Humpback whales are the stars of the show in the whale watching world because of the frequency that they display surface activity. They love to breach, propelling themselves powerfully out of the water to show most of their body, twisting in mid-air and coming down with a colossal splash.


How big are humpback whales?

Humpback whales grow to between 15 and 19 metres in length (about the size of a bus) and weigh approximately 40 tons. One of their most noticeable and distinctive features are their long and ungainly-looking pectoral fins (flippers). These can grow to nearly 5 metres long, making them relatively the longest flippers of any baleen whale.

This feature is related in their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, which means "big wing of New England." Although they may look overly long and cumbersome scientists have found that they are actually vey hydrodynamic and well adapted for manoeuvrability.

Where do humpback whales live?

Humpback whales can be found in every ocean in the world, but are most concentrated in a band running from the Antarctic ice edge to 81° N latitude. Where they can be commonly fund also depends on the temperature and the time of year. In the summer many spend their time in high-latitude feeding areas such as the Gulf of Alaska or the Gulf of Maine, then in the winter they can be found in the warmer waters near to the equator .

Can you see humpback whales in the UK?

Humpbacks can be spotted near the southern tip of Shetland, Scotland. Many whale species migrate near the Shetland islands, and the best place to see them is 40-50 miles west of the islands where they pass on their way to visit feeding grounds, with June and July being peak periods.

Do humpback whales migrate?

Yes humpbacks have one of the longest migrations of any mammal, particularly a marine mammal. They spend their summers feeding in cold nutrient-rich productive waters at high latitudes and winters in warmer tropical waters.

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Do humpbacks take breaks on their migrations?

Satellite-tracking studies have shown that humpback whales sometimes break their long migrations at giant underwater mountains, called seamounts.

For example, they pause for a few days at La Pérouse seamount between the Indian Ocean islands of Réunion and Madagascar, and in the Pacific, off New Caledonia, they hang around seamounts for a week or more before continuing their southward migration.

It’s not known for sure what humpbacks get up to during these stopovers, but they may feed in the waters above seamounts, which are often thick with plankton and fish.

They may also congregate here to mate, using the huge geographical features as meeting points.

Another theory is that male humpbacks use the acoustic properties of seamounts to amplify their songs through the ocean.

Perhaps the whales locate the seamounts (which influence the Earth’s geomagnetic field) by means of magnetic mental maps.

Helen Scales

Do humpback whales have teeth?

Humpbacks are baleen whales and therefore are devoid of teeth, which means that they have a specialised filter feeding systems inside their mouths instead. They filter their food through baleen plates, which are made up of fringed brushes which grow in rows from the upper jaw.

What and how do humpback whales eat?

They take huge gulps of water into their mouths, then push the water out through the plates, trapping their prey inside. This prey is mainly made up of krill - small crustaceans, as well as other small invertebrates, but may also include small schooling fishes such as anchovies, sardines, and mackerel.

Some humpback whales use an ingenious cooperative method to trap fish called 'bubble netting'. These whales will dive below a school of fish then spiral back upwards blowing air bubbles as they go. As these bubbles rise they disorientate and trap the fish into a tight ball. The whales can then swim quickly upwards into the shoal and gulp down a concentrated mouthful of fish. This behaviour is often performed in groups, and is thought to be learned rather than instinctive, as some groups know how to do it and others don't.

Identifying features of the humpback


A prominent feature of the head is a series of bumps known as tubercles. Each one has a sensory hair, and it is possible that the whale uses these ‘whiskers’ to judge prey density in the water during bouts of feeding.

Upper jaw

This contains up to 400 baleen plates, which strain out the water to leave the food – often krill or schooling fish. The throat opening is merely the size of a football, so only small prey can be consumed.

Throat grooves

Humpbacks have 14–35 grooves, known as ‘ventral pleats’, that extend back to the navel. These allow the throat to expand massively as sea water rushes in during feeding.

Pectoral fins

These wing-like fins may be smashed against the water’s surface, often together, while the whale is lying on its back. They are largely white on the underside and a third of the animal’s total body length.

Tail stock

The region between the dorsal fin and fluke (tail) houses a phenomenally powerful muscle. This means that the whale is capable of breaching from just below the surface, and doesn’t need to dive deep beforehand to get a ‘running start’.

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Why are they called humpback?

Humpback whales are named, predictably, after an obvious hump in front of their small dorsal fin. Compared to those of other whales and dolphins, this dorsal fin is small and stubby. This hump is emphasised when they raise and bend their backs in preparation for a dive.

How long do humpback whales live for?

As they don't have teeth which could be used to estimate their age, it is hard to know how long they could live for. Some estimates say that they have a lifespan of approximately 50 years, whilst others say it could be up to 80.

How do humpback whales communicate?

Humpback whales are well known for their haunting, evocative calls or 'songs'. These complex sequences of moans, howls, and cries can last for hours and travel vast distances through the ocean.

The exact function of humpback song's is not known, but there are many theories.

As it is the male that produces the long complex songs (females have shorter vocalisations), and these are produced during the breeding season, it is speculated that they may function to attract females. It could also act as a challenge to other males. Yet another theory is that it has an ecolocative function, acting as a sonar, so that the whales can 'see' and navigate around their environment.

Humpbacks also use grunts, groans, and snorts to communicate with one another, and calfs are known to 'whisper' to their mothers, using low tones that can only be heard from short distance away. This may help them to avoid predators and big males. Read more here.

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Humpback whale. ©Matt Maran/Nature Picture Library.

Do humpback whales live in social groups?

Humpback whales do not live in tight-knit social groups, instead they travel either alone or in transient groupings of two or three individuals (pods) that disband after a few hours, although longer-term associations have been observed.

They may gather together for longer to hunt and feed however, for example when bubble-netting cooperatively as described above, and males may band together into "competitive groups" around a female to try and mate with her.

How do humpback whales mate and reproduce?

Humpback whales have fairly complex courtship rituals that take place during the winter months. Before these can begin however, the whales must first congregate in the warm equatorial breeding waters, often travelling thousands of miles from their summer feeding grounds to find a mate.

Once they arrive the males need to earn the right to mate with a female, and this involves often fierce competition. Unrelated males will group together to tail females and will fight each other around her, breaching, tail-slapping, and charging at one another. In doing so they hope to impress the female with their dominance and strength. Most of this fighting is for show however, and it is rare that they will cause each other serious physical harm.

Singing also plays a part in reproduction. It is thought that males will use song to attract the female, as well as to show dominance. It may also have an important role in inducing oestrus in females.

Once mating has occurred, the gestation period for female whales is 11.5 months. Once born, the calves are between 3 and 4.5 m long and weigh up to a ton.

Are humpback whales dangerous?

Humpback whales are by nature mostly gentle and non-aggressive animals, so it is very unlikely for them to do any harm to a human. They are however very large and curious and will sometimes approach boats.

Due to their acrobatic tendencies its is possible for them to breach and strike boats, and there was a case in 2015 of a Canadian woman who was killed when a breaching humpback whale landed on the snorkelling tour boat she was on. This is however extremely rare as humpbacks tend to be aware of their surroundings and avoid direct contact with boats and swimming humans.

Are humpback whales at risk of extinction?

Intensive hunting over centuries by the whaling industry severely reduced humpback whale populations, such that the population of humpbacks in the western South Atlantic dropped to only about 450 individuals. It is estimated that at least 300 000 individuals were killed worldwide.

Vintage engraving showing Whalers attacking a whale with a harpoon, 19th Century. duncan1890/Getty
Vintage engraving showing Whalers attacking a whale with a harpoon, 19th Century. © duncan1890/Getty

Protections were put in place in the 1960s, and a complete ban on commercial whaling was put in place in 1985 (although some countries still hunt whales under the guise of 'scientific whaling'). Since the ban populations of humpbacks have steadily recovered. Encouragingly, a newly published study has reported a significant population rebound, with the current abundance in the western South Atlantic now close to 25,000 whales, an estimate beloved to be close to pre-whaling numbers. Read more here.

Although as recently as 1988 humpbacks were listed as endangered, the IUCN now classifies them as 'least concern'. They are however still under threat from hunting in west Greenland and on Bequia, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, from collisions with ships, and entanglement in fishing gear.


Main image: © Craig-Lambert/Getty