Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

IDENTIFICATION

Size
– to a maximum length of 16 metres; thick, rotund body shape

Colour
– black to gray, varying amounts of white on undersides, throat and pectoral fins

Dorsal fin
– 2/3 of the way back along the body, variable in shape, resting on a hump that is pronounced when the whale dives

Blow
– 2-3 metres in height and bushy

Tail fluke
– trailing edge curves downwards, fluke is raised high on a deep dive
– the underside of the tail can have white patches

Surface behaviour
– can be very acrobatic; breaching, tail-lobbing and pectoral fin slapping are common behaviours

Group size / social behaviour
– often solitary, but may occur in feeding or social groups of up to 10-15.

Other characteristics
– the pectoral fins are a key to identifying this species: these fins are nearly 1/3 as long as the body, the colour can vary from all black to all white, and the leading edge is scalloped
– knobs on the head

Can be confused with
– from a distance, may be confused with any of the large whales, but a close look at the flippers and head knobs will clear any doubt.

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NATURAL HISTORY
Humpback whales are a cosmopolitan species, found in most of the world’s oceans. In the north Pacific, the population has made an impressive comeback in the past 40 years. Humpback whales were heavily targeted by commercial whaling in the north Pacific until 1966; by the end of this harvest, there may have been as few as 1400 humpbacks left. However, a recent study ‘SPLASH’ (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks) now estimates this population has rebounded to 18,000-20,000.

The north Pacific population of humpback whales makes long distance migrations. They range from winter breeding grounds in southern latitudes (Hawaii, Mexico, and Southern Asia) to northern feeding areas from California to Alaska and Russia where they spend the summer months. Humpbacks show great fidelity to their feeding areas and British Columbia is split into two separate regions. The southeast Alaska/northern British Columbia region is estimated to have a population of 3,000-5,000 whales, while the southern BC/Washington population is approximately 200-400 whales. There also appears to be a correlation between feeding and breeding grounds. The majority of humpback whales feeding in northern BC appear to be wintering in Hawaii. The southern BC whales have animals that have been re-sighted off mainland Mexico, as well as Hawaii.

The colder, coastal waters that humpbacks frequent in the summer months are rich in prey, including small schooling fish such as herring, capelin, sandlance and pilchard, as well as krill. Humpback whales are known as a ‘rorqual whale’, which means they have long pleats from their lower jaw to their abdomen that allows the throat to expand, allowing in huge amounts of food-filled water while feeding. Humpbacks then use baleen as a sieve to trap food while removing the salt water. Humpback whales employ several feeding techniques to obtain these mouthfuls; most spectacularly: bubble-netting, where one to several animals may create a circular wall of bubbles to concentrate food before lunging through it.

Breeding in humpbacks whales is very seasonal, occurring in the winter in tropical/sub-tropical areas. In these areas, males sing long, complex songs. The songs are specific to breeding areas and seem to evolve from year to year. These songs are likely used to attract females, though they may also be used in social ordering and competition among males. The gestation is approximately 11 months, calves being born between December and April in the north Pacific. A calf will spend about one year with its mother before becoming independent. Females typically have a calf every 2-3 years, though annual breeding is not unheard of. Besides the mother-calf pairs, humpback whales are not known to have long-term social bonds. In the North Atlantic, both sexes reach sexual maturity around 5 years, but it is unclear whether this is true for the north Pacific population. The lifespan of the humpback whale is still unknown, though it is believed to be at least 48 years.

Humpback whales are identified by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes; each one is different just like a fingerprint. In British Columbia humpbacks are given a letter as part of their identification to categorize their fluke based on color. X animals have mostly black tails with less than 20% white on their fluke, Y animals have a fluke that is 20-60% white, while Z animals have more than 60% of their fluke white. Humpback whales often show these tails, or ‘fluke’ while diving, making them ideal candidates for photo-identification projects. Of all the baleen whales, humpbacks are most likely to engage in surface activities such as breaching and slapping their tail flukes and pectoral fins. These behaviours most likely have many different meanings under different contexts.

The primary predator of the humpback whale is the transient (mammal-eating) killer whales that may prey on young animals. Many humpback flukes bear the scars of unsuccessful attacks. It has been proposed that humpback whales may migrate to the tropical areas to avoid killer whale attacks; breeding areas like Hawaii have very few mammal-eating killer whales. One of the hotspots for killer whale predation events on humpbacks appears to be off the coast of California, an area also known to be dangerous for other baleen whale calves.

In many parts of their range, humpbacks are greatly impacted by human activity.  Entanglement and ship strikes are of concern for this species.

STATUS IN CANADA

In 2011, the humpback whale was downlisted from Threatened to Special Concern by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC).

COSEWIC’s assessment of the North Pacific population of humpback whales is as follows:

Although this recovering population is no longer considered to be Threatened, it is not yet secure. It was depleted by commercial whaling but has increased substantially since becoming legally protected from whaling in 1966. A basin-wide study in 2004-2006 resulted in an estimated abundance of 18,000 animals (not including first-year calves) in the North Pacific and an estimated rate of increase of 4.9 to 6.8%/year. Research conducted between 2004-06 indicated that about 2,145 whales (not including first-year calves) were present seasonally in British Columbia waters where they were increasing at around 4%/year. Current numbers are still considerably smaller than the minimum of 4,000 animals that must have been present off the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1905 given the numbers removed by whaling in the early 1900’s. This population in the eastern North Pacific continues to face several threats including noise disturbance, habitat degradation (especially on the breeding grounds), entanglement in fishing gear or debris, and ship strikes.   

Humpback Whale
Humpback whale diving, showing the dorsal fin and the 'hump' that gives it its name
Doug Sandilands
Alana Phillips
John Ford
Humpback whale raising its pectoral fin in the area. Note the long length and numerous bumps along the edge
Lance Barrett-Lennard and Kathy Heise
Lance Barrett-Lennard and Kathy Heise
Head knobs
Humpback whale raising its pectoral fin in the area. Note the long length and numerous bumps along the edge
Graeme Ellis
Whales have hair!
A humpback whale breaches in northern B.C.
John Ford
A humpback whale breaches in northern B.C.
Humpback whales lunging up through a school of herring
Doug Davis
Humpback whales lunging up through a school of herring
Male humpback whale singing in the waters off Hawaii
Male humpback whale singing in the waters off Hawaii
Researchers use variation on humpback whale flukes to identify and track whales
DFO
Researchers use variation on humpback whale flukes to identify and track whales
Sightings of humpback whales around Vancouver Island, 1931-2008
Wild Whales
Sightings of humpback whales around Vancouver Island, 1931-2008
A study by Wild Whales predicted areas of entanglement risk to humpback whales in B.C.
Wild Whales
A study by Wild Whales predicted areas of entanglement risk to humpback whales in B.C.