Aquafacts / Humpback Whales

Humpback Whales 

Read the answers to some of our most frequently asked questions about humpback whales.

Quick info

1/3

Size of the long pectoral flippers to body length

400

Maximum number of baleen plates on upper jaw

1.5 tons

Amount of food eaten in a day

1-2 tons

Weight of a newborn

10-20 minutes

Length of a male's typical song

How can I identify a humpback whale?

Humpback whales, known for their frequent aerial behavior, are one of the most recognizable species of baleen whales.  They have dark dorsal colouration with varying amounts of white on their underside, pleats on their throat, knobs on their head, and a small hump in front of their dorsal fin. One of the most noticeable characteristics of a humpback whale is its long pectoral flippers.  These fins are nearly ⅓ as long as the body, the colour can vary from all black to all white, and the leading edge is scalloped.   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. Adult males may reach lengths of about 13 m, while adult females are slightly larger reaching lengths of about 14m. They weigh 25 to 40 tons.

Can individual humpback whales be identified?

Yes, humpbacks can be individually identified by the underside and trailing edge of their tail flukes – the black and white colouration, as well as nicks, scars, and barnacle growth are unique to each individual whale.  Humpback whales often show their tail, or ‘fluke’ while diving, making them ideal candidates for photo-identification projects. This unique colouration helps in assigning an alpha-numeric identifi­cation number to each identified whale. Each designation begins with ‘BC’ for British Columbia, followed by an X, Y, or Z for the proportion of black to white colouration on the underside of their fluke, and a number that represents the 'nth' individual to be photo-identified. Flukes that are less than 20% white are considered 'X' whales, 20-80% white denotes a 'Y' whale, and a fluke with more than 80% white is considered a 'Z' whale.

In the early 2000’s, Fisheries and Oceans Canada (DFO) created a coast-wide humpback whale photo-identi­fication catalogue. Unfortunately, due to funding cutbacks, this effort was discontinued after ten years. To fill the gap, NGO-based researchers along the British Columbia (B.C.) coast have continued to photograph and identify humpback whales, creating area-specific catalogues. One of these area specific catalogues is the North Coast Humpback Whale Identification Catalogue maintained by Ocean Wise’s North Coast Cetacean Research Initiative (NCCRI), collecting photos and sighting information on humpbacks in Chatham Sound near Prince Rupert. Through numerous collaborations with researchers maintaining existing cata­logues, the NCCRI aims to contribute to the understanding of humpback whale habitat use and movement in northern B.C.

Where do humpback whales live in British Columbia?

Humpback whales are a cosmopolitan species, found in most of the world’s oceans. Although they are considered a single species, Megaptera novaeangliae, they are not a single, homogenous group.  Humpbacks follow a regular migration route – summering in temperate and polar waters for feeding, and wintering in tropical waters for mating and calving. High site fidelity, possibly learned from their mothers, keeps individuals returning to the same summer and winter grounds. Humpback whales use B.C. waters mainly as feeding grounds during the summer months. 

In 2004-2006 an international multi-agency research effort was conducted to determine the number of humpback whales in the North Pacific Ocean.  This study, known as the SPLASH (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks) project, suggests that humpbacks that frequent B.C. waters are split into two regions; the southeast Alaska/northern B.C. region and the southern B.C./Washington region.  The majority of humpback whales feeding in northern B.C. appear to be wintering in Hawaii, while the southern B.C. whales have animals that have been re-sighted off mainland Mexico, as well as Hawaii.

How many humpback whales are there?

Humpbacks were historically abundant in the Pacific Ocean, but extensive whaling almost resulted in their extinction. By the mid-1960’s, when whaling was finally brought to an end, it is estimated that there may have been as few as 1,400 humpbacks left in the North Pacific. Now protected, the humpback population has made an impressive comeback in the past 50 years. Results of the ‘SPLASH’ (Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpbacks) project now estimates this population has rebounded to 18,000-20,000. In B.C., the southeast Alaska/northern B.C. region is estimated to have a population of 3,000-5,000 whales, while the southern B.C./Washington population is approximately 200-400 whales.

What do humpback whales eat?

Humpbacks are a baleen whale meaning they have baleen in their mouths instead of teeth. Baleen is made up of keratin-based, comb-like plates that filter the water for food. These enormous animals eat large quantities of tiny prey. 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 (small, shrimp-like crustaceans). Humpback whales rely almost entirely on their fat reserves as an energy source during their winters in nutrient-poor, warmer waters so they build up their blubber and other fat reserves by feasting through the summer months. Each whale eats up to 1 and ½ tons of food a day.

How do humpback whales feed?

Humpback whales are known as a ‘rorqual whale’, which means they have long pleats on their throat that extend from their lower jaw to their abdomen. These pleats expand allowing the humpback whale to gulp huge amounts of food-filled water while feeding. When the whale closes its mouth the water is forced out (not swallowed), and baleen that hangs from the whale’s upper jaw acts like a filter trapping food inside the whale’s mouth. The whale is then able to swallow the food only.

Humpback whales employ several feeding techniques to obtain mouthfuls of food. Often feeding on large ‘bait balls’ or schools of small fish, in B.C. lunge-feeding is the most commonly observed feeding behaviour. Lunge-feeding is when a whale accelerates towards its prey and then opens its mouth to consume a large quantity of food in one gulp. Although less commonly observed in B.C., humpbacks are well known for a method of hunting known as bubble-net feeding. Bubble net feeding is a learned, cooperative behaviour where one to several animals circles beneath a large school of fish blowing a wall of bubbles as they spiral slowly upwards. The wall of bubbles concentrates the food in a mass at the surface which the whales then lunge through to consume the prey.

Are they endangered?

Decimated in the first half of the 20th century by industrial-scale whaling, B.C.’s humpback whale population is showing encouraging signs of recovery. Commercial hunting of humpback whales in the North Pacific was banned in 1966. In 2003 the North Pacific humpback population was assessed and classified as Threatened by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC). However, in 2011 the humpback was downlisted from Threatened to Special Concern as a result of an increase in the population.  Despite the encouraging recovery, this population is still not secure. In many parts of their range, humpbacks are greatly impacted by human activity, and highly vulnerable to changes in ocean productivity.  Entanglement and ship strikes are of concern for this species.

What threats do humpback whales face?

The primary predator of the humpback whale is the Bigg’s (mammal-eating) killer whale that occasionally preys on young animals. Many humpback whales bear scares on their tail flukes of unsuccessful attacks. It has been proposed that humpback whales may migrate to tropical breeding areas, like Hawaii where very few mammal-eating killer whales exist, to avoid these attacks. One hotspot for killer whale predation on humpbacks appears to be off the coast of California, an area also known to be dangerous for other baleen whale calves.

Humpback whales are also greatly impacted by human activity. Threats include entanglement in various types of fishing gear, ship strikes, noise pollution, and potential toxic spills. Humpbacks are also highly vulnerable to changes in ocean productivity. Ocean Wise Marine Mammal Research Program scientist Dr. Lance Barrett-Lennard and colleagues are conducting a multi-year study of seasonal and inter-annual changes in humpback whale body condition to assess the effects of fluctuating ocean productivity on their health, growth rates, and calf production. A small drone is used to collect high-resolution aerial photographs of the whales from directly above, as well as to capture samples of exhaled breath for assessment of viral, bacterial, and fungal organisms that have the potential to affect health. Visit here to learn more.

How long do humpbacks live?

The lifespan of the humpback whale is still unknown, though it is believed to be at least 48 years.

How do humpbacks reproduce?

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.

Humpback whales are mammals and give birth to live young. Gestation is approximately 11 months and in the North Pacific calves are generally born between December and April.  Calves nurse for about 11 months and will remain with its mother for a year or longer. Humpbacks reach sexual maturity at nine years of age and 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.

How can I help humpback whales?

  • Participate in Citizen Science – Report your humpback sightings using the WhaleReport app or visit www.wildwhales.org.  We’d love to hear about it!  Sightings give valuable information about species distribution patterns and helps in recovery and management planning.
  • Give them space – Make sure to always follow the Be Whale Wise Guidelines when watching humpbacks, or visit Whale Trail BC locations and observe whales from land – a zero-impact alternative to whale watching.
  • Eat sustainable seafood – Know if your seafood is from a healthy, stable stock caught by environmentally friendly methods. Choose Ocean Wise Sustainable Seafood.
  • Dispose of waste responsibly – What goes down your drain eventually ends up in the ocean. Dispose of your hazardous waste at designated drop-off sites. Always reduce, reuse, and recycle.
  • Clean our shorelines – Garbage in the ocean poses a risk to all marine life, including humpback whales and their prey. Help reduce marine debris by participating in the Great Canadian Shoreline Cleanup. ​​​​

References

  1. American Cetacean Society. Humpback Whale Fact Sheet
  2. Baird, R.W. 2003. Update COSEWIC status report on the humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae in Canada in COSEWIC assessment and update status report on the humpback whale Megaptera novaeangliae in Canada. Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada. Ottawa: 1-25.
  3. Calambokidis, J., E. A. Falcone, T.J. Quinn, A.M. Burdin, P.J. Clapham, J.K.B. Ford, C.M. Gabriele, R. LeDuc, D. Mattila, L. Rojas-Bracho, J.M. Straley, B.L. Taylor, J. Urbán R., D. Weller, B.H. Witteveen, M. Yamaguchi, A. Bendlin, D. Camacho, K. Flynn, A. Havron, J. Huggins, and N.Maloney. 2008. SPLASH: Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance and Status of Humpback Whales in the North Pacific. Final report for Contract AB133F-03-RP-00078. Cascadia Research, Olympia, Washington. 57pp.
  4. Fisheries and Oceans Canada: North Pacific Humpback
  5. Ford, John K.B. 2014. Marine Mammals of British Columbia. Victoria: Royal British Columbia Museum.
  6. Marine Education and Research Society: Humpback Whales
  7. Wild Whales – BC Cetacean Sightings Network. Humpback Whale Species ID

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