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Humpback Whale

Megapter novaengliae

 

 

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Whale tail EB Tarry

Humpback Whale slapping tail. Photo by Emmalee Tarry 

The Humpback is the Right Whale for Whale Watching
The Northern Right Whale was named because it was the animal early whalers considered the right whale for killing. It provided good oil and was easy to catch because it floated after it was killed. Today the name of the game is whale watching and the right whale to watch is the Humpback Whale. It is slow moving, does not seem to mind boats and puts on a good performance of surface activities.

Identification of Humpback Whales

The Humpback Whale is the easiest whale to identify. The first thing you will notice is the puffy blow and the lumpy dorsal fin both visible above the water at the same time as seen in Leonard Medlock’s photo to the right.

Like all Baleen Whales, the Humpback has two blow holes. Notice however that the blow appears as a single puffy cloud.  The blow is air being expelled from the lungs.  Water droplets in the air make it appear to be a column of water. There is water in the air expelled from our lungs which you can see on  a cold morning.

For a comparison of the blows of different whales see the section on Behaviors of whales and dolphins

Humpback Whale blow and dorsal fin Leonard Medlock 

Long Flippers
The Humpback Whale is the only whale with long flippers. Shaped like a boat oar, the flipper can be up to 15' long. Usually white on the underside, the flippers have a variable amount of white on the upper surface. On this whale, the upper surface is mostly white.


This photo also shows the lumpy dorsal fin and the two blow holes visible above the water at the same time.


Photograph of Humback Whale lolling on the surface on a very calm sea by John Woolf of New Hampshire Audubon.

Humpback Whale long white flippers Jon Woolf 

Two Blow Holes on Top of Head
If you as an air breathing mammal were to decide to live full time in the water, the most convenient place for your nose would be on the top of your head so that you could surface and exhale and inhale without lifting your entire head.

Mammals evolved on land. Whales and dolphins returned to the ocean and during this evolution their nose migrated to the top of their head. Seals and Sea lions also evolved on land and returned to the water but retained the position of their nose so they have to lift their entire head to breath.

Humpback Whales like all Baleen Whales have two blow holes on the top of their head.
This excellent photo by Jim Besada clearly shows the two blow holes of the Humpback Whale.
Notice also the long flipper under the water which appears mostly white.

Humpback Whale 2 blow holes  Jim Beseda 

Lift Tail on deep dive - Fluking 

Humback Whale fluking EB Tarry

Humpback Whales when starting a deep dive sometimes roll forward and lift their tail above the water. This is called fluking.  If the photographer is directly behind the whale they can get a picture of the under side of the tail. 

Notice in the picture to the right that the Humpback Whale tail has a jagged trailing edge.

 

Since each whale has a unique pattern of white and dark on the undersideof the tail, the whale can be identified to individual by studying these photographs. The north Atlantic whales have been studing this way for more than 30 years and a large database has been built which allows  researchers to follow the lineage of whales.  When a whale appears with a new calt, the under tail of the calf is photographed.  At  the end of the summer a meeting is held and new calfs are given suitable names.Some whales have been followed for 4 generations.

Whale Footprints 

Whale and dolphins swim by moving their tails up and down in a vertical motion while fish and sharks move the tail from side to side. The mighty thrust of the whale’s tail makes a rising water column which forms a smooth foot print when it reaches the the surface. Photograph by Emmalee Tarry shows a whale foot print.

Some times a series of foot prints will clearly show the path the whale is taking under water. Dolphin foot prints do not show up as well.

Try this the next time you go swimming. Use your leg to make a vertical motion toward the surface. You can do it better with fins on. Your print will not last very long but it is the same principle.

Whale footpirnt  EB Tarry 
Humpback Whale flipper slapping EBTarry 

Flipper Slapping
On occasion for reasons unknown, a Humpback Whales will roll on one side and slap its long flipper against the water. This may be a method of communication.

Note the shape of the flipper and the white underside. There may be varying amounts of white on the top side of the flipper.

Remember that animals that live in the sea are in most cases light on the underside which blends with the light coming from the surface of the water and dark on top which makes them harder to see from above.
 

 

Tail Slapping
Humpback Whales and perhaps other species make a series of tail slaps while holding their head under water. The reason for tail slapping is unknown but may be a form of long distance communication.

Breeching
The whale leaps out of the water and falls back in after making a half twist.  When you see a whale breech, keep wating because they often will do this over and over.  May be associated with defecating.

 

Humpback Whale breech Ron Lockwood 

Head Breech
Sometimes Humpback Whales just raise their head and plop it back in the water as this one is doing. This photo was taken by Emmalee Tarry.


This is not common behavior and the webmaster has only observed it once.

Humpback Whale head breech EB Tarry 

Mother and Calf
The only permanent association between Humpback Whales is the mother calf pair. Here the much small calf on the left swims alongside the mother.

Several Humpback Whale may swim or feed togather, but the relationship is temporary.

 While the calf is still with the mother, a picture of the underside of the tail is obtained and recorded in the database. This helps the researchers follow a whale ancestry.

 

Humpback Whale mother and calf EB Tarry 

Bubble Feeding
Whales use different tactics to catch fish. On of the most interesting ways they feed is to use a cloud of bubbles to concentrate the prey. The whale or whales swim underwater releasing clouds of bubbles that rise to the surface in a dense cloud. Perhaps the tiny fish try to hide in the cloud of bubbles or maybe the bubbles just confuse the fish. The whale then swims through the bubble clouds catching the fish. The Humpback Whales of the Gulf of Maine are very practiced in this behavior. Experienced whale watchers from Australia told me they had never witnessed this feeding method.
 

Humpback Whales bubble feeding EB Tarry 

In the picture above two whales are blowing columns of bubbles to confuse the fish. The birds seem to know something good is coming because they are hanging over the bubbles.


Humpback Whales bubble feeding end EBTarry

Two whales have swum through the bubbles with their mouths open. They are now at the surface closing their jaws to trap the fish. A few fish will escape and so here come the birds for their share. These pictures were taken by Emmalee Tarry from a whale watching boat on the south end of Stellwagen Bank.

On another trip a single whale was blowing a circle  of bubble columns and then swimming up through the center.  Is this a learned behavior localized to whales in the Gulf of Maine.


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Folkens, Peter (2002) Guide to Marine Mammals of the World Alfred A. Knopf New York

Kinze, Carl Charistian (2001) Marine Mammals of the North Atlantic Princeton University Press Princeton NJ