The humpback whale is a charismatic species of large whale that has a truly global distribution, living from Antarctica to the Arctic (except under the sea ice) and from the coast to the open ocean. The humpback whale is one of the largest animals on Earth, growing to lengths of more than 50 feet (16 m) and weights of 40 tons (36 metric tonnes). This incredible size is only possible because of this species’ aquatic lifestyles and the buoyancy provided by seawater. On land, an animal as large as the humpback whale would almost certainly be crushed under its own weight.
Interestingly, though they are enormous, humpback whales are not predatory. They filter feed for tiny krill or small pelagic fishes and are totally harmless to people (other than through accidental collisions). This life history strategy is common among several large animals in the ocean, including the whale shark, the basking shark, and the other great whales. Like all whales, humpback whales are mammals and give live birth to very large calves. These whales are known for their singing; during courtship, the males compose intricate songs to attract females. The killer whale is the only species known to attack and eat humpback whales (always juveniles).
Every year, humpback whales undergo incredible migrations between feeding and breeding grounds. They feed near the poles and give birth in the tropics, and each year, individual humpback whales travel as much as sixteen thousand miles (25,000 km) between these two areas. Humpback whales only eat in their winter feeding grounds and live off fat reserves for the rest of the year, including while migrating.
During the height of commercial whaling, the humpback whale was hunted almost to extinction. Global populations declined by more than 90% before regulators enacted a worldwide moratorium on hunting in 1966. Fortunately, the humpback whale has recovered remarkably well, and populations continue to increase. Now, this great whale has come all the way back from the brink of extinction to be considered a species of least concern.
1. Humpback whales grow up to 60 feet (18.3 m) long and 80,000 pounds (36.3 metric tons).
2. Humpback whales can live for 80 to 90 years.
3. Humpback whales have some of the longest migrations of any mammal with some populations swimming 5,000 miles (8,047 km) between breeding and feeding grounds. Populations that migrate between Alaska and Hawaii can complete the 3,000-mile (4,828 km) trip in just 36 days.
4. Humpback whales eat up to 3,000 pounds (1.4 metric tons) of food a day, including krill and small fish.
5. Male humpback whales create and sing songs that can be heard up to 20 miles away.
6. Humpback whales are named for the distinctive hump on their backs.
7. Humpback whales are active and can be seen breaching out of the water, slapping the surfacing with their fins and tails and twirling underwater.
8. Humpback whale tails can be as wide as 18 feet (5.5 m).
9. The scientific name for humpback whales, Megaptera, translates to “big-winged” in reference to their long pectoral fins.1
Oceana joined forces with Sailors for the Sea, an ocean conservation organization dedicated to educating and engaging the world’s boating community. Sailors for the Sea developed the KELP (Kids Environmental Lesson Plans) program to create the next generation of ocean stewards. Click here or below to download hands-on marine science activities for kids.