humpback whale's Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "Big wings of
New England", and refers to the 15 foot pectoral (side) fins or "flippers" which
protrude from either side of the body. Females are slightly larger than the
males in the adult stage, reaching 45 and 42 feet respectively. A mature
humpback whale may weigh up to a ton per foot, or nearly 40 tons (80,000 lbs)
when fully mature. Calves range from 10 to 15 feet in length, and average 3,000
pounds at birth.
The head of a humpback whale is large in proportion to its body, comprising
nearly one-third the whale's entire body mass. The mouth line runs high along
the entire length of the head, dropping sharply just before the eyes. The eyes
are located one on either side of the head. Each eye is about the size of a
large orange, and is found just above the end of the mouth line. The eyes bulge
slightly from the orbital cavity (eye socket) and are generally brown in color
with a kidney-shaped pupil.
The ear of a humpback is located just behind and below the eye. The absence of
an external ear flap makes it nearly impossible to detect the tiny half-inch ear
slit. The nares, or blowholes, through which the whale breathes air, are located
near the center of the head, and slightly further back than the eyes. There is
an elevated area in front of the blowholes, called the splash guard, or blowhole
crest, which prevents water from pouring into the blowholes when the whale
A humpback whale's head is adorned with curious knobs, which are called
tubercles, or sensory nodules. These golf-ball sized bumps are located on the
humpback's upper and lower jaws, and along the lips. Each tubercle contains a
hair follicle, with a single light gray vibrissa, usually about 0.5 inch long.
The exact function of the tubercles is unknown, but it is generally believed
they provide some sensory capability, perhaps through sensitivity to either
vibration or temperature.
A series of prominent grooves is located along the whale's throat, stretching
from the tip of the lower jaw all the way back to the navel. These ventral
pleats, which may number from 12 to 30, allow the animal to expand its mouth (to
nearly three times the body's normal girth!) during feeding, but yet remain
relatively stream-lined while swimming about at other times.
The torpedo shape of the whale may assist in its long migrations (upwards of
7,000 mile round-trip between the summer feeding areas and the winter breeding
grounds in Hawaii). Humpbacks may occasionally swim at speeds in excess of 15
miles per hour for brief periods. This would probably not be possible if their
mouth was permanently enlarged to its full extent.
Latest news i Hawaii about the whales
watch after entanglement drama
Herald, Australia - Aug 31, 2008
National Parks and Wildlife officers are on standby
after a humpback whale was seen tangled in fishing lines last
week. One week after officers were forced ...
The identification of individual animals is an important way to determine life
histories, social organization, migratory behavior, and abundance patterns of
populations of humpback whales. Although humpback whales have a variety of
individually unique markings and coloration patterns, the underneath surface of
the tail flukes provides the best opportunity for identifying individuals. When
a humpback dives deeply, following a series of respiration surfacings, it will
frequently lift the tail flukes straight out of the water in a fluke-up dive,
revealing the coloration and marking/scar pattern on the ventral surface.
The Pacific Whale Foundation, has collected fluke photographs of approximately
3,500 whales in the North Pacific, and 1,500 whales in the South Pacific. Based
on resights recognized by a number of different researchers, it is known that
most of the North Pacific humpback whales spend the northern summer
(approximately June through October) in Alaska. During the northern winter
(approximately November through May) the humpback whales move south to tropical
waters in Mexico, Hawaii, and south of Japan. One whale was even photographed by
researchers of the University of Mexico off the Baja coast, and then seven weeks
later was photographed by Pacific Whale Foundation researchers in Hawaii!
Songs of the humpback whales: Humpbacks produce a wide array of sounds,
including the highest and lowest frequencies humans can hear, with an
extraordinary range of tonal qualities. How humpbacks create these sounds is
unknown since they do not have functional vocal cords. Some evidence suggests
that the sounds are produced by various valves, muscles, and a series of blind
sacs found branching off the respiratory tract. Most of the sounds produced by
male humpbacks form long, complex patterns or songs, which are often repeated
The humpback is the only great whale known to sing long and complex songs. The
song is in a constant state of evolution. As the season progresses, themes may
be introduced or changed. In a given area, such as Hawaii, all the whales are
singing the same song, with each singer changing its song as the breeding season
progresses. As a result, the song heard at the end of the season is quite
different from the song heard at the beginning. Little or no singing takes place
during the summer feeding months in northern waters and further change to the
song does not appear to occur. When the whales return to the breeding grounds
the following winter, they resume singing the version popular at the end of the
previous breeding season.
The song continues to change as time goes by, until after a number of years the
song is hardly recognizable when compared to its earlier form. Since singing
occurs primarily during the breeding season, it is thought the song serves a
reproductive function. The song may serve to attract females, scare away other
males, or maintain a distance between singers.
To hear the song, go to
Hear the Whales Sing.
The humpback whale is an endangered species that has been protected from whaling
since 1966 in the North Pacific, and since 1963 in the South Pacific. The North
Pacific stock is estimated to be in the order of 3,500 animals, with specific
estimates ranging between 6,000 and 8,000. About 60% are thought to winter in
Hawaii each year, with the remaining 1,500 going in roughly equivalent numbers
to areas off the Baja coast of Mexico, or areas southeast of Japan.
G.D. Kaufman & P.H. Forestell. 1993. Hawaii's Humpback Whales, (3rd ed) PWF
Press: Kihei, HI.
Harrison, R. & M.M. Bryden. 1988. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. Facts on File
Publications: New York.
Harrison, R. & M.M. Bryden. 1995. Whales, Dolphins and Porpoises. National
Geographic Society: Washington, D.C
For more information, contact us at:
Pacific Whale Foundation
101 North Kihei Road
Kihei, HI 96768
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The Humpback Whale
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