Humpback Whale Behavior, Displays and Migrations

Home | Category: Baleen Whales (Blue, Humpback and Right Whales)


20120521-Jumping_Humpback_whale.jpg .

Humpback whales are diurnal (active mainly during the daytime), motile (move around as opposed to being stationary), migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), territorial (defend an area within the home range), and social (associates with others of its species; forms social groups). There is no direct evidence of territoriality. However, there are some types of preferred area sentiments by individuals or groups. This is supported by the seasonal returns to the same feeding and breeding grounds of most humpbacks.[Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Humpback whales are a favorite of whale watchers, as they are generally found close to shore and are commonly surface active, including breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins and tails. These whales also have relationships with other animals. Humpbacks may compete with other rorquals (especially fin whales) for food. Also, many seabirds prey upon the same food as the humpbacks. Finally, minke whales, have been seen in close proximity to humpback populations. [Source: NOAA]

Humpback whales are both gentle and curious. They like shallow water and areas near shores. Boats and divers can often get very close to them. Humpbacks arch their backs sharply before diving. A group of whales sometimes arches their backs together and dives in unison. Some scientist have speculated that this behavior may have given birth to stories of sea serpents.

Humpback whales are spotted both as solitary individuals and in groups. The largest groups have about 30 members. Observers have seen small groups push around ice floes, perhaps for fun, and hurry over to drive off killer whales harassing a lone humpback. Most groups that have been observed have been engaged in feeding somehow.

One thing that has surprised scientists observing humpbacks at their wintering area in Hawaii is that many of the whales there appear to be doing nothing, just hanging around. They don’t feed; they don’t even move much. They surface every half hour rather than the usual every 15 minutes, seeming to conserve their energy for, scientists speculate, courting and fighting later. Their lack of eating is evidence by the minimal amount of whale poop found in the waters where they winter.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Fishbase; Encyclopedia of Life; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ; Monterey Bay Aquarium ; MarineBio

Humpback Whale Displays

20120521-Humpback_stellwagen.JPG Humpback whales are known for behaviors such as breaching, lobtailing, flipper slapping, spyhopping and bubble feeding. They have also been observed repeatedly slapping the surface of the water with their heads and flippers.

Humpbacks display a number of different body positions and choreographed movements. Sometimes they lay on their side holding their immense flippers in the air. A “crucifix block” refers to a whale that rises vertically and spreads it pectoral fins, making the shape of a cross. A peduncle throw is when a whale whips its fluke and peduncle (the part of the whale that powers the fluke) high into the air, forcing the front of the whale straight down into the water. “Motorboating” describes whales roaming on the surface with their mouths partly open taking in and expelling huge volumes air in their blowholes, producing a loud machine-like noise. These displays are usually performed by males challenging rival during the mating season.

Humpback whales behaviors seen during courtship and feeding include slapping the water with one of its pectoral flippers and performing rolling corollaries such raising a flipper or lifting a fluke vertically not horizontally. Belly flipping is when whale lies on its back and alternately slaps the water with one flipper at a time. A Head Up display is when a whale raises the dorsal portion of its head horizontally to the surface, then sink back down underwater without traveling foward. [Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Humpback whales also shows aggressive behaviors. "Escort" whales within a group may accompany whale-calf pairs. They become aggressive towards other humpbacks approaching the groups. They sometimes blow bubbles from their blow holes or mouths as an apparent "screen." It is believed that most "escorts" are males. Protective or agonistic behavior may involve body thrashing, horizontal tail lashing, and lobtailing. This aggression may also be directed at boats for coming near the groups. In general, groups of whales are more aggressive than individual whales. /=\

Humpback Whale Breaching and Why They Do It

Sometimes its quite spectacular when they leap out of the water (breaching). A juvenile humpback was once observed doing this a hundred times in a row. Breaching can produce a noise like a cannon being shot off. Describing a group of breaching humpbacks off the Alaskan coast, Douglas Chadwick wrote in National Geographic, "A 45-foot whale went skyborne up to its tail. Then a pair leaped in near synchrony. “Shwaboom! ker-bloosh!” . Others started to breach on all sides. For the next half hour humpbacks were flying and crash-landing, sending out minor tsunamis, floating head down to whap the water with their tail flukes, and lying on their sides to slap the surface with long pectoral fins.”

Jaymi Heimbuch wrote in Mother Nature Network:“Breaching and lunging is a common behavior among humpback whales, and witnessed with ooohs and aaahs by whale watchers. In fact, it is what most whale watchers hope to see. Breaching whales emerge with great power from the water, to slap back down with a loud boom. There are a good number of theories about why humpback whales and other marine mammals breach. And there may of course be as many reasons why humpback whales breach, depending on the situation. [Source: Jaymi Heimbuch, Mother Nature Network, August 11, 2015]

“The UCSB ScienceLine writes, "In some cases humpback whales may breach more frequently in rough seas, when their songs will be harder for other whales to hear. They may breach simply to have a look around at what is going on above the water (if, for example, they hear something like boat but can't see it). Finally, the breach may be the end of some complicated underwater behavior that we can't see from the surface. And of course it may just be fun..."

From Elding Whale Watching

“There is also the theory that they are trying to remove parasites or scratch an itch. Also the loud splash may stun prey, or a series of breaches can signal the fitness of the whale. All of these theories make sense and seem like likely explanations. And there are more specific reasons, it seems, depending on who the whale is and what they need. ScienceLine notes that during breeding season, males accompanying females and their calves to feeding grounds will breach as a warning to other males trying to get too close. Meanwhile, calves who have lost their mothers have been seen breaching probably as a way to get her attention and find each other again.

“The noise and commotion the come with breaching certainly seems to serve various purposes, and while we ultimately don't know exactly why humpback whales breach, some or all of these theories may be answers to the question.

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Humpback Whale Migrations

Humpbacks make the longest migration of any mammal. Some whales travel more than 8.000 kilometers (5,000 miles) each way during their annual trip, covering the distance in as little as six weeks. They migrate seasonally from their breeding areas in the tropics to the northern feeding grounds. In the tropics, they are found in dense aggregations on shallow banks. They usually travel in the deep open sea during their migrators between their feeding and breeding grounds. In the western Atlantic Ocean the vast majority of them do not come into coastal waters until they reach the latitudes of Long Island, New York or Cape Cod, Massachussetts. They tend to disperse more widely in deep waters and swim closer together in shallow water. [Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=] /=\

Humpbacks migrate between northern and southern latitudes in phase with the climactic cycle. Humpback whales regularly leaves colder waters (where the whales feed during the spring, summer, and fall and go to a winter range of shallow tropical banks where no feeding occurs. These whales tend to move through coastal waters during migrations when a land mass is in their direct route. /=\

Humpbacks appear in large numbers in subarctic waters during the spring and remain there until the summer. As the season advances, they become less numerous. Humpbacks migrate apparently because they seek warmer water in which to bring forth their young. Pairing and mating also take place at about the same time in the warmer waters. /=\

North Pacific humpback migrations

Humpback Whale Migration Routes

There are at least 17 major migration routes for humpbacks, including 1) between Alaska and Hawaii; 2) the North Atlantic and the Caribbean; and 3) Antarctica and Oceania. They generally feed in cold waters and give birth to calves in warm waters. When they migrate they swim steadily at 3.5mph to 5mph and generally don’t eat anything. Ones in the North Pacific have been observed as far north of the Beautfort Sea off Alaska, perhaps because of global warming.

The routes are sometimes complex and unexpected. Some individuals have traveled from Hawaii to Japan to Alaska rather than heading directly northward to Alaska. Some females seem to leave the feeding areas at the last minute, hurry to the breeding areas and stay only a short time before heading back to the feeding areas. Some scientists believed that dominant males hang at the breeding area and mate with a succession of females who come and go.

On the migration routes in the southern hemisphere, humpback whales move at a leisurely pace between the feeding ground in the Antarctic around New Zealand and the west and east coast of Australia to their breeding grounds north of Fiji, Vanuatu, and around the Great Barrier Reef and the northwest coast of Australia. A few thousand Southern Hemisphere humpbacks fatten up on krill in Antarctica during summer there before returning to the South Pacific around Tonga for mating season. Along the way, young whales began to imitate adult feeding methods and other behaviors. Humpbacks also migrate along the east and west and west coasts of Africa and South America to breeding grounds off Peru, Brazil, Angola, Mozambique and Madagascar.

In the north, humpbacks migrate between the Arctic and breeding areas in the Caribbean, Hawaii, Japan and West Africa. The North Pacific population, of which a 2004 census by SPLASH identified 2,786 individual whales, consists of three main migratory groups:1) the fairly large Central Pacific group which feeds off the coast of Alaska, the Aleutian islands and British Columbia and winters in Hawaii; 2) the fairly large Eastern Pacific group which feeds off the coast of Alaska, California and British Columbia and winters in Mexico and Central America; and 3) the relatively small Western Pacific group, which feeds off the Kamchatka Peninsula of Russia and the western Aleutians and winters off Okinawa, the northern Philippines and the remote Bonin island of Japan.

migration patterns around Australia, from New South Wales Park Service

Humpback Whale World Record Migration

In October 2010, AFP reported: “A humpback whale has broken the world record for travel by any mammal, swimming at least 9,800 kilometres (6,125 miles) from the Atlantic to the Indian Ocean in search of a mate, marine biologists reported. The female humpback was first photographed among a group of whales at a breeding ground on Abrolhos Bank, off Brazil's southeastern coast, on August 7 1999.By sheer chance, it was photographed more than two years later, on September 21 2001 by a commercial whale-watching tour at a breeding ground near the Ile Sainte Marie off the eastern coast of Madagascar. [Source: AFP, October 13, 2010]

The whale was identified thanks to the distinctive shape of its tail and a pattern of spots on it. "It is the longest documented movement by a mammal, about 400 kms (250 miles) longer than the longest seasonal migration that has been reported," according to the research, headed by Peter Stevick of the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine.The trip is not just remarkable for the distance the whale covered, said Stevick. It also raises exciting questions about the breeding habits of humpbacks (Megaptera novaeangliae), a species of which relatively little is known. Until now, it was thought that only males, rather than females, would be likely to wander such extreme distances in quest of a partner.

Humpbacks are known to be long-distance swimmers, but until now their migration patterns were thought to be between northern and southerly latitudes. For instance, a whale might head to feeding area in a far southern latitude in the Atlantic, and then return to a tropical latitude in the Atlantic in order to breed.But this discovery suggests that humpbacks may also have a migratory pattern that straddles longitudes, not latitudes. In other words, they could swim east-west to breed.

Further work is needed to investigate such theories, as this is just a solitary sighting. But if more marathon humpbacks are found, it could lead to a rethink of the species' genetic profile, which in turn has an impact on conservation. So far scientists have been able to identify seven distinct breeding stocks and several sub-stocks of humpbacks in the Southern Hemisphere. Their perceived isolation and entrenched breeding habits raised fears of a restricted gene pool, which is bad news for a species. Humpbacks were driven close to extinction through over-hunting but are now staging a comeback

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW); National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA); Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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