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Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Status | Taxonomy | Species Description | Habitat | Distribution |
Population Trends | Threats | Conservation Efforts | Regulatory Overview |
Key Documents | More Info

  humpback whale breaching
Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)
Photo: NOAA

humpback call spectrogram
What does a humpback whale sound like?
Alaska humpback whale call

Credit: NOAA VENTS Program

humpback whale
Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)
Credit: Robert Pitman, NOAA

ESA Endangered - throughout its range*
MMPA Depleted - throughout its range
CITES Appendix I - throughout its range

* Two populations (Central North Pacific and North Pacific) are under review for delisting.

Kingdom: Animalia
Phylum: Chordata
Class: Mammalia
Order: Cetacea
Family: Balaenopteridae
Genus: Megaptera
Species: novaeangliae

Species Description
Weight: 25-40 tons (50,000-80,000 lbs; 22,000-36,000 kg);
newborns weigh about 1 ton (2,000 lbs; 900 kg)
Length: up to 60 feet (18 m), with females larger than males;
newborns are about 15 ft (4.5 m) long
Appearance:  primarily dark grey, with some areas of white
Lifespan: about 50 years
Diet: tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish; they can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1360 kg) of food per day
Behavior: breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface

Humpback whales are well known for their long "pectoral" fins, which can be up to 15 feet (4.6 m) in length. Their scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means "big-winged New Englander" as the New England population was the one best known to Europeans. These long fins give them increased maneuverability; they can be used to slow down or even go backwards.

Similar to all baleen whales, adult females are larger than adult males, reaching lengths of up to 60 feet (18 m). Their body coloration is primarily dark grey, but individuals have a variable amount of white on their pectoral fins and belly. This variation is so distinctive that the pigmentation pattern on the undersides of their "flukes" is used to identify individual whales, similar to a human fingerprint.

Humpback whales are the favorite of whale watchers, as they frequently perform aerial displays, such as breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins, tails, or heads.

In the summer, humpbacks are found in high latitude feeding grounds, such as the Gulf of Maine in the Atlantic and Gulf of Alaska in the Pacific. In the winter, they migrate to calving grounds in subtropical or tropical waters, such as the Dominican Republic in the Atlantic and the Hawaiian Islands in the Pacific. The Arabian Sea humpback does not migrate, remaining in tropical waters all year.

Humpback whales travel great distances during their seasonal migration, the farthest migration of any mammal. The longest recorded migration was 5,160 miles (8,300 km); this trek from Costa Rica to Antarctica was completed by seven animals, including a calf. One of the more closely studied routes is between Alaska and Hawaii, where humpbacks have been observed making the 3,000 mile (4,830 km) trip in as few as 36 days.

 humpback whale bubble feeding
Bubble Feeding Humpback Whale
Credit: Christin Khan, NOAA NEFSC

humpback whale
Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)

kids' times humpback whale
Kids' Times: Humpback Whale
Credit: NOAA

During the summer months, humpbacks spend the majority of their time feeding and building up fat stores (blubber) that they will live off of during the winter. Humpbacks filter feed on tiny crustaceans (mostly krill), plankton, and small fish and can consume up to 3,000 pounds (1,360 kg) of food per day. Several hunting methods involve using air bubbles to herd, corral, or disorient fish. One highly complex variant, called "bubble netting," This link is an external site. is unique to humpbacks. This technique is often performed in groups with defined roles for distracting, scaring, and herding before whales lunge at prey corralled near the surface.

In their wintering grounds, humpback whales congregate and engage in mating activities. Humpbacks are generally "polygynous" with males exhibiting competitive behavior on wintering grounds. Aggressive and antagonistic behaviors include chasing, vocal and bubble displays, horizontal tail thrashing, and rear body thrashing. Males within these groups also make physical contact, striking or surfacing on top of one another. These bouts can cause injuries ranging from bloody scrapes to, in one recorded instance, death. Also on wintering grounds, males sing complex songs that can last up to 20 minutes and be heard 20 miles (30 km) away. A male may sing for hours, repeating the song several times. All males in a population sing the same song, but that song continually evolves over time. Humpback whale singing has been studied for decades, but scientists still understand very little about its function.

Gestation lasts for about 11 months. Newborns are 13-16 ft (4-5 m) long and grow quickly from the highly nutritious milk of their mothers. Weaning occurs between 6-10 months after birth. Mothers are protective and affectionate towards their calves, swimming close and frequently touching them with their flippers. Males do not provide parental support for calves. Breeding usually occurs once every two years, but sometimes occurs twice in a three year span.

During migration, humpbacks stay near the surface of the ocean.

While feeding and calving, humpbacks prefer shallow waters. During calving, humpbacks are usually found in the warmest waters available at that latitude. Calving grounds are commonly near offshore reef systems, islands, or continental shores.

Humpback feeding grounds are in cold, productive coastal waters.

humpback whale range map
Humpback Whale Range Map
(click for larger view PDF)

Humpback whales live in all major oceans from the equator to sub-polar latitudes.

In the western North Atlantic ocean, humpback whales feed during spring, summer, and fall over a range that encompasses the eastern coast of the United States (including the Gulf of Maine), the Gulf of St. Lawrence, Newfoundland/ Labrador, and western Greenland. In winter, whales from the Gulf of Maine mate and calve primarily in the West Indies. Not all whales migrate to the West Indies every winter, and significant numbers of animals are found in mid- and high-latitude regions at this time.

In the North Pacific, there are at least three separate populations:

  1. California/Oregon/Washington stock that winters in coastal Central America and Mexico and migrates to areas ranging from the coast of California to southern British Columbia in summer/fall;
  2. Central North Pacific stock that winters in the Hawaiian Islands and migrates to northern British Columbia/ Southeast Alaska and Prince William Sound west to Kodiak; and
  3. Western North Pacific stock that winters near Japan and probably migrates to waters west of the Kodiak Archipelago (the Bering Sea and Aleutian Islands ) in summer/fall. There is some mixing between these populations, though they are still considered distinct stocks.

In the Southern Hemisphere, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) This link is an external site. has designated seven major breeding stocks linked to seven major feeding areas. Most breeding areas for Southern Hemisphere humpbacks are at 20°S, although some are in the Northern Hemisphere, including areas along the west coast of Africa and Central America. In Costa Rica, there is overlap with Northern Hemisphere humpbacks geographically, but they are not there at the same time. All Southern Hemisphere humpbacks share feeding grounds in the Antarctic south of 40°S and between 120°E and 110°W.

Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)
Credit: Robert Pitman, NOAA

Population Trends
Humpbacks are increasing in abundance in much of their range.

In the Southern Hemisphere, humpback abundance prior to commercial exploitation is estimated at 100,000 whales. The current Southern Hemisphere population may be over 25,000 whales, although we have little data on which to base this estimate.

In the North Pacific, humpback abundance was estimated at fewer than 1,400 whales in 1966, after heavy commercial exploitation. The current abundance estimate for the North Pacific is about 20,000 whales.

For the North Atlantic, the best available estimate is about 11,500 whales.

While estimating humpback whale abundance is inherently difficult, the best estimates for minimum populations for stocks of humpback whales in U.S. waters can be found in the most recent stock assessment report.

video of whale disentanglement network
Video: How Does NOAA Disentangle Whales? Whale Disentanglement Network Teams
Credit: NOAA

entangled humpback video
Video: NOAA Staff Free Juvenile Whale in Hawaii
Credit: NOAA

Humpback whales face a series of threats including:

  • entanglement in fishing gear (bycatch)
  • ship strikes
  • whale watch harassment
  • habitat impacts
  • harvest

Humpbacks can become entangled in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear or becoming anchored. We have observed incidental "take" of humpback whales in the California/ Oregon swordfish and thresher shark drift gillnet fishery. Potential entanglement from gear from several fisheries can occur on their long migration from Hawaii to Alaska. Humpbacks in Hawaii have been observed entangled in longline gear, crab pots, and other non-fishery-related lines.

Inadvertent ship strikes can injure or kill humpbacks. We have verified mortality related to ship strikes in the Gulf of Maine and in southeastern Alaska. Ship strikes have also been reported in Hawaii.

Whale watching vessels may stress or even strike whales. The Gulf of Maine stock is the focus of whale watching in New England from late spring to early fall, particularly within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The central North Pacific stock is the focus of a whale-watching industry on their wintering grounds in the Hawaiian Islands. The feeding aggregation in southeast Alaska is also the focus of a developing whale-watching industry that may impact whales in localized areas.

Shipping channels, fisheries, and aquaculture may occupy or destroy humpback whale aggregation areas. Recreational use of marine areas, including resort development and increased boat traffic, may displace whales that would normally use that area. In Hawaii, acoustic impacts from vessel operation, oceanographic research using active sonar, and military operations are also of increasing concern.

Japan has issued scientific permits in the Antarctic and in the western North Pacific in recent years. In 2009, the full JARPA II program commenced. Annual sample sizes for the full-scale research (lethal sampling) are set at 50 humpback whales. According the the IWC, Japan has refrained from taking humpback whales.

Conservation Efforts
The most recent conservation efforts by NOAA Fisheries and our partners are to:

In 1991, NOAA Fisheries published the humpback whale recovery plan [pdf].

Regulatory Overview
In 1946, the International Convention for the Regulation of Whaling regulated commercial whaling of humpback whales. In 1966, the International Whaling Commission prohibited commercial whaling of humpbacks. In June 1970, humpback whales were designated as "endangered" under the Endangered Species Conservation Act (ESCA). In 1973, the Endangered Species Act (ESA) replaced the ESCA, and continued to list humpbacks as endangered. Also, under the MMPA, threats to humpbacks are mitigated by regulations implementing the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan and the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan.

Key Documents
(All documents are in PDF format.)

Title Federal Register Date

90-Day Finding on a Petition To Identify the Central North Pacific Population of Humpback Whale as a Distinct Population Segment (DPS) and Delist the DPS

79 FR 36281 06/26/2014

NMFS issues permit for incidental take of individuals from the CA/OR/WA stocks of fin, humpback, and sperm whales in CA thresher shark/ swordfish drift gillnet fishery (>14 inch mesh) and WA/OR/CA sablefish pot fishery

78 FR 54553 09/04/2013

90-Day Finding on a Petition To Delist the North Pacific Population of the Humpback Whale; Notice of Status Review

78 FR 53391 08/29/2013

NMFS Issues Permit for Incidental Take of Central North Pacific Humpback Whales in Hawaii-based Longline Fisheries

75 FR 29984 05/28/2010

NMFS Proposes to Issue a Permit for Incidental Take of the Central North Pacific Humpback Whales in Hawaii-based Longline Fisheries

75 FR 8305 02/24/2010
NMFS initiates ESA status review of humpback whales 74 FR 40568 08/12/2009
Recovery Plan   11/1991
  • Draft Recovery Plan
55 FR 29646 07/20/1990
ESA Listing Rule 35 FR 18319 12/02/1970
Regulations Governing the Approach to Humpback Whales in Alaska and Hawaii 50 CFR 224.103 n/a
Stock Assessment Reports n/a various

More Information

Updated: July 11, 2014

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