Megaptera novaeangliae

Humpback Whale breaching, Prince William Sound, Alaska

Megaptera” is Latin for “big-winged” and “novaeangliae” means “New England.” The name is nearly nonsensical. Whales don’t have “wings,” although these do have the largest pectoral fins of all cetaceans, and while they may or may not have first been seen in New England, in fact the species’ fourteen diverse population segments (“DPS”) are scattered around the world. WC has been lucky enough to see and photograph Humpback Whales from five of those distinct population segments.

Map showing locations of the 14 distinct population segments of humpback whale worldwide.

WC has seen Humpbacks from DPS 4, 5, 6, 12 and 13. The numbered ovals represent each population segment’s approximate breeding range; the light green areas represent the Humpbacks’ approximate feeding and foraging areas. Implicit in the map is the extraordinary migration these big cetaceans make, the longest of any mammal. Some of the DPS 1 whales, for example, migrate from the Caribbean Sea to the waters of the Svalberg Archipelago, in the Arctic Ocean. The DPS 13 Humpbacks forage off the shores of Antarctica.

Humpbacks bubble net feeding, Monterey, California

Pods of Humpbacks hunt cooperatively, using streams of bubble exhaled from their blowholes to create a net, compressing schools of bait fish before plunging up through them, mouths wide, gulping down hundreds of fish at a time. Stunned baitfish flop around the surface, attracting gulls, shearwaters, seals and sea lions who all dine of the fish the whales miss. It’s an amazing spectacle.

Humpback Whale sounding, Drake Passage, Southern Ocean

Mankind nearly drove this species to extinction; commercial whaling killed 95% of the world’s population of Humpback Whales. Only international treaties that largely stopping the commercial harvest saved the species. The world populations began to slowly recover. While this is a remarkably long-lived species – 80 to 90 years in some cases – it breeds slowly. Sexual maturity comes between age four and ten,1 and a female has an infant, rarely twins, every two to three years. From an estimated pre-commercial hunting population of 125,000 whales, in the early 1960s world populations had fallen to 5,000 – 6,000 whales. Today there are an estimated 80,000 Humpback Whales in the world’s oceans.

Humpback Whale pectoral fin wave, coastal Kauai, Hawaii

Four of the world’s Humpback Whale DPSs remain classified as Endangered under the Endangered Species Act: the Central American, the East Atlantic, the Arabian and the West Pacific.

Humpback Whale spout, Shelter Island, Southeast Alaska

The greatest threats to continued Humpback Whale populations’ recovery are inadvertent vessel strikes, particularly as the whales migrate along coastal routes; climate change and its effect on the foods sources upon which Humpbacks rely; entanglement in fishing gear and whale watching harassment. Other possible threats include high-powered sonar use by the militaries and overhunting by Native peoples, nations that don’t subscribe to the international treaties and extra-national poaching.

Humpback Whale sounding, Shelter Island, Southeast Alaska

The eerie, complex songs of the Humpback Whales, their complex behaviors, the astonishing navigation skills, the emotion they show to their young and injured comrades and their complex reactions to predators like orcas, all speak to the high level of intelligence in this species. And we slaughtered them for lamp oil. In WC’s view, Captain Ahab didn’t get half the licking he deserved.

1 It seems to be size dependent, more than age. Typically, males and females begin to breed upon reaching 11.5 – 12 meters in length. As you would expect, the growth rate is diet dependent.

3 thoughts on “Megaptera novaeangliae

  1. In the late 70s National Geographic included a plastic record in the magazine to accompany an article on humpback whales. I listened to those songs and was amazed how much they sounded like language. Just a 45 year old geek memory of an almost obsolete audio media.


    • Humpback Whale songs were a thing in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Judy Collin did a nice cover of George Scroggie’s 1850 tune, “Farewell to Tarwathee” for her album “Whales and Nightingales,” and did so accompanied by Humpback Whale songs. I always thought that was pretty offensive and insensitive, a whaling song accompanied by the singing of the victims.



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