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Humpback Whales: Fact vs. Fiction

Humpbacks breach more than any other whale. Credit: NOAA View slideshow Humpbacks breach more than any other whale. It is unknown exactly why they do this so frequently, but some scientists believe the impact of hitting the water could be a way to remove skin parasites and lice. Others think it might be a form of social interaction or play. Credit: NOAA humpbackgallery02.jpg humpbackgallery03.jpg humpbackgallery04.jpg humpbackgallery05.jpg humpbackgallery06.jpg humpbackgallery07.jpg humpbackgallery08.jpg humpbackgallery09.jpg humpbackgallery10.jpg humpbackgallery11.jpg

How well do you know the humpback whale? Read below to learn facts and common myths about this majestic marine mammal.

And, be sure to check out the video at the bottom of this page to see these beautiful animals and hear from Dr. Phillip Clapham, Leader of NOAA Fisheries Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program.

FACT: Humpback whales migrate a tremendous distance. 

In the Pacific Ocean, most humpbacks migrate seasonally from Alaska to Hawaii – completing the 3,000 mile trip in as few as 36 days. Other Pacific populations travel west from Alaska to the islands south of Japan or east to the western coast of Mexico. The longest recorded Pacific humpback whale migration was 5,160 miles from Costa Rica to Antarctica. Most humpback populations swim from their summer feeding waters at colder, higher latitudes to subtropical and tropical breeding waters during the winter season. Arabian Sea humpbacks don’t follow this trend and stay in tropical waters year round.

MYTH: All humpbacks "sing." 

Only male humpback whales sing. Their complex songs can be heard 20 miles away and last as long as 20 minutes. All males in a particular population sing the same song, but the song changes over time – the exact function of these songs is still poorly understood. Listen to humpback whale vocalizations at the Discovery of Sound in the Sea website.

FACT: Humpback whales all look different. 

Within populations, individual humpback whales can be identified by the distinctive variation of black and white coloration on the underside of their flukes (tail fins), as well as the shape, size, and scarring of their dorsal fins. Humpback whale photo catalogs are kept to document fluke markings and classify different individuals: the Alaskan Fisheries Science Center Juneau Humpback Whale Catalog, Pacific Ocean SPLASH Catalog, and North Atlantic Humpback Catalog maintain directories of different whales photographed in their respective regions. Each pattern is different – almost like a human fingerprint – and they tell us a lot about humpback whale populations and migrations.

MYTH: Male humpbacks are larger than female humpbacks. 

As with most baleen whales, adult female humpback whales are larger than adult males. Some scientists theorize that their larger size helps the females more easily retain energy resources necessary for reproduction. Females can grow up to 60 feet long and weigh between 25-40 tons. Newborn calves are 13-16 feet long and weigh about 1 ton. Females give birth every 2-3 years and care for a single calf, accompanying them on their first migration and weaning them around 6-10 months after birth. Males do not provide parental support for calves.

FACT: Humpback whale numbers are on the rise.

Humpbacks are increasing in abundance in much of their range (see the latest Stock Assessment Reports for more details). The humpback whale’s recovery is largely due to various conservation efforts, protection areas, and nearly 50 years of international whaling prohibition.

However, humpback whales are still listed as “endangered” under the Endangered Species Act (ESA) and they are listed as “depleted” under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). They are at risk from a number of threats, including but not limited to: ship strikes, fishing gear entanglement, harassment from close approach for viewing, and various habitat impacts – many driven by human activity. Though, currently, two populations (Central North Pacific and North Pacific) are under review for delisting from the ESA.

MYTH: Humpback whales blow water out of their blowholes. 

Whales do not blow water out of their blowholes. All whales, including humpbacks, have a trachea and an esophagus, but they do not connect at the throat like humans. The whale’s blowhole and trachea connect directly to the whale’s lungs and a muscle contracts and releases to pull in and expel air (and mucus) through the blowhole. When expelled, this hot, moist air condenses upon contact with the cooler air outside, resulting in a spout that looks like water. Humpbacks (and all other baleen whales) actually have two blowholes located side by side, whereas toothed whales, including dolphins and porpoises, have only one blowhole.

MYTH: Humpback whales have teeth.

When feeding, humpback whales gulp water into their mouth, straining it through baleen plates covered in keratin fibers, catching large amounts of krill and small fish/crustaceans in the process – in one day, humpbacks can consume up to 3,000 pounds of food! Because the esophagus and trachea are separate, it is nearly impossible for baleen whales to choke; though if something were to plug their blowholes externally, the whale would be in trouble. Humpback whales also do not have a uvula, but in 2012, researchers discovered a previously unknown sensory organ specific to large baleen whales (collectively known as rorquals) – the organ is thought to assist their “lunge feeding” behavior.

FACT: Humpback whales shut off only part of their brains when sleeping. 

Humpback whales – like all cetacean species – do sleep underwater, but they cannot fall fully asleep or else they would drown. It is probable that one side of the brain sleeps and the other side stays active while they rest vertically or horizontally in the water or swim slowly – coming up for air as necessary. Whales are conscious breathers, meaning they must choose when to surface and breathe.

MYTH: Humpback whales are hairless. 

Humpback whales retain short, stiff hairs (like whiskers) on their snouts and around their blowholes that help serve as tactile indicators. These hairs are called “vibrissae.” Humpbacks have multiple golf ball-sized tubercles on their head – each one containing a hair follicle. Whale fetuses even have some fine, downy body hair (known as “lanugo”) while in the womb but lose it shortly after birth.

FACT: Humpback whales have leg/pelvic bones. 

Whales are mammals and evolved from land animals that gravitated towards life in the water. They still have remnant leg structures but their legs have become so small over time that the bones have regressed inside the body. If you see a whale skeleton you will notice these “vestigial” bones. Whales also adapted in other ways to survive in their aquatic environment. Visit the Discovery of Sound in the Sea website to learn how whales evolved to hear and communicate over long distances underwater.

Watch the video below to see these magnificent animals and learn more from Dr. Phillip Clapham, Leader of NOAA
Fisheries Cetacean Assessment and Ecology Program.