The Humpback is one of the 11 species of baleen whales, found in virtually all the oceans of the world and migrating to tropical or subtropical waters to breed. As this is a marine animal that spends at least 90% of its time beneath the surface of the water, it's considered an absolute joy and a privilege to enjoy a sighting of one of these magnificent creatures. |
Embarking on a dedicated whale watching cruise is the best way to maximise your chances for a close encounter with a Humpback, whether it's around Mexico's Baja Peninsula, Western Australia or the Alaskan Panhandle. Learning a little more about the physical and behavioural characteristics of the species is the ideal way to prepare for the experience.
Characteristics of the Species Filter feeders: Megaptera novaeangliae is a baleen species of whale, meaning that in place of teeth it has up to 400 overlapping 'baleen plates' attached to the upper jaw. These plates are made of keratin and serve as a filter feeding system to capture small prey like salmon, herring, mackerel and krill. The whale takes in vast amounts of water through the plates, then pushes it back out again – leaving the food source trapped behind.
A thumbprint of nature: Every individual's dorsal fin and flukes(tail) are unique, much like a human fingerprint. This important identifier has allowed researchers to monitor the species around the world to assist with valuable research on migration, breeding, population and feeding behaviours.
Acrobatic breaching: Scientists aren't quite sure why the Humpback displays its famous acrobatic breaching behaviour, when it launches out of the water and crash lands back down on the surface repeatedly. There is some speculation that it is to rid itself of parasites, but it's also possible it could simply be for its own enjoyment. Either way, for anyone who witnesses this spectacular sight, it's a thrilling and memorable experience.
Ocean song: The males are renowned for their haunting underwater 'songs', sometimes that they can sustain for hours at a time. While it's almost certainly related to mating behaviour, scientists believe it is also used as a different form of communication – including as a warning system – which can be heard up to 20 miles away. Intriguingly, while all the males of a particular population sing the same song (often singing in harmony even when separated), it varies between populations around the world.
Travelling and hunting: The species typically travel alone or in small pods of two or three. When together, they communicate amongst themselves and sometimes employ the unique co-operative hunting method known as bubble net feeding. The technique consists of circling a school of fish and surrounding them with a column of bubbles, driving them upwards to the surface of the water en masse, then devouring hundreds of them in one huge gulp.
Encounter the Humpback on a Whale Watching Cruise
For many wildlife aficionados a whale watching cruise is the ultimate in nature travel. The opportunity to encounter these majestic marine animals out on the open ocean is to enjoy the spectacle of nature as it is truly intended.
Tip: For those who aren't fortunate enough to be able to go on a whale watching cruise, Sir David Attenborough's magnificent new documentary series, Blue Planet 2, features some remarkable footage of Humpback whales feeding and breaching.
Marissa Ellis-Snow is a freelance nature writer with a special interest in whale watching. As a passionate lover ofmarine wildlife, Marissa chooses the expert-led whale watching cruise itineraries organised by Naturetrek, which have brought her unforgettable sightings of a wide range of wildlife in some of the most spectacular regions on Earth.
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