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humpback

Habitat and Distribution | Physical Appearance | Behavior | Breeding and Reproduction | Diet | Fun Facts

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Habitat and Distribution

Humpback whales (scientific name: Megaptera novaeangliae) can be found in all parts of the oceans except for the polar seas. When these marine mammals are not migrating, they prefer shallow waters and can be seen living in surface waters both in the open ocean and along the coast. There are three separate populations of humpback whales that do not interact with one another. These groups include the whales living in the North Pacific, those in the North Atlantic and those in the Southern Hemisphere. Humpbacks embark on long seasonal migrations, traveling more than 3,100 miles (5,000 km) with little to no rest. These whales feed in the cold artic waters during the summer months and then migrate down to the tropical waters in the winter. It is in these warm waters where the whales mate and have babies. During this time, the newborn calves feed of their mother's milk and the adults do not eat. Instead, the adult whales live off their layer of blubber. In the North Pacific, humpback whales spend their summer months feeding off the coast of California to Alaska. When it is time to breed, the whales migrate to the warm waters of Hawaii, Mexico, Costa Rica and Japan. The population in California migrates to Mexico and Costa Rica, whereas the Alaskan population migrates to Hawaii.

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Physical Appearance

The humpback whale is one of the most active and acrobatic of all the whales in the Santa Barbara Channel. These marine mammals are famous for their underwater singing, breaching, and flipper-slapping. A humpback's head is broad and rounded covered with bump-like growths, each containing stiff hairs. Barnacles and amphipods, small microscopic animals, can also be found residing on the whale's head. Humpbacks and all other baleen whales have two blowholes.

Color: The upper side of the humpback whale is mottled black to gray and the underside is white. This color pattern extends all the way to the humpback's tail. Whales in the southern hemisphere tend to have larger areas of white than those living in the northern hemisphere.

Length and Weight: An adult male can measure 40 - 48 feet (12 - 14.5 meters) in length. Adult females are a bit larger measuring 45 - 50 feet (13.5 - 15 meters) in length. Weight ranges from 25 to 40 tons.

Fins and Flippers: Humpback whales have the largest flippers of any whale. These flippers range from all white to black and can be one-third of the whale's body length. Often times, barnacles can be seen growing on the flippers. A small dorsal fin is located about two-thirds back on the whale's body and the tail can grow to be 18 feet (5.5 meters) wide.

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Behavior

Humpback whales travel in pods, or groups, of 2 - 15 individuals. Often these groups are temporary, meaning they stay together for only a short amount of time. The only exception to this is the mother and newborn calf relationship. Mothers usually stay with their babies for about one year. Humpback whales are famous for their playful and acrobatic behavior. Humpback whales can often be seen breeching, leaping and flipper-slapping in the surface waters. The purpose of this behavior is not known but some theories suggest this behavior may be used in communication and mating. Humpback whales are also known for the amazing "songs" they produce underwater. These songs are made up of complex sounds, very similar to a musical piece. The exact purpose of the humpback's songs is unknown. Some believe humpbacks sing to attract females, protect their territory or communicate. An adult humpback whale's dive usually lasts about 10 - 15 minutes in length. They can hold their breath for 45 minutes or longer but dives of this length are not common.

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Breeding and Reproduction

A humpback becomes sexually mature between 4 and 8 years of age. The whales mate during the winter months in warm waters. A female is pregnant approximately 11-12 months before she gives birth to a single baby calf. Calves are 10 to 12 feet (3 to 4 meters) in length when born and they usually weigh 1 to 1 ½ tons. The calf lives off of its mother's milk, drinking up to 100 pounds (45 kg) a day for a period of 5 to 7 months. The baby will stay by its mother's side for up to a year. A female usually bears one calf every 2 or 3 years. The average lifespan for a humpback is thought to be between 30 to 40 years.

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Diet

A humpback whale's diet is made up of krill (small shrimp-like organisms), plankton (tiny organisms that float in the water), and small fish. Humpbacks feed by swallowing a mouthful of water containing its prey. They use the baleen in their mouths to filter out food from the ocean water. One unique way that humpbacks feed is known as "bubblenetting". Humpbacks swim below a school of fish and blow bubbles in a circle to enclose their prey. The fish are captured within the bubbles, so the whales swim through with their mouths open for a fishy meal. Humpbacks can eat up to 4,400 - 5,500 pounds (2,000 - 2,500) of food a day during feeding seasons.

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Fun Facts

  • The scientific name for the humpback whale is Megaptera noveangliae. This means "giant wings" named after the Humpback's large flippers, which can be as long as one third of the whale's body.
  • Humpbacks are known for the amazing songs they produce underwater.
  • Humpbacks are the most active and acrobatic of all the whales in the Santa Barbara Channel.

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