Interesting facts about Humpback Whales

Whale watching information & guide

WHAT ARE WHALES?

Cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) include the world's largest living animals. They are not fish but air-breathing, warm-blooded mammals that nurse their young. There are around 80 species of cetaceans, ranging in size from the 90-foot blue whale to the relatively small five-foot harbor porpoise.

There are two types of cetaceans: odontocetes (toothed) and mysticetes (baleen). Toothed cetaceans, including sperm, killer and beaked whales--and all porpoises and dolphins--feed primarily on fish and squid; killer whales also feed on some marine mammals including other cetaceans. While baleen cetaceans are toothless, they have rigid strips of material similar to human fingernails, called baleen, hanging down from their upper jaws. The whales feed by straining water through the baleen, catching thousands of small fish and planktonic organisms. Blue, gray, right and humpback whales are baleen whales.

HUMPBACK WHALES

The humpback whale is the fifth largest of the great whales. Distinct populations are found in each of the world's oceans. Newborn calves, weighing on average 1.5 tons, range from ten to 16 feet in length. Males may reach 45 feet, while females are slightly larger, averaging up to 48 feet. A mature humpback weighs up to a ton per foot, or 80,000 pounds. It is not known how long humpback whales live; however, many experts believe it may be around 80 years, possibly longer.

The illustration below shows the basic external parts of a humpback whale. Grayish-black in color, they have white markings that are distinct to each individual. To propel themselves, whales move their tail flukes up and down - while fish move their tails from side to side.

The flippers or pectoral fins, located on each side of the whale, are used to turn, steer and balance. These fins are actually modified forelimbs, with a bone structure similar to that of the human hand and arm. The head of a humpback has tubercles (fleshy knobs) along their upper and lower jaws. Each tubercle has a single coarse hair that is believed to enhance sensory ability. Expandable ventral throat pleats increase the capacity of the mouth during feeding.

The humpback's scientific name, megaptera novaeangliae (great wings of New England), refers to its huge pectoral fins, which can reach up to 15 feet. The name "hump-backed" whale, first coined by early whalers, probably resulted from the appearance of the arching of the caudal peduncle while diving, coupled with the prominent dorsal fin.

Humpback Whale Chart

Humpback Whale Chart

MIGRATION AND DISTRIBUTION

North Pacific humpbacks spend the summer in the temperate waters from the Aleutian Island of Alaska to the Farallon Islands off the coast of Central California. During the colder winter months, November to May, the majority of the North Pacific stock is found in the warm waters of Hawaii and Mexico, where they breed, calve and nurse their young. The remaining animals are found off Central America (especially Costa Rica), Asia (Taiwan, the Philippines and some Japanese island groups) and the Mariana Islands near the Equator. In the South Pacific, humpbacks feed near Antarctica in the austral summer from November to May, and spend the austral winter from June to October breeding off Australia, various South Pacific islands, Colombia, Ecuador and, once again, Costa Rica. The breeding seasons are six months apart; consequently, northern and southern hemisphere stocks do not intermingle.

Humpbacks are not fast swimmers. While they can attain speeds of 20 mph for brief periods, they average 3 to 6 mph during migration.  How long it takes to travel the 3,000 miles between most feeding and breeding areas is not known, but we do know at least one animal traveled the distance in less than 40 days. Timing of the migratory cycle ensures that pregnant females and mothers with newborn calves spend the majority of their time in relatively warm water.

Research indicates that humpbacks may use acoustical cues, currents and temperature changes, and even the earth’s magnetic fields to “home in” on their breeding and feeding grounds.

Some movement of individual humpback whales between breeding areas has been documented. Whales photographed in Mexico one year have been observed in both Mexico and Hawaii in the same winter!

Migration and Distribution

REPRODUCTION

Humpback calves are both conceived and born in the waters off Mexico; the gestation period is 10-12 months.  Although sightings of calves are common during the winter, no well-documented evidence of an actual birth exists.

After a calf is born, its mother will remain close to the shore, resting and nursing her newborn. Calves feed on their mothers’ mega-fat, rich milk for the first year of life. It is one of the richest milks of the whole mammal class, with more than 30% fat at times; it is more like cottage cheese than milk.

Often mothers and calves are accompanied by a third whale called an escort. The escort whale, assumed to be a sexually active male, remains with the mother and calf for usually less than a day, with most associations lasting a few hours. Males and females do not form long-term pair bonds. Although it has never been documented, mating may occur in association with large surface-active groups of whales that include a single receptive female who is pursued by males. While males generally do not fight to the death (although there is one well-documented case from Hawaii in 1996), they do engage in a variety of intensely aggressive behaviors that can be truly spectacular.

COMMUNICATION AND SONG

Both male and female humpback whales produce a wide array of sounds, including the highest and lowest frequencies humans can hear. How humpbacks create these sounds is unknown since they do not have functional vocal cords. Some evidence suggests that various valves and muscles in a series of blind sacs, which branch off within the respiratory tract, produce these sounds.

Humpback Whales Comunications

Male humpbacks produce long, complex patterns of sounds that they repeat for extended periods. Discrete notes or units occur in patterned sequences that make up a phrase. Usually uniform in duration, phrases may contain repeated sounds. A consecutive group of phrases constitutes a theme. Although a given theme may vary in the number of phrases it contains, its sequences are always the same. Similarly, the sequences in which themes occur are always the same although some themes may be left out. A predictable series of themes forms a song. The song may serve to attract females, to maintain the distance between singers, to sort out the dominance hierarchy of males or even to coordinate cooperative behavior of males. Many theories exist about the songs, but the true purpose of the male humpback whales’ song is still unknown.

SONGS

Song phraseSong phrase

SONG SESSIONS

A song generally last between six and 18 minutes, depending on the number of phrases it contains. A male may repeat his song many times with a minute of pause. As the season progresses, small changes occur in the song. New sounds may be introduced or old ones may be altered. While little or no singing takes place during the summer, vocalizations associated with group feeding have been recorded. When the whales return the following winter, they sing the version popular at the end of the previous breeding season. An analysis of songs collected from Mexico, Hawaii and Japan within the same season indicates virtually all North Pacific humpbacks constitute one population.

IDENTIFICATION

When dealing with recovering populations of a once-endangered species, the use of non-intrusive techniques to better understand their life parameters is important. As a humpback dives, it frequently lifts its tail out of the water revealing a unique pigmentation pattern on its underside: the coloration and pigmentation, the shape and form of the tail, and the serration of the trailing edge are as individual as our fingerprints or the irises of our eyes.

A photograph of its tail can individually identify each animal. The photo can then be cataloged, complete with information about the sighting (date, time, pod, composition, travel direction and presence/absence of a calf).

Whale identification

Other information about the whale, such as the dorsal fin shapes, lateral body markings, and lip grooves, can also be recorded and used for individual whale identification. More than two thousand humpback whales have been identified in the North Pacific. Although a relatively small number of whales have been re-identified on subsequent occasions, these photographs provide important insight into migratory routes, population estimates, social structure, behavior, longevity and reproductive rate.

More importantly, the current variety of benign techniques (such as photo identifications, acoustic monitoring, genetic analysis and satellite tracking) removes the need to kill whales in order to understand them.

BEHAVIOR KEY

The following behaviors, most visible from boats and shoreline lookouts, are high-energy activities that may serve a number of social functions. They must be interpreted in the full context of the seasons and locations in which they occur to understand their significance and purpose.

BLOW

Blow

The normal pattern of exhalation and inhalation at the surface. This term refers to both the act of breathing and the cloud of water condensation produced above the animal’s head during the process of exhalation.

ROUND OUT / PEDUNCLE ARCH

Round Out / Penducle Arch

The whale begins a diving descent by arching its body slightly while rolling ahead at the surface (round out). As the caudal peduncle appears, the whale may arch high above the water, perhaps in an attempt to dive more deeply (produce arch).

FLUKE-UP / FLUKE – DOWN

Fluke up

Following a peduncle arch, the humpback will usually bring its flukes above the surface of the water. In a fluke-up dive, the flukes may be brought straight up in the air exposing the entire ventral surface and displaying the unique pattern of markings found on each whale. In a fluke-down dive, the flukes are brought clear of the water.

PEC SLAP

Pec Slap

Humpbacks frequently roll sideways at the surface, slapping their pectoral fins against the water. Humpbacks also lay on their backs waving both fins in the air at the same time before slapping them on top of the water.

HEAD RISE / SPY HOP

Head Rise / Spy Hop

The whale rises relatively straight up out of the water rather slowly, maintains its head above the surface to just below the eye, often turns 90-180 degrees on its longitudinal axis, and then slips back below the surface.

TAIL SLAP

Tail Slap

This forceful slapping of the flukes against the surface of the water can be carried out while the whale is lying either dorsal up or ventral up in the water.

PEDUNCLE SLAP

Peduncle Slap

An aggressive behavior in which the rear portion of the body, including the caudal peduncle and the flukes, is thrown up out of the water and then brought down sideways, either on the surface of the water or on top of another whale.

HEAD SLAP

Head Slap

Lunging head-first out of the water, the whale pounds its massive, sometimes partially engorged mouth on the water’s surface. The head can rise 20 feet above the water at the peak of the display.

BREACH

Breach

The whale propels itself out of the water generally clearing the surface with two-thirds of its body or more. As the whale rises above the water, it throws one pectoral fin out to the side and turns in the air about its longitudinal axis.

FEEDING

North Pacific humpback whales feed on small schooling fish (e.g., herring, smelt and sand lance) during the summer months when fish stocks are most productive. South Pacific humpbacks feed primarily on krill near Antarctica. Humpbacks can consume nearly a ton of food in a single day. During their summer feeding cycle, they store enough energy to last the rest of the year. Generally, they do not feed on the winter breeding grounds although limited evidence suggest they may feed opportunistically en route and near their breeding grounds.

WHALE WATCHING TIPS

Humpbacks are easily observed from land sea, or air because their tendency to congregate close to shore. The likelihood of seeing a whale decreases with increases in sea state, wind speed, sun glare or other conditions that may hamper visibility. Weather conditions influence sight ability of whales more than time of day.

While good photographs of whales can be taken with any type of camera, a 35mm single-lens reflex (SLR) is recommended for ease of operation and flexibility. This camera will allow you to use a variety of lenses that are readily available and easily changed. An 80-200mm zoom is probably the best general-purpose lens to buy.

HOW TO TAKE GREAT WHALE PHOTOS

Set your shutter speed for 11500th of a second or faster to freeze the movement of the whale and to minimize motion effects of the vessel, ocean and your body.

  • Ensure the horizon is level in the viewfinder.
  • Hold the camera steady.
  • Depress the shutter release slowly.
  • Do not follow the whale though its movements with the camera as this will blur the image.

Avoid excessive zooming if using video or movie cameras to films whales - this will only accentuate the motion of the vessel or aircraft. You may severely damage a video camera (and your eyes) by filming directly into bright, glaring sunlight.

Binoculars can help provide more detailed observations of behaviors when viewing whales from land; 10 x 50 wide-angle binoculars are best. From boats or airplanes, use 8 x 40 or 7 x 50 binoculars instead.

Whale photoWhale photo

Even the most seasoned whale watcher can suffer from motion sickness. A number of non-prescription medications are available; they should be taken at least 30 minutes before a trip. Non-medicated alternatives include crackers, dry bread, papaya or ginger. If thirsty, sip non-carbonated beverages and avoid alcohol.

Always take precautions to protect your skin from the sun. Use a waterproof sun block with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or higher. A visor or hat and UV blocking sunglasses will make viewing the whales more clear.

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