Description & Characteristics:
Known for its long, complex songs and unusual water acrobatics, the Humpback whale is perhaps the most interesting and best-studied of the baleen whales. Frequently spotted in shallow waters near coastlines, Humpbacks migrate seasonally from polar feeding grounds in summer to tropical and subtropical breeding locations in winter. Humpbacks are very social whales, often traveling or hunting in pods of 200 or more individuals, though they are more spread out during their migrations. During the early and mid-1900’s, Humpback populations were plundered by oil and baleen-seeking whalers, but since 1963 when the International Whaling Commission (IWC) imposed a ban, they have been protected from further exploitation.
Humpbacks may be recognized by their enormous flippers, which can reach one-third of their total body length. Their robust bodies are typically black in color, but their throats and the undersides of flukes and flippers have distinct white markings which are often used by researchers for individual identification.
Humpbacks have become renowned for their various acrobatic displays. In fact, the name ‘humpback’ refers to the high arch of their backs when they dive. One of the Humpback’s more spectacular behaviors is the breach. Breaching is a true leap where a whale generates enough upward force with its powerful flukes to lift approximately two-thirds of its body out of the water, coming back down with a thunderous splash. A breach may also involve a twisting motion, when the whale twists its body sideways as it reaches the height of the breach. Other behaviors include headlunging (butting into other whales), body rolls, lobtailing (fluke and flipper slapping), and spyhopping (lifting straight out of the water).
Another fascinating and mysterious Humpback behavior is singing. Only the males have true ‘songs’ which they perform while suspended deep below the surface, their long front flippers jutting rigidly from their sides. The haunting, resonating music consists of a series of low frequency moans, whistles, and rumblings which may be repeated dozens of times over several hours. These song patterns can change gradually over time, so that new songs emerge every few years.
Humpback whales reach sexual maturity between four and eight years of age. They mate during their winter migration to warmer waters, and 11 to 12 months later the mother gives birth to a single calf. At birth, calves average 13 feet in length and weigh two tons. In about six months, the calf has doubled its length and has increased its weight five times, and is ready to be weaned. Usually, a female humpback will bear one calf every two or three years.