Humpback Whales Facts and Their Migration


Humpback Whale, whose scientific name is Megaptera Novaeangliae is a marine mammal which is of baleen whale species. This whale is known to have elongated pectoral fins with a knobbly head. It primarily lives in the oceans and seas all over the world and their migration distances are really long, as much as 25,000 km/16,000 miles. Male whales are known for their song that lasts up to 20 minutes and is believed to play a vital role in attracting a mate. These majestic aquatic mammals face threat from the whaling industry like other whales and have been successfully brought back from extinction once but they continue to face the threat from humans and their activities. At present, their estimated population stands at a mere 60,000.

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Classification of Humpback Whales

Categorized under the Baleen Whales, the Humpback Whales are one of the 12 species and are also known as Rorqual Whales. They belong to the Animalia kingdom and are classified as Mammals their genus is Megaptera and are of Megaptera Novaeangliae species.

How big are Humpback Whales?

Humpback Whale is a marine mammal which is extremely large in size as its length usually ranges from 12 to 18 metres almost as big as a school bus; the weight has been recorded to be as much as 36,000 kg or 79,000 lb, still not as big as the Blue Whale. They are known to have the flippers which are up to 5 metre that is 16 feet; their tails too can be pretty long as they are 5.5 metre or 18 feet. The female whales tend to be larger than male whales.

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Humpback Whales, as the name may suggest, do not have a hump on the back of their bodies, on the contrary, this name is derived from the hump that is seen when their backs are arched while diving in the water. These whales have a broad head which is rounded whilst covered with tubercles. Their dorsal/upper side is black in colour while their lower body or ventral is black and white. They also have a dorsal fin at their back which has a unique pattern and shape and is different on each whale; this makes it easy for the researchers to catalogue and monitor the individual whale and keep a close eye on its migration, behavior and other traits and behaviors.

What is the Habitat of Humpback Whale?

Humpback Whales are found all over the globe but their presence at a particular time is usually dependent on their migrating pattern and the time of the year. During the summer months, they like to be in the high latitude waters such as the Gulf of Maine, Gulf of Alaska, etc where they can feed in nutrition rich waters brimming with small marine plants and fishes. Then during the winter months, they swim back to the warmer waters which lay close to the Equator in places such as South America, Africa, Hawaii, etc. Though the Humpback Whales of Arabian Sea near the Indian Ocean stay there throughout the year where they mate and feed freely.

Demeanour of Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales usually travel in either small groups or even alone; their group is termed as “pods” where two to three whales stay together. They tend to communicate and travel together especially if they have their calves with them. The mother whales along with their young ones can also be seen touching their fins while swimming to stay close together and also to protect the babies which are not strong enough and developed. The whales are also known to help each other while hunting, so they appear to be amicable towards each other and even supportive.

Humpback Whales’ Breaching

Humpback Whales usually jump out of the water, just like the Dolphins, and then splash or jump back down, this act is known as Breaching. The exact reason behind this behavior is not known but scientists believe it is either done to get rid of the parasites off of their bodies or maybe the whales do it just for fun. They are also seen slapping and splashing the water with their body’s tails and flippers, which they do to communicate with other whales in their pod. This splashing may also be an act to communicate dominance as well as their health over other whales during the season of their mating.

Humpback Whales Songs

One splendid thing about the Humpback Whales is their songs which males are known to sing quite often. These songs are haunting with a complex sequence containing moans, cries as well as the howls which can often last for several hours. Since these songs are attributed to male whales, therefore, the scientists believe they are sung to attract the mates. When a song begins, it lasts for hours as it is repeated numerous times. Though all the male population of different regions sing this song, the song of each population is different. For instance, the whales that are found in the North Pacific sing song which is different than the song which the whales in the North Atlantic sing. The songs do not remain constant as they change gradually with the passing years.

Humpback Whales’ songs are so powerful that they can be heard from as far as 30 km or roughly 20 miles as they have been recorded to have the frequency ranging from 80 to 4,000 Hertz. Besides singing in loud tones, these whales can also sing in near inaudible whispers as they are known to have “indoor voices” and they use it whenever they need to, depending on their environment and situation. When the mother whales are with their calves during the migration towards the feeding grounds, the calves emit really low vocal sounds which are 40 decibels lower than the whale songs and 70 decibels less than the normal vocalizations that the adult whales use during socializing. The researchers believe that these low frequency “whale whispers” are used by the calves to communicate with their mothers especially when the killer whales are near them, so using these inaudible tones keeps them off the radar and safe from being attacked.

What do Humpback Whales eat?

The Humpback Whales are categorized under the baleen whales and what they eat primarily depends on the formation of their jaws and “teeth”. Instead of teeth like sharks or other such marine mammals, they have up to 400 overlapping fringed plates that hang down from their upper jaw and are known as baleen plates.  These baleen plates are made of keratin which is present in human nails and hair. These plates are basically black in colour and are 30 inches long.

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Humpback Whales mostly eat small fishes, krill which is a kind of small tiny crustaceans as well as plankton. They do not pick on each fish; rather they eat by gulping down a large amount of water along with their prey. Below their mouth, there are around 12-36 grooves that expand and hold the water. Their baleen then filter this water and the blowholes present on the back of the whale, and then expel it out while the fishes and other food material stay inside the whale which then it digests later on.

Humpback Whales are known to hunt, feed during the summer while they fast when the mating season is on without getting weak or dying as they use the reserve of blubber that they have stored during the winters. This helps them t stay focused on mating and swimming while their migration without wasting time on hunting. They use the “bubble netting” method of hunting which is unique to this whale species. Using this method, the whales hunt in groups and make use of the air bubbles to control their prey by herding them to round them up and even to disorient them. Just like their size, even their diet is huge as they can eat up to 3,000 pounds or 1,360 kg of food each day.

Humpback Whales’ Offspring

Female Humpback Whales give birth to the calves once every 2 to 3 years; the gestation period is of almost 12 months and the babies are born like any other mammals. When born, these whale calves can weigh as much as 907 kg or roughly a tonne. They can be as big as 10 to 15 feet. They need to be nursed for a complete year and they feed on the mother’s milk which is rich in fat as it is 45-60%. They drink almost 600 litres of milk each day and they keep growing until the age of 10 years.
The Humpback Whales live around 50 years on average.

Conservation status of Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales, like other whales around the world, are targeted by the hunters of the whaling industry. They are considered as a “prized commodity” hence was once on the verge of extinction as the population fell by 90% before 1966 when their hunting was altogether banned. Even in the year 1988, they were considered to be the endangered species though at present the International Union for Conservation of Nature or IUCN has classified them as the “least concern” on its list of Threatened Species. At present, their population is believed to be 30,000 to 40,000 and IUCN estimates it to be as high as 60,000.

The international laws as laid down by International Whaling Commission prohibit the hunting or whaling of Humpback Whales, still, there are large instances of such activities for sport and even subsistence. In nations such as Greenland, the natives have the permission to kill the whales but only in limited number, whaling being their culture’s vital part. Also, the people of Norway, Russia, and Iceland kill numerous whales each year, along with Japan which claims to do it for scientific purposes.

Migration Patterns of Humpback Whale

The Humpback Whales follow a fixed migrating pattern each year to mate and raise their off springs. They are able to swim large distances by using their ability to perceive the weather, the condition of water, the availability of food and the location they can stay for some period. During the winters they like to move away from the cold waters to the tropics for warm and pleasant water; while during the summers they migrate to the poles for cooler water. If in the Northern Hemisphere, the whales will travel towards the Equator in the winters. These waters tend to be rich in nutrient vital for their own and their calves’ nourishment.

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The Humpback Whales’ seasonal migration is considered to be the longest distance covered by any mammal in the sea or the earth. They can also be seen migrating from the Arctic regions to the warm tropics in just one season. They are known to travel as much as 3,000 miles or 5,000 km from their place of breeding to the feeding grounds. The longest distance of their migration that was recorded was 11,706 miles or 18,840 km; where the whales swam from America’s island of Samoa to Antarctic Peninsula.

When the whales travel to the polar waters in the summer, they feed on plankton, krill and other small sized fishes. Then they travel towards the south where they give birth and then will go back to the north. Their calves swim side by side their mothers as they are not grown or strong enough to continue this arduous journey on their own. Even though the Humpback Whales are huge in size, still they swim at a low speed of 5 mph.

It is not easy to catch the glimpse of Humpback Whales as their precise location or migration pattern cannot be predicted.

Summary

Humpback Whales are majestic marine mammals that are almost gentle giants and are found all over the world. They may not be the biggest whales, but their enormous size puts them in a high position in the food chain. Being great wanderers of the sea, they can be easy or difficult to spot; it all depends on being at the right place at the right time. But getting their glimpse can be a memorable experience and appreciating their existence is necessary to maintain their population and prevent them from reaching the verge of extinction due to humans and their activities.

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