Humpback whales are a baleen whale, meaning they filter-feed on small fish and krill using baleen plates in their mouth. Humpbacks are known for spectacular breaching and feeding behaviors.
Humpback whales in New England have 15-foot long, white flippers, or pectoral fins. The first humpback to be scientifically described was in New England, and was christened Megaptera novaeangliae, or “big-winged New Englander,” by German naturalist Georg Borowski.
Humpbacks have developed a number of spectacular behaviors. These behaviors include bubble-net feeding and lunge-feeding, and “breaching,” or leaping out of the water. At average weights of 20-30 tons and lengths of 50 feet, this is a spectacular sight.
Individual humpbacks can be distinguished by the shape of their dorsal fin and the pattern on the underside of their tail. This discovery led to the beginnings of photo-identification research in whales and the ability to learn much valuable information about this and other species.
Migration and Reproduction:
Most humpback populations are migratory. Humpback whales spend their summers feeding in temperate and polar waters and winters mating and calving in tropical waters.
During the breeding season, humpbacks are thought to eat little, if at all. Mating occurs in the winter and the gestation period for the female humpback is about 11 ¼ months. Females give birth in the winter to calves that are about 10-15 feet long and weigh 2,000 pounds. Calves nurse for about a year on their mother’s rich, fatty milk and then begin to feed on smaller fish when they are about a year old.
One of the most interesting facets of humpback behavior is their sounds. Males sing complex “songs” on the breeding ground that are thought to be part of a mating behavior. All of the humpbacks in the same population sing the same song, and the song evolves in complexity throughout the breeding season.
In addition to these “songs,” both males and females make a variety of sounds to communicate. Researchers in Australia recently identified over 30 different types of sounds made by humpbacks.
- American Cetacean Society. 2004. “Humpback Whale” (Online), American Cetacean Society. Accessed August 14, 2008.
- Cawardine, M. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Dorling Kindersley. London. 1995.
- International Whaling Commission. 2008.“Whale Population Estimates”(Online), International Whaling Commission. Accessed August 14 2008.
- Kinze, C.C. Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic. Princeton University Press. Princeton. 2001.