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Humpback Whale: The Most Famous Singer Of The Oceans

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Published on April 24th, 2013 | by Yellow Magpie


Humpback Whale: The Most Famous Singer Of The Oceans

Humpback Whale Photo By NOAA

There are two things that are instantly associated with the Humpback whale – its unique appearance and the sonorous delight of its songs. Its humped shape as it performs its dives is one of the most recognisable sights in the animal kingdom.

Despite being one of the most researched whales it still harbours mysteries that we have not yet come close to solving.

Distinctively Shaped Appearance

The Humpback whale has one of the most distinctive appearances of all the whales. It is medium-sized when compared to the colossal Blue whale which is twice its length.

The most famous feature of a Humpback whale is its dorsal fin – the so-called ‘hump’. The whale’s hump-like appearance is easiest to see when it is arching its back during a dive.

Humpback Whale Pod Feeding Photo By NOAA

Another physical characteristic that sets it apart from other whales, and indeed all cetaceans, is its pectoral fins. These are proportionally much longer than any other species of dolphin or whale. Such long pectoral fins are thought to be advantageous to the whale either through aiding temperature control or/and increasing ability to maneuver through the water. Though no one has accounted for the fact that these odd proportions are not found in other cetaceans.

Like all baleen whales, Humpbacks possess two nostrils. They also belong to a group of whales called rorquals. One of the rorquals’ attributes is grooved folds of skin that allow their mouths to expand increasing the amount of food that can be consumed in one go.

Humpback whales also have bumps called tubercles which are found on their head and pectoral fins. Those found on the head harbour follicle hairs which may play a role in providing sensory information. Pectoral fin tubercles are thought to minimise water turbulence and increase the animals efficiency whilst swimming.

Highly-Skilled Hunters

Humpback whales are mainly seasonal feeders preferring to get by on fat deposits in the winter months. During the feeding season they eat a wide variety of food from fish such as salmon to krill and other small crustaceans. The whales use their baleen hairs to filter out the water and leave the food trapped behind.

Humpback Whale Bubble Net Feeding Photo By NOAA

Humpbacks use many different techniques to capture their prey. One method is lunging at them, mouth agape, from below. Other more inventive approaches include sending a pressure wave to stun the fish. Humpback whales do this by slapping the water with either their tail flukes or pectoral fins.

Nevertheless, one of their most ingenious feeding methods is the bubble net. A pod of humpback whales form an ever decreasing circle of bubbles underneath their target trapping them. When the circle is small enough and the prey has been herded into a tight-enough location the entire pod rushes suddenly in from below feasting on their quarry.

Solitary Creatures

Humpback whales are not the highly social creatures you would expect from such adept vocalists. In reality, they live out solitary lives only coming together during feeding time to work in small groups to make the task easier.

During the winter months adult humpback whales spend most of their time alone. Although they will occasionally form short-lived  formations with other whales. It is believed that some females may congregate, though more research is needed.

Humpback Whale Breaches The Surface Photo By NOAA

Males join groups when they are competing for the attention of females during the mating season. These groups are used to establish dominance in contests involving displays of physical prowess with the winner most likely to mate with the female.

The Allure Of The Humpback Whale Song

The song of the male humpback whale is one of the most distinctive sounds in all the animal kingdom. Although the female also vocalises it is the male that produces the complex, musical songs that are readily identifiable.

The same song is sung by a group of male whales and slowly over time the tune evolves with different notes and lengths. Songs can last up to 24 hours but generally take half an hour to complete. Humpback whale sounds can travel for thousands of kilometres nonetheless, noise pollution from shipping is starting to severely limit this range.

Although several hypothesis have been put forward as to why male humpback whales sing we still don’t know their reason for doing so. What we do know is that it is obviously some form of communication.

Humpback Whale And Calf Photo By Paul Brown

The Effects Of Whaling

Whaling has had a devastating effect on the numbers of Humpback whales. Before the advent of commercial whaling the Humpback whale population stood at an estimated 120,000.

That number fell to as low as 5,000 individuals by the time the International Whaling Commission introduced the ban on Humpback whaling in 1966. During the last century alone it is believed that as many 200,000 Humpback whales were killed by whalers.

Today, due mainly to the ban, the Humpback whale population has grown to a healthy 80,000 individuals. Thanks to conservation, whale watching of Humpbacks has turned into a viable business. Now that their future looks bright maybe one day we will solve the perplexing mystery of what their songs mean.

Vital Statistics

  • Humpback whales can grow to be up to 16 metres (50 feet) in length with the females being generally larger than the males.
  • They can weigh as much as 40 tonnes.
  • Humpback whales are found throughout the world’s oceans.
  • They are thought to live up to 50 years. They may even live longer.

Recommended Reading

Visit Wikipedia for more information on the magnificent Humpback Whale.

Check out Yellow Magpie’s The Whales: Kings Of The Cetaceans, Fin Whale: The Giant Speedster Of The Oceans and Our Love Affair With Our Favourite Cetacean for further insight into Whales and their cetacean cousins.

Among Giants: A Life With Whales is the fascinating story of underwater photographer, Charles ‘Flip’ Nicklin. Full of splendid\0 pictures and insightful commentary about the whales this book is stunning.

You can obtain Among Giants: A Life with Whales here from Amazon.

For people living in Ireland or the United Kingdom, you can access: Among Giants: A Life with Whales from here.

For Canada: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

For Germany: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

For France: Among Giants: A Life with Whales.

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