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Humpback Whales: A Brief Analysis

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Photo of a Humpback Whale (underwater).

Photo of a Humpback Whale (underwater).

Scientific Classification

  • Common Name: Humpback Whale
  • Binomial Name: Megaptera novaeangliae
  • Kingdom: Animalia
  • Phylum: Chordata
  • Class: Mammalia
  • Order: Artiodactyla
  • Family: Balaenopteridae
  • Genus: Megaptera
  • Species: M. novaeangliae
  • Conservation Status (IUCN): “Least Concern”
  • Synonyms: Balaena gibbosa (Erxleben, 1777); B. boops (Fabricius, 1780); B. nodosa (Bonnaterre, 1789); B. longimana (Rudolphi, 1832); Megaptera longimana (Gray, 1846); Kyphobalaena longimana (Van Beneden, 1861); Megaptera versabilis (Cope, 1869)
A Humpback Whale breaching.

A Humpback Whale breaching.

Humpback Whale: Quick Facts

The humpback whale is one of the most studied sea creatures in the scientific community, due to its easy identification and ease of empirical observation. The whale is large and robust, with its head and jaws containing a series of rounded protuberances (called tubercles).

Possessing 270 to 400 baleen plates, along with 14 to 22 ventral plates, the humpback whale is capable of consuming large quantities of food at a time. It also possess a series of long and narrow flippers, along with a small dorsal fin alongside its hump.

These humps (which give the species its name) are most noticeable when diving, as the whale raises its flukes giving its back a “hump” appearance. Reaching lengths of 56 feet and a weight of approximately 90,000 pounds, the humpback whale is an incredibly large creature, capable of holding its own against nearly any sea animal.

In regard to coloration, the humpback whale is predominantly black, with a white and mottled look along its underbelly. This coloration is typical for its flippers as well; however, some humpbacks are known to have all white flippers from time to time.

Humpbacks are relatively solitary in their behavioral patterns, and often avoid gathering in groups. Although the whales are known to make long-term associations with other whales, such traits are rare.

One of the most notable characteristics of the humpback whale is its acrobatic skills that include lobtailing, flipper slapping, and breaching. Scientists are not sure what these behaviors are intended for, but it's believed that they may serve as a form of social and behavioral communication.

Humpback Whale alongside its calf.

Humpback Whale alongside its calf.

Habitat and Distribution

Humpback whales are found in all of the major oceans of the world, and are particularly fond of both coastal and continental shelf waters. When migrating, the whales often pass through deeper waters, however, as they make their way toward warmer waters of the south.

As a migratory animal, some humpback whales have been observed travelling in excess of 16,000 miles (or 25,000 kilometers) each year. Currently there are four global populations of the humpback whale that include the North Pacific, Southern Ocean, Atlantic, and Indian Ocean humpbacks.

Although the whale is found worldwide, particularly large concentrations of the humpback whales have been observed in these locations throughout the last few years.

Whale Quote

"To have a huge, friendly whale willingly approach your boat and look you straight in the eye is without a doubt one of the most extraordinary experiences on the planet."

— Mark Carwardine

Prey and Predators

Humpback whales feed primarily on krill, as well as a large array of small fish (particularly schooling fish, such as capelin, sandlance, and herring).

Using a bubble-feeding method, that includes blowing clouds of bubbles to both concentrate and trap local fish populations in singular areas, the whale is able to encircle and enclose on its prey within minutes, consuming large quantities of fish and krill in a single sitting.

Similar to bears, the humpback whale primarily feeds during the summer months, using its fat reserves during the winter as a source of nourishment. The humpback whale is also fond of Pacific Salmon, and has been known to opportunistically feed on salmon near fish hatcheries near Alaska.

Due to its tremendous size, the humpback whale has few natural predators. Recent evidence suggests, however, that killer whales (orcas) may prey upon younger humpbacks before they reach maturity. Evidence of this comes from the extensive scar tissue found on a variety of juvenile whales in recent years.

Scientists believe that predation by the killer whale has been an ongoing thing throughout the centuries. With increasing humpback populations, however, attacks such as these are becoming more common (and visible).


Mating season for humpback whales begins during the winter months. Males often compete in large groups around females for the right to mate, and often resort to extremely aggressive behavior towards one another, forcing weaker males to retreat. The whale is also thought to use songs to attract mates, and to ward off competition with the other males.

Females breed only once every two (to three) years, with a gestational period of nearly twelve months. Calves are primarily born in January and February (for the Northern Hemisphere), while females in the Southern Hemisphere typically give birth in the months of July and August.

Despite the increase in empirical observation in recent years, very little is known about the whale’s birthing process, as they are extremely difficult to observe in their natural habitats.

Conservation Efforts

During the 20th century, the humpback whale was a prime target of whaling fleets; reducing its numbers by approximately 90 percent in the Southern Hemisphere. Due to new international laws and conservation efforts worldwide, the humpbacks appear to be making a substantial comeback in numbers, with well over 11,000 whales in the North Atlantic, alone.

Although illegal hunting and catching continues, current research indicates that the humpback whale is more likely to die from natural causes or from accidental entanglement in fishing lines.


Fascinating Sea Animals

In closing, the humpback whale is one of the most fascinating sea animals in the world due to its tremendous size, intelligence, and natural beauty. Although threatened with the possibility of extinction in the early 20th century, conservation efforts by the international community have had an overwhelmingly positive result on humpback populations in recent years.

While much has been learned about these extraordinary creatures, there is still much to be learned about the humpback whale due to the extreme difficulty in observing the whale in its natural habitat. As new research expeditions continue to increase in the years ahead, it will be interesting to see what new forms of information can be learned about this amazing animal.

Suggestions for Further Reading

  • Clapman, Phil and Colin Baxter. Winged Leviathan: The Story of the Humpback Whale. Colin Baxter Photography Inc., 2013.
  • Pyenson, Nick. Spying on Whales: The Past, Present, and Future of Earth's Most Awesome Creatures. New York, New York: Viking Press, 2018.

Works Cited


Reeves, Randall R. and Brent S. Stewart. National Audubon Society's Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. New York, New York: Chanticleer Press, 2002.

Schultz, Ken. Field Guide to Saltwater Fish. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons Inc., 2004.


Wikipedia contributors, "Humpback whale," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed August 8, 2019).

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2019 Larry Slawson


Sam Shepards from Europe on August 09, 2019:

Ah, I always thought you said Hunchback Whales in English, I'm not a native speaker... Excellent article.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on August 09, 2019:

Thank you Sunshine! Glad you enjoyed!

Zoe Lee from Philippines on August 09, 2019:

That's an informative work. Thanks for sharing

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on August 08, 2019:

I agree Liz! I think it would be awesome!

Liz Westwood from UK on August 08, 2019:

To view one of these close up must be an amazing sight.