Learn About Humpback Whales
Enjoy this informative guide to humpback whales. Learn about these massive mammals and what makes them so unique. Cover photo by @andre.joanisse
See those lines on this whale’s tail? They are called “rake scars” and they tell an exciting story – this whale has survived an attack by killer whales! No other predators make scars like this. Humpbacks are most vulnerable as calves, migrating south with their mothers from Queensland. If a calf is lucky enough to survive an attack, it will bear the scars for the rest of its life. A study from the 80’s and 90’s showed that 17% of humpbacks had rake scars. But the humpback population has increased significantly since then and researchers are using photos just like this to figure out whether this has changed, which will tell us whether killer whales are also becoming more common!
Humpback whales like to jump! When a whale launches all or most of its body out of the water it’s called “breaching”. Although a fully grown humpback can weigh as much as 50,000kgs, they are so strong that it only takes two swipes of their muscular tail for them to leap right out of the water! They seem to do this more in their tropical breeding grounds and along their migration route (like here in Newcastle) than in their feeding grounds in Antarctica. We also often see some of the most spectacular breaches in windy and rough conditions. So don’t let the weather stop you from coming whale watching!
Why do Humpbacks Breach?
We don’t 100% know why they do this but it’s likely a combination of good reasons. Multiple tonnes hitting the water makes a big splash and a big noise, especially underwater. That noise is a signal to other whales that says, “I’m here, I’m big and I’m healthy”. It also probably dislodges parasites, like barnacles and amphipods (sometimes called whale lice). Whales that have been hampered by something, like having a fishing net caught on their tail, or a deformity, are often covered in parasites. They seem to breach more in rough seas, so perhaps it’s an opportunity to take a big breath. And we can’t rule out that it’s just plain fun! These are big, powerful animals with big brains and rich inner lives.
The scientific name of the humpback whale is Megaptera novaeangliae. Mega = big, ptera = wing and they are aptly named. Look at those huge pectoral fins! A humpback whale’s pec fin is approximately 30% of its length, which means they can be almost 5m in the biggest individuals. Not only do they make the humpback one of the most distinctive looking whale species but they come in handy too. Often we will see them slapping their huge fins (“pec slapping”), making a noise that is even louder underwater. (In case you’re wondering, novaeangliae refers to the New England region of the USA, as humpbacks were common off the New England coast.)
Look at this beautiful humpback whale calf! Humpback whales are born in the warm tropical waters of Queensland and in spring they make their first migration south to Antarctica. As newborns, they weigh between one and two tonnes! They put on weight quickly – almost 50kg per day by drinking lots of very rich milk, between 35 and 50% fat. For comparison, pure cream from the supermarket is about 36% fat. These babies have an arduous journey ahead of them but most of them will arrive safely and live to become parents themselves. The eastern Australian population of humpbacks is increasing between 10 and 15% every year! Read more about humpback whale calves – here.
Did you know that humpback whales are black and white? Often we only see their dark backs but their bellies and the underside of their tails and pectoral fins are white. Each one is unique – some of them have white markings right up their sides, some with smooth edges and some are speckled. Researchers use the unique patterns on the underside of their tails to identify individuals, which helps us understand where they migrate, when and how old they live.
How can you tell if it’s a humpback whale? One of the most comon ways individual humpback whales are are identified are their tails or flukes. Each humpback whale fluke has unique markings on it, specific to that individual. Two images matching a identical humpback whale fluke can tell researchers alot about that individual, from it’s migration habits to it’s health. Humpback whales have distinctive tips at the outside of their fluke, a deeply notched V in the centre and a frilly trailing edge. Even easier, if you see a big whale near Newcastle in winter it’s almost certainly a humpback as 35,000 of these beautiful giants will pass our coast this year. However, other big whales are sighted in NSW very occasionally, including southern right whales, minkie whales, sei whales, sperm whales, blue whales and of course false killer whales (which aren’t really whales at all).
Whale watching or whale watched? Why do humpback whales sometimes come close to check us out? The short answer is that no one knows but it’s very likely to be plain curiosity. These are big animals with big brains and they live complex lives in a dynamic environment. They show clear signs of being intelligent, curious and playful. There have even been instances of humpbacks interfering with predators, to “rescue” other animals, not just other humpbacks but other species and even people!
Learn more about humpback whales on our Encounter Tour!