Humpback whale
Humpback whale

Common name: humpback whale
Scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae
Length: 12 to 15 metres
Weight: 36,200 kg or 80,000 lb
Population: approximately 60,000 individuals
Distribution: all ice-free oceans
Issue: species recovering from over-hunting
IUCN Red List status: least concern

The humpback whale is a marine mammal named for its obvious dorsal hump when diving. It also has small knobs called “tubercles” on its head and lower jaw. The tubercles are hair follicles, a unique characteristic of this species. Although only half the size of the blue whale, it is still an enormous animal. These baleen whales inhabit nearly all the world’s oceans, an immense habitat they move through during seasonal migrations.

These migrations between feeding areas (cold waters of high latitudes) and breeding areas (warm waters of tropical regions) are what separate the four major populations: North Atlantic, North Pacific, Indian Ocean, and Southern Ocean. In the summer months, humpback whales feed in cold waters on krill and small fish such as capelin, herring, and sand lance. They then embark on the long journey to warmer waters, where the females give birth. Until their return to colder waters, they live and produce milk for their calves solely from fat reserves. Humpback migrations can be as long as 8,500 kilometres, stretching from the Antarctic to the warm waters off the east coast of Costa Rica.

Silver Bank, a shallow region of 1,680 square kilometres north of the Dominican Republic is a sanctuary for North Atlantic humpbacks. Up to 7,000 individuals journey here between January and March, and over half of the whales in this population are born here. The area has been protected since 1986.

Humpback whales are famous for their mysterious songs and spectacular leaps out of the water (called “breaches”), both of which may be linked to males’ courtship of females. The complexity of their songs, the most intricate among the 87 species of cetacean, has led some researchers to believe that they are a form of language. The songs’ meaning remains a mystery, but we do know that they change over time, that individual populations sing essentially the same song, and that one individual can sing up to nine different musical themes.

As with other rorqual species, humpback populations were greatly affected by the overhunting that occurred from 1868 until 1966, when it was banned. Today, most populations are slowly recovering, although their numbers remain far inferior to what they were before the period of industrial hunting. Certain peoples are permitted to hunt humpbacks for subsistence purposes and to perpetuate traditional ways of life. For instance, the inhabitants of Saint Vincent in the Caribbean hunt one or two whales per year.

While humpback whales were considered “endangered” in the 1980s and “vulnerable” in the 1990s, their worldwide population is now considered healthy enough for them to be designated as a species of “least concern.”

Did you know?
Humpback whales can take up to 2,000 litres of water into their huge mouths in one gulp!

REFERENCES: Red List of Threatened Species of the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) and Encyclopedia of Life.

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