A. Body Symmetry: Bilateral
B. Special Pigments or Coloration: Dark grey with lighter underbelly; flippers and flukes are grey and spotted with white
C. Habitat: (Zone) Benthic and coastal
(Geographic): From Alaska to the Caribbean
D. Specific Characteristics:
1) Reproduction: Polygamous; Seasonal breeding 2) Feeding Techniques: Filter feeders; Bubble netting, Ring of foam, Lunging. 3) Defense Techniques: Humpbacks have few predators other than humans, and don’t have any defensive techniques. Some of the largest animals on Earth are the gentlest. The humpback whale is a stellar example of gentle, with its diet, behavior, and complete lack of natural predators. Whales as a species are typically depicted as large animals, understandable with the smallest member of the species, the dwarf sperm whale, measuring on average 9 feet and weighing in at around 400 pounds. The humpback, however, is one of the largest whales, coming in just behind the finback and blue whales. Humpbacks are anywhere from 48 to 63 feet long and weigh an average of 40 tons. They’re recognizable by their large, dark grey bodies with a “hump” shaped dorsal fin and unusually long white pectoral fins.
The humpback’s genus name, Magaptera Novaengliae, means “big-winged, New Englander” because the largest colony of whales was along the northeast coast of the United States in the Atlantic. But humpback whales are also found vastly between California and Russia. They are migratory marine mammals, and often spend their summers in high latitude areas such as the Gulfs of Maine or Alaska, and then swim south to breed in the subtropical waters in the Dominican Republic and Hawaiian Islands. The humpback actually holds the record for farthest migration of any mammal. The longest recorded migration was 5,160 miles from Costa Rica to Antarctica by a pod of 7 whales. The big-winged New Englander’s diet consists of mostly small organisms even though they are such large animals. Humpbacks belong to the branch of whales known as Mysticeti or baleen whales. Baleen whales do not have teeth, they have baleen which are teeth-like bristles that help the whale to filter small fish and crustaceans from the water for the whale to eat.
Baleen whales like the humpback live on a diet of small fish, salmon, herring, krill, and other crustaceans. To compensate for its size, a humpback whale must intake about 3000 pounds of food per day. Humpbacks are very social creatures that travel in pods, and in order to get this much food for the entire pod, they hunt as a group. They don’t hunt like toothed whales, but viciously attacking their prey, but they will lunge at their prey when the confused organisms are trapped in a giant bubble net. Bubble netting is when a pod of whales swim around a school of fish and exhale through their blowholes, producing bubbles, and scaring their prey into a small ball by slapping their flippers and creating loud vocal sounds. Speaking of humpbacks being very social animals, they are also highly recognized by their impressive aerial displays across the surface of the water in spite of their immense weight. Breaching is a popular and well-known trick of all whales. It is when a whale launches themselves above the water, often twisting in midair, and splashing back down on their sides.
Scientists aren’t exactly sure why, but it is speculated that it could be an alternative method of communication as well as an alternative to spyhopping. Spyhopping is when a whale swims vertically to the surface and exposes only as much of their head so as to have their eyes above water in order to check their surroundings. This could very well be why tourist ships get so many photos of whales breaching. Other whale behaviors include slapping the water with its overtly large pectoral fins and belly-flipping. Belly-flipping is simply when a whale lies on its back in the water and slaps the water with one flipper at a time. These behaviors have been seen during courtship and feeding. Humpback whales are polygamous animals, with the males competing for aggressively for oestrous females.
Breeding takes place in the winter and in tropical waters. The gestation period for humpbacks is 11 to 12 months, but the mother only gives birth to one calf at a time. The calf will stay by its mother’s side for 2 to 3 years, and reach sexual maturity at around 4 to 5 years old. Females typically produce offspring every 2 years but can birth 2 calves in 3 years. Since the whales are mammals, the female gives birth to a live calf and then breastfeeds for about 5 months. Humpbacks are not territorial, but calves are also to be protected at all costs. Therefore, it makes sense that these gentle giants are only ever not so gentle when competing for a mate, and when they believe an outside whale poses a threat to the pod’s calves’ safety. In the pod, “Escort” whales may swim with a calf and its mother.
The Escort whale, (most are male), may blow bubbles to create a ‘screen’ when outside humpbacks get too close. They also show aggression on occasion when boats and ships get too close. Such aggressive behavior may include body thrashing, horizontal tail-lashing, and lobtailing. Lobtailing is basically tail slapping, which can do a lot of damage considering the strength in the humpback’s large white and grey flukes. Generally speaking, pods are more aggressive than individual whales. Humpback’s are perhaps most well-known for their hauntingly beautiful and mysterious whale songs. They are the only whales that do so, and scientists have yet to decipher what they mean.
However, we are aware that their melodic whalesong are obviously means of communicating to fellow whales. The songs can last for over 20 minutes and continue for more than 24 hours per session. Male humpbacks have also been known to sing in order to attract mates. For a scary century, humpback whales were high on the endangered species list. It is only recently that these graceful and gentle giants have accumulated once again to a healthy population of at least 80,000 whales. Economically, humpbacks are wonderful tourist attractions for the coastal states as they’re the favorites of whale watchers. It is better that money is made from watching them than money being made for their meat, baleen, skin, and oil, as well as their very existence.