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10 Things That Are Amazing About Humpback Whales

A humpback whale jumping out of the Pacific Ocean near Dana Point, California

Humpback Whales are massive animals are capable of extraordinary feats of agility; they have vast migrations, traveling more than most other species on earth to find food and a partner and birth their young each year. Renowned for their acrobatic surface behaviors, Megaptera novaeangliae is considered the most sighted and widely studied baleen whale worldwide. What else is there to learn about these amazing creatures? Read below to find out more.

“The pod, in chorus, blows and in a moment’s grace – creation sings.” – Margaret Wentworth Owings, Voice from the Sea: And Other Reflections on Wildlife & Wilderness

You feel your heart racing in anticipation of seeing the first sight of a whale from below the ocean’s surface. Consuming every sense, you remind yourself to breathe in. Again have to remind yourself to let your breath go and inhale once more. Your excitement grows and captivates your soul as you search in every direction across what feels like an endless sea for that “first look” of the unidentified whale. There it is in the distance – a spout! Your muscles tighten as you hardly find the space to shriek out in excitement.

These are the feelings you experience when watching whales. The thrilling feeling consumes you when out in Dana Point whale watching as you anxiously await seeing one of the great rorquals. These ocean giants are some of the largest whales in Earth’s magnificent oceans. As their pure strength breaks the water’s surface, and thousands of gallons of water stream from every inch of their body, you cannot help but hold your breath as the stunning beauty of a humpback whale breaches into the air.

With its Greek root word mega meaning “big” or “great” and ptera meaning “wings,” it’s no coincidence the scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae was given to the humpback whale. The humpback whale can be seen all year long in Dana Point, CA, and is one of our favorite baleen whales to see up close and personal aboard our zodiac whale watching and dolphin safari adventures. With such vast migrations, these animals need to be able to communicate with one another through miles of ocean territory.

1) A Humpback’s “Hump” Does Not Exist

The humpback whale, sometimes referred to as the hunchback whale, gets its name from the shape its back makes before diving down below. But why is this? While many whales receive their layman’s term name from the shape of their body or from the scientists who founded them, the terminology for humpback whales comes from the form this animal makes before taking that last surface breath before taking a longer descending dive. This incredible whale fact is undoubtedly among the most well-known humpback whale facts on our list, but essential to share it with you even if you already know it.

A humpback whale’s dorsal fin is more of a “nub” than a true dorsal, sitting right at the arched spot their backs make as they crest down into the dark water below after taking several breaths at the surface. Followed by their dorsal fin is a series of several “knuckles” or “bumps” leading down their peduncle to the edge of their identifiable fluke (or tail). This is undoubtedly the most well-known humpback whale fact on our list, but essential to share it with you even if you already know it.

“He has a great pack on him like a peddler or; or you might call him the Elephant and the Castle Whale” – Herman Melville

2) The Male Humpback Whale’s Song is the Most Complex of Any Animal in the Animal Kingdom

We have all seen the hysterical scene in Finding Nemo where Dory (a blue hippo tang fish) imitates a whale’s song, singing out a series of off-key notes to communicate to the whale that she and her clownfish friend Nemo are trapped inside. While we may have all laughed through the memorable scene of this cartoon favorite, it’s based on truth! Another amazing humpback whale fact that is always new to our readers and passengers alike is that the male humpback whale is the only producer of an actual “song.” While both males and females will audibly “call” to each other, only male humpback whales truly “sing.” Once on their summer feeding grounds and during their journey throughout their vast migrations, females will connect with other whales through calling sounds, but male humpback whales have unique songs that last for hours.

Throughout all the earth’s animal kingdoms, the male humpback whale has a most complex song of that than any other animal in the animal kingdom. Their songs become audible by the time they reach their sexual maturity, and just like humans on land, their vocalizations are regional and specific to their location on earth.

When a humpback whale sings, songs are generally LOUD and LONG, lasting between 10-20 minutes per breathing cycle, with each piece lasting hours! Singing while poised at a 45º angle underwater, the male humpback whale will sing more boisterously in autumn as they leave their feeding grounds and head toward warmer waters. Songs can be heard daily and will not decrease until the arrival of spring.

One of the craziest facts about humpback whales is that the males sing their songs while resting motionless in the water, head down, and flukes up. Now that is truly astonishing if you ask us! These lyrical whale words are typically sun alone and heard until a male humpback whale joins another whale passing by, looking to see if the male is accompanying a female humpback whale or arrives and joins a group. Once within the same area, all males join together like a chorus, singing broadly the same stereotype song, but uniquely, they will add in their lyrical flare to make it their own. This is the reason why a whale’s lyrical masterpiece is constantly evolving. Incredibly, other males will pick up on the song’s edit or adaptation and incorporate the changes into their pieces so that they all continue to sing the same version. Aren’t God’s creatures amazing?

3) Female Humpback Whales Doo-Whoppity-“Whop”

While the female humpback whale does not sing songs, they call out to others during migration and after arriving at feeding grounds. Some of their vocalizations mirror that of deep rumbles and range to higher pitch noises like a canary’s chirp. When they call out to baby humpback whales, they make a sound called a “wop,” more closely related to a grunt or “thwop” sound. Mothers of young calves are always mindful to “wop” very quietly so as not to attract any nearby lurking predators. Once aware that a young humpback is nearby, Orca or killer whale will seize the opportunity to feast upon an unexpecting meal. Mama is careful not to entice this apex predator of the sea to come over by lowering the sound of her call to her calf.

“Regardless of its purpose, the humpback-whale song is the most complex piece of nonhuman composition on earth. Whether it’s art, prayer, or booty call, the humpback song is an amazing thing to experience firsthand, and I suspect that even once the science of it is put to bed, it will remain, as long as they sing, magic.” – Christopher Moore

When changes occur over time and location, and other animals repeat the changes in a family group across populations worldwide, we call it “culture.” Whales have their own cultures, and various species have displayed this trait throughout history. During the whaling industry’s peak, gray whales became violent to humans as they were harpooned and nearly decimated to extinction. Over time, once these animals became protected under the Endangered Species Act and Marine Mammal Protection Act, they slowly regained trust in humans and now nudge their little ones to the surface for a formal meet-and-greet session in the lagoons of Mexico. All whales exhibit culture to some degree. But where do we see this in the humpback whale species?

4) Humpback Whales Exhibit “Whale Culture”

A tactical approach to feeding is through the coordinated release of air from a humpback whale’s two blow holes on top of their heads. When multiple animals release air in unison, it creates a net of air that acts like a trap. These bubble nets serve as traps for large quantities of fish at one time.

The fish on a humpback whale’s daily menu could include any of the following fish: krill, herring, mackerel, anchovies, and sardines. Once trapped in the bubble nets, whales will surge forward through the trap, lunging forward and widening their14-35 ventral pleats, turning their torpedo-shaped body into a massive balloon making the space to capture thousands of pounds of fish in one fell swoop. Surrounding whales flash giant white-shaded pectoral flippers at the fish or slap the surface with an enormous slap, stunning more fish to make the catch easier on the group. This feeding technique is one way this animal shows off their exquisite whale culture. In just one day, the mighty humpback requires more than 1.5 tons of food to survive.

The changed behaviors define whale culture over time and through various populations of family groups over time. Seeing this feeding strategy in two parts of the world tells researchers that a humpback whale’s feeding adaptations across family groups are being shared through whale culture. Behaviors being shared and implemented in various parts of the world result from whale culture. Different whale species exhibit whale culture in different ways. Drone footage in Thailand from 2021 captured by wildlife filmmaker Bergie Gregory highlights how Eden whales have recently changed some of their feeding strategies to avoid ingesting the toxic waters in which they lunge feed. By opening their mouths to create a trap for small schooling bait fish like at the edge of the ocean’s surface, these whales have figured out that a surplus of surface fish and krill will jump right in as if asking to be eaten. This behavior has not been a modeled studied behavior until recently. Humpback whales in Washington state have been sighted showing the same feeding behaviors, even though the waters in which they dwell are not considered toxic. The only answer for this behavior being shared across whale populations is the presence of whale culture.

 

“…so I will greet you in a way all loved things are meant to be greeted, with a tear in my heart and a poem in my eye.” ― Sanober Khan, Turquoise Silence

5) A Humpback Whale Fluke is as Unique as Your Fingerprint

The pigmentation, shape, and size of a humpback whale’s fluke are as crucial to identifying the animal as our fingerprints are to the FBI in determining our identity. Their classic black and white coloring combined with the serration of their fluke and other possible markings are the hallmark characteristics we, as naturalists and researchers of cetaceans, rely on to identify, track and record the behaviors of specific individuals within their family groups. Over the past 40 years, researchers have recorded sightings worldwide to make up a cohesive catalog of over tens of thousands of humpback whales.

In 2022, Capt. Dave’s Dolphin and Whale Watching Safari participated in 3 whale disentanglement rescue missions. Two humpback whale rescues were within months of each other. Seeing the distinguishing characteristics of these animals allows researchers and rescue teams to continue to identify the animals in future sightings. Classifying animals through identification becomes critical when whales are entangled and/or found in distress. Updating how the animal thrives in the wild post-rescue attempt becomes more manageable when identifying the animal by its individual features.

6) Humpback Whales Have One of the Longest Migrations

Humpback whale facts most people do not realize is that this species of whale has one of the longest migrations of all the rorqual whale species. Estimations show that some humpback whales travel over 5,000 miles between feeding and breeding destinations each season. Feeding continuously from primarily May – October, humpback whales pack on the pounds before beginning their journey to the warmer waters of Hawaii, where they will breed and deliver their young. Also surprising to what many may think, humpback whales do not travel in groups based on family ties. The life of rorqual whales can be lonely, and some humpback whales travel alone all year long throughout their lifetime. A mother and her baby, known as a “cow/calf pair,” refers to a female whale traveling with her little one (who is not so little even on day one). There’s nothing sweeter than seeing a mother whale and calf pair traveling together through the gorgeous ocean waters of Dana Point, California, the Whale Watching Capital Of The World®. When humpback whales travel together in a group, the group size can vary. Typically, humpback whales travel in smaller groups of three to nine individuals. When food is abundant, humpback whales create larger supergroups of 100 to 150 whales searching for food.

7) In the Whale Watching Capital of the World®, Humpback Whales Are Seen All Year Long!

That is correct! Due to the rich feeding environment in Dana Point, California, you can see humpback whales all year long. Humpback whales love to feast near the drop-off zones where their favorite menu item, krill, is most abundant. There is no other place in the world where you can catch a glimpse of this magnificent mammal while also seeing several species of dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, and more, possibly on the same day! Having so many species in one place results from a phenomenon called upwelling. Upwelling occurs when offshore winds stir up the deep, dark, cold, nutrient-rich water below and create the perfect environment for the foundation of all ocean life. When upwelling occurs, surface waters are oxygenated, and the warmer nutrient-depleted water at the surface is replaced with colder nutrient-dense water from deep below. This process creates massive algae blooms and encourages the growth of small invertebrates called plankton. To a whale, consuming plankton is the most desirable activity they take part in while spending time in Dana Point. Upwelling is responsible for why Dana Point is so rich in krill and other food sources. There is no other place in the world where you can catch a glimpse of humpback whales, while also seeing several species of dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, and more, possibly on the same day!

8) At Birth, Baby Humpback Whales Are 10 -15 Feet Long and Already Weigh One Ton

Typically, humpback whales travel to warmer waters like Hawaii to give birth to their young. Giving birth to a baby that weighs as much as an elephant is undoubtedly considered a big baby. Surprisingly, they don’t win the award for producing the largest babies at birth. On their first day of life, the largest baby whale is actually a blue whale. Blue whales begin their journey on earth at an astonishing 23 feet. Winning the 2nd place title is the Fin whale, whose sweet little ones are also not so little. These gentle giants are approximately 18 feet long and weigh between 4,000 – 6,000 pounds at birth.

Regardless of species, it is important to note that female baleen whales will always win the award for having the longest lengths and heaviest numbers on weigh-in day. When humpback whales reach full maturity, they tip the scales at 50,000-80,000 pounds! It is believed that these large numbers are awarded to females so that they have the strength to carry their young through their vast migrations and to have the ability to feed their babies from their stored fat supply once they arrive in their breeding grounds each year.

9) Humpback Whale Calves Drink 50 Gallons of Milk a Day

Baby humpback whales eat a lot! Another of the incredible humpback whale facts that are hard to believe is that their length is over 50 feet when they reach full maturity. Baby humpback whales need to consume more than 50 gallons of milk per day! By doing so, they will gain nearly 100 pounds a day until they reach close to 40,000-60,000 tons.

Humpback whales are indeed massive, and when they project their 40-ton body out of the water, showing off their athletic ability to twist and turn as if to dance outside the water, we see them as some of the largest animals on earth. While they are huge, the most enormous rorqual whale in the ocean is the blue whale, reaching lengths of nearly 100 feet in the Northern Hemisphere and, at its largest, almost 110 feet in the Southern Hemisphere. Next in line to the blue whale is the fin whale, whose lengths are still gargantuan at 85 feet, followed by the humpback whale at around 56 feet.

“Somewhere in the midst of the mammoth ocean; there exists the preposterously huge whale.”- Nikhil Parekh

10) Human Impact is the #1 Cause of Death for Humpback Whales

Last but certainly not least is the rate at which humpback whales are being decimated worldwide. Ship strikes are responsible for being the leading cause of death of humpback whales. Fully loaded, a cargo ship can weigh over 220,000 tons. When out to sea, these ships are so heavy that they are frequently unaware that they have killed a whale by running into it. Fractured skulls from these ship strikes are usually certain death to an unsuspecting whale en route on their great migration.

Second to ship-strikes is death by fishing gear entanglements. Fishing nets trap, entangle and suffocate humpback whales every year, and the number is growing with the demand for animals like lobster, prawns, and crab. Long-line gillnets, lobster, and crab pots are all responsible for the entanglements of whales of all species. While the number of humpback whales that die from entanglements each year isn’t known, it is estimated that over 300,000 whales, dolphins, and porpoises die each year from entanglements around the world.

“Must whales and dolphins be subjected to deafening noise that will cause more than 3.5 million instances of temporary and/or permanent hearing loss? For species that depend on hearing for survival – to find food, migrate, and communicate – any hearing loss could be catastrophic. As one scientist noted, a deaf whale is a dead whale.” – Pierce Brosnan

Underwater noise pollution plays another factor in harming whales and is a sad truth on our humpback whale facts list. Sometimes, a rorqual whale’s call or a humpback whale’s song travels through water at low decibels to move through multiple miles simultaneously. Underwater noise pollution infringes on whales’ ability to communicate and hear the calls from other whales passing by on their migrations. Aquatic noise pollution has been linked to marine mammal strandings, decompression sickness, and behavioral changes in whales and dolphins, putting pressure on populations already facing various environmental challenges.

If you are looking for ways, you can help save the whales in our beautiful oceans, opt for sustainably caught seafood or choose a vegetarian dish instead. You may be surprised to learn how every smaller action adds up to a larger and more significant reaction!

Until then,

Jess Wright
First Mate and Marine Naturalist
Capt. Dave’s Dolphin & Whale Watching Safari

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