Humpback Whale Facts

14 Surprising Humpback Whale Facts About These Gentle Giants

Humpback whales contribute to the remarkable diversity of marine ecosystems. Studying this list of humpback whale facts allows us to understand these animals' importance in maintaining oceanic health.

One intriguing fact about humpback whales is that males sing, which is part of their advanced communication system. Additionally, humpback whales live in every ocean on Earth. Let's enter the world of these whales and understand the depth of their behavior and their significance to our oceans.

Can't get enough of these humpback whale facts? Check out these general facts about whales

Humpback Whale Facts

humpback whales spring out of water
Photo by Todd Cravens on Unsplash

1. Humpback whales are known to sing.

Humpback whales are known for their captivating songs. Moreover, each humpback whale song is as unique as a human fingerprint6. These spellbinding tunes can travel up to 20 miles underwater1.

Primarily, male humpback whales sing, though why they do so is still a matter of scientific curiosity. Researchers suggest humpback whale songs allow males to announce their presence, assert dominance, and ultimately attract females. 

Furthermore, they can sing for hours. Sometimes, humpback whales spend hours singing their 10-20 minute songs, creating an underwater symphony.

Moreover, researchers have discovered that their vocalizations change over time, incorporating new phrases or altering themes, indicating that whale populations perform some form of cultural sharing among one another. Entire pods can incorporate these new variations into their songs as soon as they appear.  

2. Humpback whales have baleen plates for teeth.

humpback whale lunge feeding
Photo by Brad Lewis on Unsplash

As a baleen whale, a humpback whale has baleen plates instead of teeth. Humpback whales eat massive amounts of tiny marine organisms through these plates. Composed of keratin, the same substance in human nails and hair, these fringed, overlapping plates function as organic filters hanging from either side of the whale's mouth. 

When humpback whales and other baleen whales eat, they open their mouths to take in vast amounts of seawater. Then, their baleen plates sift through the water, which the whales spew through their blowholes. Small prey like krill, plankton, anchovies, sardines, cod, and mackerel get trapped and consumed.

Moreover, humpbacks are opportunistic feeders, mainly foraging in nutrient-rich polar waters during summer. Their baleen plates scoop up marine organisms and help them store vast energy reserves to help them survive long migrations to warmer waters4.

3. Humpback whales are acrobatic.

humpback whale swimming up
Photo by Jon Eckert on Unsplash

Humpback whales perform acrobatic feats like breaching, spy-hopping, and tail slapping. A breaching humpback whale springs out of the water into the air before crashing down, creating a massive splash. Meanwhile, spy-hopping is more subtle; the whale peeks out of the water to observe its surroundings. 

Researchers believe these behaviors help humpback whales communicate, interact, or assert dominance over one another. For example, a breaching humpback whale might signal the presence of a robust and healthy individual to other whales. 

On the other hand, slapping, or lobtailing, makes loud noises that carry messages across vast underwater distances. Playful interactions like these also help strengthen bonds within their social groups or pods.

4. Humpback whales live on 3,000 lbs of food per day.

An adult humpback whale can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food daily. Though juveniles eat only around 1,500 pounds, their food requirement only grows as they mature. 

While hunting, humpback whales utilize a suitable hunting technique called bubble net feeding. Groups of up to 20 individuals release bubbles in a circular pattern, forming a net that traps and disorients their prey. 

As some whales create the bubble net, others emit vocalizations, herding the prey towards the circle's center. Once the prey is corralled, humpbacks lunge through the center, mouths wide open, taking in massive amounts of water.

5. Humpback whales are known to perform for their mates.

humpback whales calf
Photo by Jorge Vasconez on Unsplash

During mating season, males compete with one another to attract a partner, usually by singing. Emitting melodic tunes that can last for hours, these songs reveal the uniqueness and endurance of each male.

Besides singing, male humpback whales perform acrobatics to show strength and agility. They leap out of the water and crash with a resounding splash, attracting females and intimidating rival males. 

Sometimes, males even engage in physical confrontations; they ram, head-butt, and bite each other to establish dominance. Ultimately, the female humpback whale picks a mate based on the most impressive performance and strength. However, males do not stay to help female humpback whales rear their young. Instead, they go off to pursue other mates.

6. Humpback whale calves can weigh up to 2,000 lbs at birth.

Humpback whale calves weigh up to 2,000 pounds and measure 10 to 15 feet long. Moreover, they learn to swim minutes after birth, though they still rely on their mothers to guide and protect them from danger. 

Drinking up to 130 gallons of their mother's fat-rich milk, humpback whales grow exponentially in their first year. They also gain around 100 pounds a day. Mothers teach essential survival skills like breaching, spy-hopping, and tail-slapping as they grow stronger. The mother forms a strong bond with her calf during their adventures, staying close together during long migrations2.  

After a year, the calves become independent, weighing 27,000 pounds and measuring 26 to 30 feet long. 

Did you enjoy the first half of our humpback whale facts? Learn more exciting ones below!

7. Humpback whales are curious and intelligent.

Humpback whales are curious creatures approaching boats and engaging with humans in the water, showing genuine interest in people and objects around them.

Besides, they frequently work in groups and use advanced strategies like bubble net feeding. They also work with dolphins to maximize their hunting success and prevent potential threats.

8. Humpback whales defend other animals from predators.

humpback whales during daytime
Photo by Stacey Morrison on Unsplash

Humpback whales protect smaller marine animals, such as seals and dolphins, from predators like orcas. For example, researchers have observed these gentle giants placing their colossal bodies between the orcas and their targets3. Furthermore, humpbacks deploy powerful flippers and tails to create water turbulence, deterring predators.

The phenomenon has pushed scientists to speculate about its motives. One theory suggests that humpbacks protect other animals from maintaining a balanced ecosystem. Meanwhile, another theory suggests that humpback whales have learned this behavior through generations.

9. Humpback whales migrate for 16,000 miles every year.

group of humpback whales
Photo by Vivek Kumar on Unsplash

Every year, humpback whales travel up to 16,000 miles, migrating from the cold polar waters to the warm tropical waters near the equator. Their migration is one of the longest journeys in the animal kingdom, allowing them to feed in cold water and breed in the tropics. 

During migration, they maintain an average pace of 3 to 6 miles per hour and cover about 100 miles daily. They generally follow coastal migration routes, tracing the outlines of continents and islands. While the exact paths vary among whale populations, many whales return to the same feeding and breeding grounds yearly. 

However, humpback whales face various challenges along their journey, such as entanglement in fishing gear, ship strikes, and the effects of climate change. 

10. Humpback whales are best friends with barnacles.

Barnacles latch onto the humpback whale and free-ride through nutrient-rich waters. Using their appendages called cirri, barnacles feed on plankton while the whale cuts across the ocean. Hitching a ride gives these crustaceans a steady food supply and refuge from predators.

Meanwhile, the humpback whale experiences zero effects from the presence of barnacles. Some scientists suggest that the barnacles add camouflage or help deter predators, thanks to their rigid and occasionally sharp exoskeletons. Interestingly, each whale's barnacle distribution is unique, which helps researchers identify and track specific humpbacks over time.

11. Humpback whale tails have unique patterns.

humpback whale's tail
Photo by Andrew Bain on Unsplash

The underside of humpback whales' tail flukes shows patterns that differ from each whale, similar to human fingerprints. Additionally, these patterns remain the same throughout the whale's life. Scientists and marine biologists use these markings for photo-identification, a non-invasive technique that lets them study humpback whales without touching or tagging them5. Since a humpback's tail can stretch up to 18 feet, people can easily spot these patterns from a distance. 

The distinct tail patterns enable researchers to follow a humpback whale and collect vital data on migration patterns, social structures, and population sizes. Moreover, they can assess their well-being and spot potential risks, such as entanglement in fishing gear or ship collisions.

12. Humpback whale populations are making a comeback.

humpback whales have barnacles
Photo by Mike Doherty on Unsplash

In the early 20th century, the humpback whale teetered on the edge of extinction due to rampant hunting. Whale hunters decimated their populations for their oil, meat, and baleen. Fortunately, the International Whaling Commission imposed a global moratorium on commercial whaling in 1966. Besides a ban on commercial whaling, increased public awareness and stricter regulations on shipping and fishing helped the humpback whale recover from near extinction.

Today, as a species of "least concern," humpback whales are steadily recovering, even rebounding by 90% in some regions. As a result, the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) revised its classification to "Least Concern" on its Red List. However, while the recovery of humpback whale populations is a victory, it is essential to continue conservation efforts. 

13. How you can help humpback whales

One way to address threats concerning humpback whales is by supporting conservation organizations. Consider donating to or volunteering with groups like Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Ocean Conservancy, and Marine Conservation Institute

You can also reduce your use of single-use plastics. Discarded plastics often end up in oceans, threatening marine life, including humpback whales. Moreover, minimizing our carbon footprint helps combat climate change.

Additionally, be responsible whale watchers by following guidelines and regulations. For example, choose a whale-watching tour operator that follows the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) regulations. 

Finally, avoid high-speed travel while boating in areas frequented by humpback whales. Going slow helps boats avoid colliding with these magnificent creatures. 

We hope you enjoyed this list of interesting humpback whale facts!

Related: To further explore the animal kingdom, check out some of the other animals that start with H.

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1

Cholewiak, D., Cerchio, S., Jacobsen, J. K., Urbán-R., J., & Clark, C. W. (2018). Songbird dynamics under the sea: acoustic interactions between humpback whales suggest song mediates male interactions. Royal Society Open Science, 5(2), 171298.

2

Videsen, S. K., Bejder, L., Johnson, M., & Madsen, P. T. (2017). High suckling rates and acoustic crypsis of humpback whale neonates maximize potential for mother–calf energy transfer. Functional Ecology, 31(8), 1561-1573.

3

Pitman, R. L., Deecke, V. B., Gabriele, C. M., Srinivasan, M., Black, N., Denkinger, J., ... & Ternullo, R. (2017). Humpback whales interfering when mammal-eating killer whales attack other species: Mobbing behavior and interspecific altruism?. Marine Mammal Science, 33(1), 7-58.

4

Goldbogen, J. A., Calambokidis, J., Croll, D. A., Harvey, J. T., Newton, K. M., Oleson, E. M., ... & Tershy, B. R. (2008). Foraging behavior of humpback whales: kinematic and respiratory patterns suggest a high cost for a lunge. Journal of Experimental Biology, 211(21), 3712-3719.

5

Katona, S. K., Baxter, B., Brazier, O., Kraus, S., Perkins, J., & Whitehead, H. (1979). Identification of humpback whales by fluke photographs. In H. E. Winn & B. L. Olla (Eds.), Behavior of marine animals: Current perspectives in research (Vol. 3, pp. 33-44). Springer.

6

Noad, M. J., Cato, D. H., Bryden, M. M., Jenner, M. N., & Jenner, K. C. (2000). Cultural revolution in whale songs. Nature, 408(6812), 537-537.

Mike is a degree-qualified researcher and writer passionate about increasing global awareness about climate change and encouraging people to act collectively in resolving these issues.

Fact Checked By:
Chinny Verana, BSc.

Photo by Thomas Kelley on Unsplash
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