Whales are characteristically known to be large creatures that traverse the ocean freely, not as fish but as mammals. What makes them so attractive isn’t the fact that they are amongst the biggest and most graceful animals on the planet but that there are so many peculiarities about them. From blue whales to sperm whales and humpbacks, their species are as diverse as they are spectacular.
This article will focus on the popular humpback whale: famously known for the permanent hump on their small stubby dorsal fins, with the humps clearly visible and easily distinguishable whenever they are making a dive into the water.
Here are just 10 facts about the incredible humpback whales.
1) They are enormous but agile creatures
While not being as big as the gargantuan blue whale, the humpback is still an enormous creature in its own right. With the average length of a female humpback being 15-16 m (49 – 52 ft) and the average length of a male humpback whale being around 13-14 m (42 – 45 ft), this places them around the same length as a Greyhound bus. Beyond this, one of the most iconic features of humpbacks are their impressively proportioned flippers, which themselves can grow to almost 5 m long. While humpbacks may easily be mistaken for being clumsy and awkward swimmers, owing to their tremendous size, scientific studies have since shown that they are in fact highly capable in the water.
2) They have a unique feeding method
As baleen whales, humpbacks employ a unique filter-feeding process. All food they consume is first filtered through baleen plates, which are comprised of numerous edged brushes which emanate from their upper jaw. Humpbacks take in gigantic sums of water into their mouths and push the water through the plates. By doing so, they ensnare their prey inside. Despite the massive size of humpbacks, they predominantly feed on small prey, which consists mostly of crabs, crayfish, krill, and lobsters, as well as fish like mackerel and sardines.
A truly fascinating thing about humpback whale feeding is a concept known as ‘bubble netting’. This is where multiple humpbacks work together by diving beneath large schools of fish, before spiraling in an upward manner while exhaling bubbles of air. When this happens, the air bubbles create confusion amongst the fish, forcing them to merge together and form a densely tight ball. When this happens, the whales are able to quickly engulf them. Scientists believe that this is an acquired skill, rather than an instinctive one, as not all humpbacks have been shown to demonstrate this intelligent method of coordinated hunting.
3) They live for many decades
While it may interest you to know that you can measure the age of fish by the number of teeth they have, humpback whales do not possess any teeth, so it is understandably difficult to determine their actual lifespans. Through their research however, scientists have estimated that humpback whales can live between 50 and 80 years.
4) Their travel buddies are only temporary
Unlike some species, humpback whales do not travel in large groups, instead choosing to journey in small groups known as pods which typically number between two to three individuals. These pods are only temporary formations, with most of them dispersing within a few hours. An exception to this is when the whales choose to hunt in unison together, as described earlier in the article. Another exception is when male humpbacks are competing for the right to mate with a female humpback. Other than that though, these animals seem to enjoy the peace and serenity of traveling alone.
5) They have an elaborate communication system
Humpback whales are known to communicate with each other through their enchanting and expressive audible signals. They are able to produce intricate arrays of groans, roars and shrieks that can endure for many hours and traverse tremendous distances through the deep sea waters. While the true purpose of these audible transmissions is not understood, there are many speculations.
It is known that the male humpbacks are responsible for generating the longer, more complicated wailings and that these are performed during the mating season. The meaning behind these calls could therefore be to attract a mating partner, while at other times, the calls could also be used as a sign of power and dominance to fellow male humpbacks who are also on the lookout for a mating partner. Another belief is that the humpbacks are merely using their vocals as a sonar device, with the sounds they make effectively allowing them to maneuver throughout their environments.
Beyond this, baby humpbacks are also known to implement their own audible calls, with a young calf having the ability to ‘whisper’ to their mothers to avoid drawing the attention of dangerous predators.
6) They are found in every ocean of the world
While humpback populations can be found in every corner of the globe, their most significant populations can be found from an area extending from antarctica to 81st parallel north. The abundance of humpback whales throughout the world, has made them an extremely popular attraction among whale watching tours.
7) They have complicated courtship routines
When it comes to breeding, humpbacks elect to do so in the warmer waters around the equator, with whales traversing thousands of kilometers to secure their ideal partner. When the male humpbacks have reached the mating destination, they are required to battle against each other for the right to breed with the female humpback. This involves slapping their tails, breaching (launching themselves up out of the water) and ramming into each other.
All of these acts are performed in the hopes of impressing the female. It should be noted that the competition between the males isn’t done with aggression however, but are more akin to a showcase of individual talents. For this reason, it is rare that any male humpbacks are injured during the courting process. As well as this, male vocal calls may also used in the courtship process, acting as a means to attract the female, while also warding off would-be competitors. Once the humpback has become impregnated, the typical pregnancy lasts for almost 12 months. Once conceived, each calf measures between 3 and 5 m long (9 and 15 ft) and weighs up to a ton.