Humpback Whale Facts

Distinguishing features and behaviours of the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae).

The East Coast Australia population:

1960s: Just 200-400 individuals due to excessive hunting along their migration route.

2010 estimate: Around 15,000 individuals. Numbers are increasing at a consistent rate of 10-15% per year. The worldwide population is estimated at over 60,000 individuals.

Humpback distinguishing features:

Humpback Whales have a dorsal fin two-thirds along their back as well as unique tail flukes with scalloped edges. Their pectoral (front) flippers - up to 6m long - also have bumpy scalloped edges. Humpback Whales exhale from their twin blowholes, with a wide blow up to 4m high. Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales may have a lot of grey or white on their bodies. 'Migaloo' is a famous albino humpback while that you may be very lucky to see as well as 'Mini-Migaloo' - another albino humpback spotted in Narooma in Spring 2011.

Humpback visible body parts:

Rostrum: Flat area above the mouth, extends back to blowholes and has bumps (tubercules) on the top.

Pectoral Fins: Forward fins, in proportion to a third of the length of the whale's body.

Dorsal fin: A relatively small fin right on the back about two-thirds along the body. Humpback dorsal fins come in many different sizes and shapes.

Caudal Peduncle: Sometimes called the tailstock. This is the immensely strong rear section of the body between the dorsal fin and the tail flukes.

Tail Flukes: The two sides of the tail are called flukes. Quite often they carry scars and have bits missing from attacks when the whale was young. These marks are distinctive and can be used by scientists to identify individual whales.

What about the hump? They actually don't have one. They get their name from the arch of their tailstock as they sound - the only whales to have such a pronounced u-bend.

Humpback behaviours:

Breaching: The whale leaps from the water, spinning in the air before re-entry. This may be done once or many times and sometimes several whales will breach together.

Cruising: The whale has 2-5 breaths at the surface then dives for up to 10-15 mins but usually less.

Sounding: The whale arches its tailstock into a u-bend as they dive. The distinctive humpback tail flukes are often held high for a moment. This usually indicates a deeper dive.

Lunging: Front of head (rostrum) comes out of water and dives back under. Sometimes whole head may appear.

Peduncle Slap: Tail is raised and chopped back into the water with a sideways motion using the flexible peduncle - the strong muscular area just before the flukes.

Tail Slapping: The whale is upside-down under the water and smacks its whole tail repeatedly on the water in either direction.

Tail Swish or Roll: A flicking movement where the tail is slammed sideways and down as the whale submerges.

Flipper Flapping or Pectoral Slapping: One or both pectoral fins are repeatedly raised and then flopped loudly back onto the surface. Sometimes the flippers are extended above water for several minutes or the whale may appear to be backstroking.

Spy-hopping: The whale hangs vertically, sculling in the water and the nose and head may rise upwards, sometimes as far as the eye.

Feeding: You may see one half of a tail fluke and sometimes the belly scything through the water, with rapid changes of direction, followed by a period underwater then a repeat of the process.