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The Ultimate Guide to Humpback Whales

a whale jumping out of the water

Quick Facts about Humpback Whales

  • Acrobatic Displays: Humpback whales are known for their spectacular acrobatic behaviors, including breaching (jumping out of the water) and tail-slapping.
  • Unique Songs: Male humpback whales are famous for their complex and haunting songs that are believed to be for mating purposes and communication. Some can last up to 20 minutes! Entire groups of whales in a particular region will sing similar songs during a given year, but the songs may change and evolve over the years.
  • Long Migration: Humpback whales undertake one of the longest migratory journeys of any mammal, traveling thousands of miles between their feeding and breeding grounds each year.
  • Megaptera Genus: The scientific name “Megaptera” means “big-winged” in Latin, referring to their large pectoral fins (flippers) that can reach lengths of up to one-third of their body size.
  • Teamwork in Bubble-Net Feeding: Humpback whales in some regions use a unique feeding technique called “bubble-net feeding.” A group of whales will work together to create a ring of bubbles around schools of fish, forcing them to concentrate in the center. The whales then lunge up through the bubble net with their mouths open to engulf the trapped fish.
  • Baleen Filter-Feeding: Humpback whales are baleen whales, and they use their baleen plates to filter-feed on tiny prey, such as krill and small fish, from large mouthfuls of water.
  • Longevity: Humpback whales have a relatively long lifespan, with some individuals estimated to live up to 70 years or more.
  • Matriarchal Societies: Humpback whale social groups are led by a matriarch, an older female who plays a significant role in guiding the group’s movements and behaviors.
  • Global Distribution: Humpback whales can be found in oceans around the world, and different populations undertake migrations between polar feeding grounds and tropical breeding grounds.

What do humpback whales eat?

Humpback whales are filter-feeding baleen whales that primarily feed on small schooling fish, krill, and other small crustaceans. Their diet can vary based on their location and the availability of prey, but some of their favorite foods include:

  • Krill: Humpback whales consume large quantities of krill, small shrimp-like crustaceans found in cold, nutrient-rich waters. They use their baleen plates to filter krill from the water as they swim through dense krill swarms.
  • Small Fish: Humpback whales target schools of small fish, such as herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. They use their giant mouths and expandable throat pleats to engulf these fish in one gulp.
  • Plankton: Humpback whales also feed on various types of plankton, including copepods and other tiny organisms, especially in areas where krill and fish are less abundant.

Humpback whales are known for their impressive feeding strategies, including a behavior known as “bubble-net feeding.” During bubble-net feeding, a group of humpback whales cooperates to encircle and trap schools of fish or krill by releasing a ring of bubbles underwater. This bubble net forms a barrier that prevents the prey from escaping, making it easier for the whales to capture large amounts of food in one efficient effort.

Their feeding behaviors are captivating for whale watchers, as humpback whales often breach and display their acrobatic moves while feeding on these abundant marine resources.

How big is a humpback whale?

Humpback whales are one of the larger species of whales, and they display significant size variations between individuals. On average, adult humpbacks are around 48 to 62 feet (14.6 to 18.9 meters) in length. However, some individuals can grow even larger, reaching lengths up to 62.5 feet (19 meters) or more.

  • Weight: Adult humpback whales typically weigh between 30 to 40 tons (60,000 to 80,000 pounds or 27,000 to 36,000 kilograms).
  • Fins: Humpback whales have long pectoral fins, known as flippers, that can be as large as one-third of their body length. These flippers are highly maneuverable and allow them to perform impressive acrobatic displays, such as breaching and slapping the water.
  • Tail Flukes: The tail flukes of a humpback whale can be up to 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide, and they are unique to each individual, much like a human fingerprint. Researchers use these fluke patterns for identification and research purposes.

Despite their large size, humpback whales are known for their agility and acrobatic behaviors, making them a favorite among whale watchers and marine enthusiasts. Their awe-inspiring breaching, fluke-slapping, and other displays have earned them a reputation as one of the most captivating marine creatures in the world.

How long do humpback whales live?

The lifespan of humpback whales can vary based on various factors, including environmental conditions and human-related threats. On average, humpback whales have a lifespan of around 45 to 50 years. However, some individuals have lived much longer, possibly reaching 70 years or more.

It is essential to note that determining the exact age of a humpback whale in the wild can be challenging. Scientists often rely on studying the growth layers in the earplugs of deceased humpback whales or the layers in their baleen plates to estimate their age. These growth layers can provide valuable information about their age and life history.

a whale jumping out of the water

Are humpback whales endangered?

Humpback whales are not considered endangered. Their population is estimated to be increasing, and they are listed as a species of “Least Concern” on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List.

The increase in humpback whale populations was primarily due to conservation efforts, including implementing the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) whaling moratorium in 1986. Before the ban, humpback whales were heavily hunted, leading to a significant decline in their numbers. The cessation of commercial whaling allowed humpback whale populations to recover.

However, the conservation status of wildlife populations can change over time due to various factors, including environmental changes and human activities. Additionally, humpback whales still face some threats, such as entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, ocean pollution, and climate change. By safeguarding their habitats and reducing human-induced hazards, we can help ensure the long-term survival and well-being of humpback whales and other marine species.

How many humpback whales are there?

Various estimates suggest that the global population of humpback whales is in the range of tens of thousands.

Do humpback whales have teeth?

No, humpback whales do not have teeth. They are classified as baleen whales, which means they possess baleen plates instead of teeth for feeding.

Baleen plates are comb-like structures made of keratin (the same material as human fingernails) that hang down from the upper jaw of the humpback whale. These plates are used for filter-feeding on small prey, such as krill, fish, and plankton.

When feeding, humpback whales open their mouths wide, engulfing large volumes of water and small prey. They then push the water out through the baleen plates using their tongue and close their jaws, trapping the food on the baleen. 

This specialized feeding adaptation allows humpback whales to consume vast amounts of small prey efficiently and is one of the fascinating aspects of their biology and behavior.

Where do humpback whales live? Where can you see them?

Humpback whales are widespread and can be found in both the northern and southern hemispheres. They are highly migratory and move between their feeding and breeding grounds annually. Here’s where you can typically find humpback whales:

Feeding Grounds: Humpback whales primarily feed in cold, nutrient-rich waters found in higher latitudes. Some of the key feeding grounds for humpback whales include:

  • North Pacific: Alaska (including the waters around Kodiak Island and the Aleutian Islands), British Columbia (Canada), and the eastern coast of Russia.
  • North Atlantic: Areas around Iceland, Norway, Greenland, and parts of the eastern coast of the United States (such as New England).
  • Southern Ocean: Antarctica and surrounding regions, including the waters around the Antarctic Peninsula and sub-Antarctic islands.

Breeding and Calving Grounds: Humpback whales migrate to warmer waters for breeding and calving purposes. Some popular breeding grounds are:

  • North Pacific: The Hawaiian Islands, Mexico (particularly the waters off the coast of Baja California), and Japan.
  • North Atlantic: The Caribbean Sea, the Dominican Republic, and other tropical areas in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico.
  • South Pacific: The waters off the east coast of Australia and the islands of Tonga, French Polynesia, and New Caledonia.
  • South Atlantic: The coast of Brazil, including the waters near Abrolhos Marine National Park.

Dana Point is considered one of the prime spots to witness these magnificent creatures during their migration, typically from late spring to early fall. Whale-watching tours provide a unique opportunity to observe humpback whales up close in their natural environment and witness their impressive behaviors, such as breaching, tail-slapping, and bubble-net feeding.

Why do humpback whales jump out of the water?

The behavior of humpback whales jumping out of the water, known as “breaching,” is one of the most spectacular displays observed in the animal kingdom. While the exact reasons for this behavior are not entirely understood, there are several theories proposed by researchers to explain why humpback whales breach:

  • Communication: Breaching may be a form of communication between humpback whales. The loud splash and sound generated when the massive body of a whale hits the water’s surface could serve as a long-distance signal to other whales in the area.
  • Play and Social Interaction: Breaching is often associated with playful and social behavior. Young humpback whales, in particular, are known to breach frequently, possibly as a way to practice or play with other individuals.
  • Removing Parasites: Humpback whales can have barnacles and other parasites attached to their skin. Breaching could help them dislodge or remove some of these unwanted hitchhikers.
  • Scratching Itch or Relieving Discomfort: The impact of breaching might relieve skin irritations or itches caused by parasites or other factors.
  • Mating and Courtship: In some instances, breaching is associated with mating behaviors or courtship displays. It could be a way for males to attract females or demonstrate their fitness.
  • Navigation: Breaching might help humpback whales navigate unfamiliar or challenging environments, such as shallow waters or areas with strong currents.

It’s important to note that these are theories, and researchers are continually studying humpback whale behavior to better understand why they breach. The actual reason for this captivating behavior might be a combination of several factors. Whatever the cause, breaching is a remarkable and awe-inspiring sight, and witnessing it is often a highlight of whale-watching experiences.

How do humpback whales sleep?

Humpback whales sleep, but their sleep patterns are quite different from land mammals. As marine mammals, humpback whales must remain conscious during certain essential activities, such as surfacing to breathe. Therefore, they have evolved a unique way of resting known as “logging.”

Logging is a form of rest where humpback whales float motionless near the water’s surface, much like a log. They typically remain near the surface with their blowholes exposed to the air, allowing them to breathe. During this resting state, humpback whales shut down only one hemisphere of their brain at a time while the other remains active. This unihemispheric slow-wave sleep allows them to rest and stay somewhat conscious, ensuring they can surface and breathe as needed.

By alternating between brain hemispheres, humpback whales can get the rest they need while being vigilant enough to respond to their surroundings. This adaptation is vital for their survival, as they must be aware of potential dangers, such as predators or human activity, in their marine environment.

Logging is just one of the resting behaviors observed in humpback whales. They may also engage in more active resting patterns, such as “milling” (slowly swimming without a specific direction) or “belly-up” rest, where they float upside down in a relaxed posture. Regardless of the particular resting behavior, humpback whales have adapted unique strategies to rest and remain safe in their ocean habitat.

Are humpback whales friendly?

Humpback whales are known for their curious nature, which can lead to seemingly friendly behavior towards humans and boats. However, it’s essential to understand that these are wild animals, and their behavior can be unpredictable.

In some cases, humpback whales may approach boats or swimmers out of curiosity, which can create memorable and positive experiences for those lucky enough to witness such interactions. They might spy-hop (rise vertically with their heads above the water) or even breach close to boats, offering breathtaking displays for observers.

However, their behavior can change rapidly. Getting too close to whales or trying to interact with them in the wild can be dangerous for both humans and whales. Approaching them too closely or inappropriately can also disturb their natural behaviors and stress the animals, leading to unintended consequences.

a man riding a wave on a surfboard in the ocean

What does a humpback whale look like?

Humpback whales have a distinct and recognizable appearance with several key physical features. Here’s what a humpback whale looks like:

  • Size: Humpback whales have a streamlined, robust body shape, reaching lengths of about 48 to 62 feet (14.6 to 18.9 meters).
  • Coloration: The body of a humpback whale is primarily dark gray or black on the upper side, while the underside is lighter, often white or light gray. They have a distinctive pattern of large white patches on their flippers, lower jaw, and underside of their tail flukes, unique to each whale.
  • Pectoral Fins (Flippers): Humpback whales have long pectoral fins, which are proportionally large and can be up to one-third of their body length. These flippers are unique among baleen whales and are highly maneuverable, enabling the whales to perform impressive acrobatic moves.
  • Tail Flukes: The tail flukes of a humpback whale are massive and have a scalloped or wavy edge. The underside of the tail flukes is usually white with distinctive black or dark gray pigmentation patterns, which help identify individual whales.
  • Baleen Plates: Humpback whales are baleen whales with two rows of baleen plates in their upper jaws. These comb-like plates are made of keratin and are used for filter-feeding on small prey.
  • Dorsal Fin: Humpback whales have a small dorsal fin located on their back, near the flukes. The dorsal fin is relatively low and triangular compared to the dorsal fins of some other whale species.
  • Throat Pleats: When feeding, humpback whales expand ventral throat pleats that allow their mouths to hold and filter large volumes of water containing their prey.

The unique coloration patterns and the presence of the large flippers, dorsal fin, and throat pleats make humpback whales easily identifiable among other whale species. 

Do humpback whales have predators?

Humpback whales are massive marine mammals and are not typically preyed upon by other animals in the ocean. As adults, they have few natural predators due to their size and strength. However, there are a few known threats to humpback whales, particularly to calves and juveniles:

  • Killer Whales (Orcas): Killer whales, also known as orcas, are one of the few natural threats to humpback whales. Killer whales are intelligent and powerful predators and can target and attack humpback whale calves. Sometimes, orcas may try to separate a calf from its mother to increase their chances of a successful hunt.
  • Sharks: In rare instances, sharks, such as great white sharks, have been known to attack and feed on injured or weakened humpback whales. However, these occurrences are infrequent and do not significantly threaten healthy adult humpback whales.
  • Human Activities: Human activities are the most significant threats to humpback whales. Collisions with ships can be deadly for humpback whales, especially in areas with heavy maritime traffic. Additionally, entanglement in fishing gear, such as fishing nets and lines, is a major concern and can lead to injuries or death for humpback whales.

How fast do humpback whales swim?

Humpback whales are impressive swimmers and can reach remarkable speeds, especially during short bursts. On average, humpback whales swim at a speed of around 3 to 9 miles per hour (5 to 15 kilometers per hour). However, during more active behaviors, such as breaching or chasing prey, they can reach speeds up to 15 to 16 miles per hour (24 to 26 kilometers per hour) or even faster for brief periods.