the hump in front of the dorsal fin. They have relatively the longest flippers of any baleen whale which may be up to a third of the total body length, these have a range of uses from feeding to social signaling.

These are probably the best known of the large whales as they often collect in groups along coasts where they feed and breed, drawing attention to themselves by their behavior. Breaching, lob tailing and flipper-slap are common and often occur several times in a row.

Humpbacks are slow swimmers and so allow tourist boats - and in the past, whalers - to get close. They can swim at 3-9 mph (4.8-14 kph) most of the time, but can reach 15-16.5 mph (24-26.5 kph) in bursts when required, their feeding speeds are around 1.2-3.5 mph

The skin is covered with a whole range of warts and bumps and there is a particularly rich fauna of barnacles that encrust the whale (there are whole groups of "whale barnacles" types that are found nowhere else but on whales).

The bushy "blow" of a humpback whale from the double blowhole is quite characteristic, even at a distance.


Ecology and Behavior

Like other baleen whales, the food of humpbacks is small plentifully abundant schooling fishes and large zooplankton. The precise diet is almost certainly different for different populations though has not been studied in any detail for the majority. In Antarctica, the diet is dominated by krill (like almost every other mammal in Antarctica). In other seas, the diet may include anchovies, mackerel, sand eels, herring, capelin, pollock and cod.

Migrating humpback whale, picture courtesy NOAA Humpback tail, note the barnacles on the outside edge, photo NOAA


Humpbacks have a wide range of feeding methods such as:

As well as cooperative behavior, competition has been seen between animals feeding together in large fish or plankton concentrations. The whales have been observed rushing to the surface together while pushing and shoving each other with mouths full and throats distended. Humpbacks feed mainly during the summer season in high latitudes in the Arctic or Antarctic and do not feed during the winter while on the breeding grounds.

A humpback whale on the surface with a bubble net rising

A group of 15 humpback whales off Juneau, Alaska bubble netting
at the point where they are taking great gulps of sea-water and prey once the net has arisen

Social behavior - Humpback whales are usually seen alone or with one other whale, they may form small groups of 4 or 5 individuals, very rarely larger. These groups are loose and unstable and are made and break up easily. They used to be thought to be made up of family groups or mating pairs, though this is now thought to be unlikely. The only long-term grouping of any sort is between mother and calf, though sometimes a male may accompany them and become aggressive to any other male approaching, probably a result of having mated with the female and not wanting any other male to mate with the female (the whales don't "know" this of course, it's all instinctive).
photo NOAA
Humpback Mother and calf

Humpback whale breaching

photo NOAA
Humpback whale breaching

photo NOAA
Humpback whales spy hopping

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