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Humpback Whales

















What is taxonomy?

Humpbacks are large and grayish in color; with distinctive long flippers and a 'hump' preceding the small dorsal fin.  Humpback whales sometimes breed and feed in large, dynamic groups.   During breeding, humpback males try to escort breeding females and protect this escort by lunging, physically displacing, charging, and striking their rivals.

Interesting Facts:

  • Humpback whales make extensive seasonal migrations between high-latitude summering grounds and low-latitude wintering grounds.
  • Male humpback whales produce a long-series of calls often called "songs" that can usually be heard during the winter breeding season, although song components are sometimes recorded during the summer as well.   Researchers are unsure why humpback whales sing.  It could be to attract females or to notify other whales that they are in the area.
  • The most amazing part of humpback whale songs is that the whales create themes and may repeat the same song for hours, broken only by pauses for breath.    Humpback whale songs can last for 20 minutes and they sometimes repeat the song for hours.
  • Some humpback whales feed by making "bubble nets" around their prey. Several whales blow bubbles through their blow holes and swim in a circle pattern so that the prey is trapped in the center of the "net." Then the whales swim right up through the center of the bubbles and ingest the prey

What should I know about humpback whales?

Where do humpback whales live?

Humpbacks are widely distributed in all oceans, ranging from tropical wintering grounds near islands and continental coasts to open-ocean temperate and sub-polar summering habitats.

How many humpback whales are there?

Humpback whales are considered endangered according to the U.S. Endangered Species Act of 1973. MML has done quite a bit of work relating to humpback whale stocks: You can read more about humpback whale stocks in the NMFS Alaska and Atlantic stock assessment reports.

How can I identify a humpback whale?

They are 50 feet (15.2 meters) long--about as long as a school bus.  Humpback whales are mostly black or gray (although they sometimes appear brown) with the undersides of their flukes, flippers and bellies white. They have two blow holes, a small dorsal fin, and long flippers.  Humpback whales are extremely active and do lots of flipper and fluke slapping and tend to breach more than any other baleen whale species. 

How well can a humpback whale see or hear?

It is thought that baleen whales (including humpback whales) have excellent hearing, especially at low frequencies, which is valuable in the dark ocean environment where vision is less useful. 

What do humpback whales eat?

Humpbacks are baleen whales which means they filter their food through baleen plates. They consume krill, anchovies, cod, sardines, mackerel, capelin, and others sorts of schooling fish. 

Some humpbacks have a very unusual way of catching their food. They make nets to catch their prey called "bubble nets" with the air that they release from their blow holes. The whales dive deep then swim up in a spiral pattern, all the while releasing a steady stream of bubbles. As the bubbles rise they form a bubble cage which traps the fish or plankton that the whales are pursuing. Then the whales swim up through the center of the bubble cage with their jaws open and capture a great gulp of food.

How do humpback whales have their young?

Humpback whales are probably old enough to mate at about 7 years of age.  Females are pregnant for about 11 to 12 months and get pregnant approximately every two to four years. Calves are born able to swim and can grow 1.5 feet (0.5 meters) per month while nursing.  Females nurse their new born calves in warm, shallow water. 

Humpbacks have very complicated courtship behaviors and many male humpbacks can surround a female and compete with each other to get close to the female.  Sometimes the competition involves males lunging at and bashing into each other.   At the end of the mating and calving season, humpback whales migrate to cold, productive waters to feed.

How long do humpback whales live? Why do they die?

Because of an absence of teeth (which can be used to estimate age in other mammals), it is difficult to tell the age of a humpback whale. Life expectancy for humpback whales may be up to 80 years.

Humpback whales die of natural causes and are sometimes preyed upon by killer whales.  Pods of  killer whales have been known to attack humpback whales throughout their range, especially young animals during migration.  Humans commercially hunted humpback whales for oil, meat, and apparel materials (for corset stays, umbrella ribs, buggy whips etc.) from the 17th to early 20th centuries. Today, indigenous hunters practice subsistence whaling on a small-scale. Humpback whales may also be harmed by pollution, ship strikes, or entanglement in fishing gear.

Where can I find more information about humpback whales?

Books and the world wide web are excellent places to learn more about marine mammals. 


  • Leatherwood, Stephen. Reeves, Randall R. Foster, Larry.   The Sierra Handbook of Whales and Dolphins.  Sierra Club, San Francisco, CA.  1983.
  • Leatherwood, Stephen.  Reeves, Randall R. Perrin, William F.   Evans, William E.  Whales, Dolphins, and Porpoises of the Eastern North Pacific and Adjacent Arctic waters; A Guide to their Identification.  Dover Publications, Inc., New York, NY.  1988.
  • Wynne, Kate. Folkens, Pieter. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska.  Alaska Sea Grant Program.  University of Alaska Fairbanks, Fairbanks, AK.  1992. 

World Wide Web

There are many more sources to learn about cetaceans.   Check with MML's online library or your local librarian for her or his recommendations.

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This portion of the MML website is intended for a student audience and their educators.
Information within the education website should not be cited in scientific journals or publications.

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