Cornforth Images

Humpback Whale

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are baleen whales. They are one of the larger rorqual species, a family that also includes the blue whale, fin whale, Bryde’s whale, sei whale, and minke whale. Adults range in length from 40-50 ft (11-15 m) and can weigh up to 80,000 lb (37,000 kg). Humpbacks have a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobby head. The shape and color pattern on the humpback whale’s dorsal fin and flukes (tail) are individual for each animal and are used by cetacean (whale) researchers to identify an animal in research known as photo-identification. They are among the most acrobatic of whales, often breaching and slapping the water with their flukes. Males produce a complex whale song, which lasts for 10 to 20 minutes. Each population’s song changes slowly over a period of years.

They feed only in summer in the cold polar waters, and migrate to tropical or sub-tropical waters in the winter to breed and give birth. During the winter, humpbacks do not feed and live off their fat reserves. Their diet consists mostly of krill and small fish. Humpbacks use several feeding methods, including the spectacular cooperative bubble-net feeding. Using this technique, a group of whales blows bubbles while swimming in a circle to create a ring of bubbles under their prey. The whales then swim upward through the bubble net with their mouths open, swallowing thousands of fish in one gulp. This technique can involve a ring of bubbles up to 100 feet (30 meters) in diameter and the cooperation of a dozen animals. An amazing video of humpbacks bubble-feeding can be seen onYouTube.

Humpback whales were heavily hunted in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. It is estimated that during the 20th century alone at least 200,000 humpbacks were killed, reducing the global population by over 90%, with the population in the North Atlantic estimated to have dropped to as low as 700 individuals. To prevent extinction, the International Whaling Commission introduced a ban on commercial humpback whaling in 1966. Currently the worldwide population is estimated to be over 20,000.

The best locations to photograph humpback whales are on either end of their annual migrations which can be up to 15,000 miles (25,000 km). The northern Pacific population spends the summer in Alaska and winters in Hawaii and Mexico. The north Atlantic population spends the summer in Canada and winters in the Caribbean. The southern Pacific population spends the summer in Antarctica and migrates to warmer waters in Australia, Costa Rica, Fiji, and Tonga during the winter.

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