Humpback whales


Humpback whales are gifted singers and tricky hunters: Singing takes place in the South Seas, hunting is done in the cold fjords.


Foto: shutterstock/Shane_Gross


Humpback whales are gifted singers and tricky hunters: Singing takes place in the South Seas, hunting is done in the cold fjords.


Foto: shutterstock/Clinton Hastings


Humpback whales are fabulous acrobats, fantastic singers and very creative hunters. As their routes are well explored, they can be spotted in many places all over the world.

Next to grey whales, humpbacks are the most popular whales among whale watchers. One reason is that their annual migration routes are well known. That means they can be quite reliably met at a certain place at a certain time. An even bigger reason is that humpbacks are great acrobats, fantastic singers and impressive hunters.

Humpbacks are curious animals and rather open-minded when it comes to boats and the people on them. Sometimes they even come close to get a better look at their visitors. Humpbacks like breaching and hurl their 30 ton bodies through the air with amazing ease. Quite often, the whole body is visible before it crashes back into the sea on its side.

Sometimes, they even do rows of jumps and inspire their fellow humpbacks to follow their lead. That way, with some luck, you can see several animals jump at the same time. Take a look:

Great video of five humpbacks breaching at the same time! ?: Blue Ocean Whale Watch

Ein von @oceana gepostetes Video am

»Humpbacks are most likely able to communicate with each other over hundreds and thousands of kilometers.«

Also, humpbacks are great singers. Their songs are available on records and on Spotify. They are the longest and most complex vocalizations in the whole fauna. They consist of several verses with whistling and squeaking sounds and sonorous calls, which are sung in a certain order. Those songs can last up to 30 minutes and this is how they sound.

Those songs are sung over and over again for days and they get repeated every year – with slight alterations, which then get adapted by the whole group. Only the males sing, mostly during mating season in winter in tropical seas. And while doing that, they stand in the waters headfirst – all the time.

As the blue whales’, the humpbacks’ low frequency calls can spread over great distances. Most likely, two humpbacks are able to communicate with each other over hundreds and thousands of kilometers.

Another unique thing about humpbacks is their feeding technique: Their ‘bubblenet-feeding’ starts by one or several whales closing in on swarms of fish in circles, trapping it in a wall of air bubbles. Then, other whales shoot through the swarm from below, swallowing hundreds of fish at once.

On the surface, bubblenet-feeding is first visible by a big circle of bubbles, quickly followed by the first panicking fish, which are pushed to the surface. If you witness this while in a kayak, it is high time to gain some distance.

Usually, humpbacks are very much aware of their size and act very gentle, when they are around boats or kayaks. That, however, is not the case during feeding time, when they focus on just that. When a 30 ton giant with a mouth the size of a garage door is about to feed, the smarter move is to get out of the way.


Illustration: Tobias Gehrt /

11 to 16 meters, a maximum of 19 meters. Females are slightly bigger than males. The weight ranges between 25 and 30 tons.


Dark grey to black, often with white spots on the belly. The bottom side of the pectoral fins and the fluke are lighter or white.


Massive body, lots of bumps on the head. Flippers can be up to 5 meters long, reaching up to one third of the body length.


Medium high, bushy blow. About 3 to 4 meters. Well audible.


Far in the back and barely visible, sometimes hardly recognizable. Sitting on a visible hump.


Wide, slightly curved with a frayed rear edge and a dent in the middle. White spots on the bottom side.


Often curious, boats are often inspected from close up. Very active on the surface.


Mostly medium length dives from 3 to 9 minutes. Maximum of 20 to 30 minutes.


Humpbacks can be found in every ocean. About 60.000 animals worldwide.


Foto: istock/ad_walsh


When diving, the bend of the whales back lets you know if the whale is about to raise its fluke.

Humpbacks often travel together, mostly in twos or threes, sometime in groups of up to 15 animals. When surfacing, the first things to become visible are the two blowholes and the slightly elevated splash guard around it. The blow is bushy and medium high. It can be seen especially well in cold weather.

When going underwater, humpbacks almost always show their flukes, which is unique in shape and color for every animal. With the help of photo comparisons, this makes identification an easy task, even for whale watching beginners. So you can get information about the sighted animals right on board, if you booked a good whale watching tour. Also, raised flukes are the best photo motive: With a bit of experience, it is quite easy to see if the whale is bending its back because it’s about to dive, which means that the fluke is about to go up.

As soon as the fin comes to the surface, the back forms a well visible triangle with the waterline. No other whale bends its back that far. As soon as the fin goes back into the water, the hump is increased even more. The degree of the bend is also the main indicator if they whale is about to raise its fluke.

On the surface, humpbacks can be identified easily by their heads, covered in tubercles and barnacles. Occasionally, they also stick their flippers out of the water. When the humpback goes for a dive, it pays off to take a look at the fluke: Shape and form are unique with every animal, making identification as easy as using a human fingerprint.


Foto: shutterstock/Gudkov_Andrey

Where and when HUMPBACK WHALES

Humpbacks can be found in every ocean. They constantly migrate between tropical areas for mating and polar areas for feeding.

Humpbacks are at home in every ocean and migrate near the coasts with the seasons. While spending the summers in higher latitudes, winter is mating season and spent in tropical waters. Their traveling routes are well known, can be subject to seasonal changes, though.

Popular summer quarters in the Atlantic Ocean are for example: New England, and the Gulf of Maine, the Canadian Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland, Labrador and Greenland, Iceland and Norway. In the Pacific, the best areas are Western Canada and Alaska. Also the Arctic and Antarctica.

In winter, the best areas are the Caribbean, Hawaii and the Oceanic Islands, especially Tonga. This is also where the many spectacular instagram photos of people diving with humpbacks come from. This, however, is something you should leave to scientists and National-Geographic reporters, instead of visiting the animals under water, too.

The coasts of Eastern and Western Australia are also very good places for looking for humpbacks during winter. The whale migration along the coast of New South Wales is one of the biggest marine migrations worldwide. From May to November, thousands of humpback whales make their way along the coast from Brisbane to Sidney. First to the north, then back south again. This is why whale-watching season ends sooner in the north than in the south, where it only begins in September.

During summer (and quite often in the winters, too), the fjords of Norway and Iceland are also full of humpbacks looking for food. Chances of witnessing bubblenet-feeding are very good here. In spring, from April to May, you can also meet humpbacks on the Azores, when they are on their way to Iceland and Greenland.

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