Endangered Humpback Whales, Humans, Sharks and Orcas

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Humpback whales were once hunted extensively but no longer are. They are now popular ecotourism and whale watching draws. The healthiest populations occur in the western north Atlantic Ocean. A few other areas in which there are small populations include the waters near Beguia, Cape Verde, Greenland, and Tonga. Global humpback populations have rebounded since the whaling era but some populations are still a conservation concern. /[Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Humpback whales are not endangered. They were moved from Vulnerable to Least Concern, meaning it is at low risk of extinction, on the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) Red List and Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife), although two subpopulations are Endangered. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) lists them in Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but may become so unless trade is closely controlled: They used to be listed in Appendix I, which lists species that are the most endangered among CITES-listed animals and plants. /=\

The Central America and Western North Pacific stocks are listed as Endangered by Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife). The Mexican, Arabian Sea and Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa stocks are listed as Threatened. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) protects humpback whales and lists them as depleted Three humpback whale stocks in U.S. waters are designated as depleted under the MMPA as of the 2016 stock assessment reports): 1) the Western North Pacific stock; 2) the Central North Pacific stock; and 3) the California/Oregon/Washington stock: [Source: NOAA]

In 2016, U.S. authorities took most humpback whales off the endangered species, saying their numbers have recovered enough through international efforts to protect the giant mammals. The National Marine Fisheries Service said it had evidence that there were 14 distinct populations of humpback whales around the world and said nine of these had recovered to the point where they no longer need the Endangered Species Act Protections. These include whales that winter in Hawaii, the West Indies and Australia. Before, the agency classified all humpback whales as one population. They had been listed as endangered since 1970. [Source: Audrey Mcavoy, Associated Press, September 7, 2016]

Associated Press reported: The whales will continue to be protected under other federal laws, including the Marine Mammal Protection Act. Vessels will continue to have to stay a specific distance away from humpback whales in Hawaii and Alaska waters. An estimated 11,000 humpback whales breed in Hawaii waters each winter and migrate to Alaska to feed during the summer, the fisheries service said. Humpbacks that breed in Central America in the winter and feed off California and the Pacific Northwest in the summer are among those that will remain on the endangered list. This population is estimated at only about 400 whales. Whales that breed off Mexico and feed off California, the Pacific Northwest and Alaska will be listed as threatened. There are about 3,200 of the whales in this group, which is only about half of what scientists previously thought. The different classifications mean that Alaska’s whales will be a mix. In addition to whales that breed in Hawaii and Mexico, Alaska also gets whales that spend the winter in waters around Okinawa and the Philippines. These whales, called the Western North Pacific population, are endangered. They number only about 1,000.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Historical Decline of Humpback Whales

20120521-Humpback-whaleFlickr_-_NOAA_Photo_Library.jpg There are perhaps 70,000 humpback whales now down from around 250,000 to 300,000 in the early 1900s but up from maybe as few as 7,000 in the 1960s. Humpback are relatively slow which made them easy target for whaler harpoons. Their habit of gathering around islands and shorelines also made them easy prey. Based on whaling records, scientists estimated that whaling nations (primarily the United States, Britain, Norway and Australia) killed more than 250,000 humpbacks in the 20th century.

Humpbacks were one of the nine species hunted intensively by whalers. They were at times the most important constituent of the catch of modern whalers. Their oil was in demand as a kind of burning oil for lamps and as a lubricant for machinery. Whale oil was also used as a raw material for margarine and as a component of cooking fat. Whale meat was processed for human consumption and made into animal feed. Meal made from whale bones was used as fertilizer. [Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

They suffered their greatest losses in the 20th century when 95 to 99 percent of the Southern Hemisphere humpbacks were killed for blubber and meat. Their oil was less valuable than other species and were hunted most aggressively when the numbers of more valuable species diminished. They were also hunted heavily into the 1960s. A total of 242 were killed could be killed a single hunt.

More than 60,000 humpbacks were killed between 1910 to 1916 in the southern hemisphere, and there were other peaks of exploitation in the 1930's and 1950's. In the North Pacific, there were peak catches of over 3,000 in 1962 to 1963. Before a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985, all populations of humpback whales were greatly reduced, some by more than 95 percent.

In order to combat the problem of depletion, catching humpback whales was prohibited in the Antarctic in 1939, although that plan was abandoned in 1949. In the southern hemisphere, hunting was banned in 1963. In the North Atlantic, hunting was banned in 1956. Humpback whales were designated as "protected" by international agreement and hunting was banned, in 1966. The last ones killed by whalers were killed in 1973, when the Soviet Union ended it huge illegal whaling program.

In December 2007, the Japanese government announced it was suspending its plan to hunt humpback whales. The move came at least partly in response to heavy pressure by from Australia, which threatened to follow Japanese whaling ships in the Antarctic and take legal action against Japanese whalers in international courts if Japanese whalers hunted the humpbacks. The assertive stance by Australia was the result of the new liberal-led government voted into power in November 2007.

Comeback of Humpback Whales

Humpback numbers are now deemed healthy. In 2008 the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) said it was moving the whales from the list of species vulnerable to extinction to the list of ones with a low risk of extinction. At one time humpbacks were considered seriously endangered. Their comeback has been credited to the ban on whale hunting.

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Humpback close to shore

Humpback whales received some protection in 1985 when the International Whaling Commission instituted a moratorium on commercial whaling. The United States listed all humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and then under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. NOAA Fisheries worked worldwide to identify and apply protections for humpback whales. The International Whaling Commission’s 1985 whaling moratorium played a major role in the comeback of humpback whales. Currently, four out of the 14 distinct population segments are still protected as endangered, and one is listed as threatened. [Source: NOAA]

Broad habitat areas and long migrations make it difficult to estimate population size. Of the 14 distinct populations, 12 are estimated to number more than 2,000 humpback whales each and two are estimated to number fewer than 2,000. Some populations (such as those off eastern and western Australia) are believed to number in excess of 20,000 animals — a remarkable recovery given that the same populations were almost eradicated by whaling almost sixty years ago. By contrast, the smallest known population is one which inhabits the Arabian Sea year-round, and may number as few as 80 individuals.

Humpbacks are slowly making a comeback since the 1980s. Increasing numbers have been spotted in Australia and Hawaii. The number of humpbacks in North Pacific has doubled, giving conservationist hope that the species as a whole can return to healthy numbers. Now there is thought to be at least 10,000 humpbacks and maybe as many as 25,000 in the North Pacific. Some populations are still suffering though. Those in the Arabian Sea, the only ones that don’t migrate to polar regions, are listed as “endangered” with only a few hundred left. Significant numbers of whales are lost to ship collisions and entanglements in fishing gear each year.

Threats to Humpback Whales

Threats to humpback whales include entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, vessel-based harassment, underwater noise, and habitat impacts. [Source: NOAA]

Vessel Strikes: Inadvertent vessel strikes can injure or kill humpback whales. Humpback whales are vulnerable to vessel strikes throughout their range, but the risk is much higher in some coastal areas with heavy ship traffic. In 2022, a lone humpback whale named Moon, traveled from British Columbia to Hawaii with a severe spinal injury from a vessel strike, that badly contorted her body. To make the journey to Hawaii the whale did a kind of breaststroke because she couldn’t use her tail. The journey left her emaciated and covered in whale lice and indication of her poor condition, researchers said, adding she would unlikely make the journey back to British Columbia. [Source: Natalie Neysa Alund, USA TODAY,December 13, 2022]

Entanglement: Humpback whales can become entangled by many different gear types including moorings, traps, pots, or gillnets. Once entangled, if they are able to move the gear, the whale may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death. There is evidence to suggest that most humpback whales experience entanglement over the course of their lives, but are often able to shed the gear on their own. However, the portion of whales that become entangled and do not survive is unknown.

Vessel-Based Harassment: Whale watching vessels, recreational boats, and other vessels may cause stress and behavioral changes in humpback whales. Because humpback whales are often found close to shore and generally surface active, they tend to be popular whale watching attractions. There are several areas where U.S.-managed stocks of humpback whales are the center of whale watching industries, including: The Gulf of Maine (particularly within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary), the southeastern U.S. and West Indies, California, Alaska (particularly southeast Alaska), and the Hawaiian Islands. [Source: NOAA]

Pollutants that have been reported from the blubber of humpbacks include DDT, PCBs, chlordane, and dieldrin. The levels of these toxins vary during the migratory (make seasonal movements between regions, such as between breeding and wintering grounds), pattern of the humpbacks. The levels are highest during feeding and are lowest during breeding. [Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW)]

Plastic: Humpback whales gulp down tons of food each day. Along with that they also ingest huge amounts of plastic or at least the ones of the U.S. West Coast do. Researchers estimated the amount of microplastics ingested by krill-favoring humpbacks, was about 4 million microplastic pieces (up to 38 pounds of plastic) daily, while those favoring fish may take in a much smaller amount, roughly 200,000 pieces (up to a couple of pounds of plastic). Krill take in plastic and pass it up the food chain. [Source: Will Dunham, Reuters, November 2, 2022]

Natural Threats to Humpback Whales

According to Animal Diversity Web: Little is known about the diseases that affect humpback whales. However, true rorquals get cirrhosis of the liver and mastitis. It is unclear as to whether humpbacks also get them. Some humpbacks have whitish, oval-shaped scars, which are the marks of parasitic sea lampreys. Humpback whales have few predators other than humans. They are sometimes harassed, perhaps killed, by killer whales, and sharks feed on their dead bodies. [Source: Mindy B. Kurlansky, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

Humpbacks are the most parasitized of all of the Balaenopteridae. They tend to carry a wide variety of ecto and endoparasites. The number of parasites may be related to the swimming speed of this species. The slow pace of humpbacks is thought to allow accumulation of parasites to occur. /=\ Humpbacks have different types of whale lice living in their scars, scratches, chins, throats, and urogenital slits. Barnacles also live in their throats, chins, and urogenital slits. Some endoparasites that live within the whales are trematodes, cestodes, nematodes, acanthocephalans. Helminths live in the blubber, liver, mesentery, and intestine, while Ogmogaster ceti (a commensal nematode specific to the Balaenopteridae) lives in the baleen plates. /=\

Study and Conservation of Humpback Whales

20120521-Humpback_whale_jumping.jpg NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to the conservation of humpback whales. NOAA scientists use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue/disentangle humpback whales. We also work with our partners to ensure that regulations and management plans are in place to reduce entanglement in fishing gear, create safer shipping lanes, and protect habitats. [Source: NOAA]

Scientists identify individual humpbacks by unique markings, patterns and scars on their flukes and their distinctive patterns of black and white on their undersides and flippers. Bubbles from scuba tanks sometimes agitate humpbacks. Tourists and scientists that swim among usually don snorkel and fins.

Some humpbacks have been tagged with radio transmitters and their travels have been charted by satellite. They have also had darts fired into them for fat, skin and DNA samples. A critter was hooked up to one in 2007 by National Geographic researchers. Travis Horton, an associate professor at the University of Canterbury in Christchurch, New Zealand, has investigated humpback whale heart rates using drones and infrared light.

Along the U.S. East Coast, humpback whales, are frequently ensnared in fishing gear. In July 2012, scientists at the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies in Massachusetts freed a whale caught in fishing line wrapped around its mouth and head. The researchers are part of a team following satellite-tagged humpbacks in the Gulf of Maine. The snagged whale is one often seen in local waters. A mark on its tail fluke is shaped like a giraffe, giving the humpback its name: Serengeti. [Source: Cheryl Lyn Dybas, Natural History magazine, September-October 2012]

Humpback Whale Jumps on Boat

In August 2003, a British family's holiday was rudely interrupted when a 30-foot (9-meter) humpback whale crashed onto their sailing boat off the east coast of Australia. The 10-ton whale had leapt out of the water and pulled the rigging and mast along with it as it slid down the boat, “I was below deck when there was a hell of a crash from port as it leapt out of nowhere," said Trevor Johnson, 61, who was on the boat with his wife, two sons and a son's girlfriend. "It's amazing that no one was hurt or killed, but it was a terrifying experience," he told The Daily Telegraph. "There was a bang and a thud, and a whale came about 12 ft out of the water and slid down the side. It was shedding barnacles from its tummy and caught itself on the rigging. I was very shocked -- it was very scary," Mark Johnson told the newspaper. [Source: Reuters]

The family, from Coventry, chartered the $238,000boat and set sail from Airlie Beach to go on a 10-day trip around the Whitsunday Islands, according to the Telegraph. The 40-foot boat was 10 miles away from the shore and the radio equipment did not work. They were eventually towed to dry land after using a mobile phone to ring for help.

Humpback Whales Shock Kayakers and Surfers

In November 2011, AP reported: “The U.S. Coast Guard was monitoring the waters off Santa Cruz, where a pod of whales has settled unusually close to shore drawing crowds and threatening the safety of kayakers and other boaters trying to get a look at the creatures.The humpback whales, each measuring about the length of a school bus, have come about a mile from land in search of food. [Source: AP, November 4, 2011]

A woman floating on a surfboard as well as a pair of kayakers were only feet away when two of the whales unexpectedly emerged from the water during the last weekend of October 2011. It was caught on tape. "Early Show" co-anchors Chris Wragge and Rebecca Jarvis discussed the incident Friday. The Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary said no one has been hurt so far but at least one sailboat was damaged this week when it struck a whale.

"The sheer number of folks crowding around the whales is not only an issue for the whales themselves, but also public safety," Paul Michel, the sanctuary's superintendent, told The San Francisco Chronicle. He estimated that 100 people took to the ocean on paddleboards and in kayaks last weekend to get a look.He worried that the gawkers might disrupt the whales as they eat and leave them without enough energy to make their migratory journey to Mexico.

The sanctuary and Coast Guard issued warnings for people to stay at least 100 yards away from the whales or face fines of at least $2,500 for whale harassment. Don Croll, a professor in ecology and evolutionary biology at UC Santa Cruz, said whales are good at avoiding people while feeding but getting too close could pose safety risks. He said the whales are "lunge feeding," which involves dropping their jaw and swimming just below the surface capturing everything in their path.

Croll said watching such a spectacle — from a safe distance — is a thrill. "Lunge feeding is probably one of the largest biomechanical events on the planet. It's a really, really great thing for people to see," he said. Feeding grounds for the humpbacks are usually farther offshore, but scientists said this year weather conditions have brought anchovies closer to land, and the whales have followed.

Lobster Diver Swallowed and Spit Out By Humpback Whale

In June 2021, Lobster diver Michael Packard said he was swallowed and then spit out by a humpback whale. The Huffington Post reported: “Around 8 a.m., the 56-year-old lobster diver jumped from his boat off the coast of Provincetown, Massachusetts, to check one of his traps. Packard was 45 feet below the ocean’s surface when he suddenly “felt this huge bump and everything went dark,” he told Boston-based CBS affiliate WBZ. [Source: David Moye, Huffington Post, June 12, 2021]

“At first, Packard said, he feared he was the victim of a shark attack, but after noticing a lack of sharp teeth, he realized he was in the mouth of a whale that he believes was trying to swallow him. “All of a sudden, I felt this huge shove and the next thing I knew it was completely black,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “I thought to myself, ‘there’s no way I’m getting out of here. I’m done, I’m dead.’ All I could think of was my boys, they’re 12 and 15 years old.” Packard, who was still breathing through his regulator, said he struggled to get free. That apparently caused the whale to shake its head. Within 30 or 40 seconds, he said, the animal surfaced and ejected Packard from its mouth.

“Packard’s shipmate, Josiah Mayo, says he saw Packard being expelled from the whale and fished him out of the water. “My first thought was I can’t believe I got out of that situation. My second thought was for how injured I was,” Packard told the Cape Cod Times. “Although Packard was taken to a local hospital, his injuries turned out to be less severe than he first thought ― just a lot of soft tissue damage.

“Marine mammal expert Peter Corkeron of the New England Aquarium told the Boston Herald that whales like the one that apparently swallowed Packard don’t actually eat people: They are “gulp feeders” that “slurp up as much as they can and then swallow it down.” Corkeron suspects the whale was just trying to get fish and had no intention of turning Packard into breakfast. He also said there’s evidence suggesting that humpbacks can be “altruistic” toward humans, which may be why the creature swam to the surface before spitting out Packard. “It’s perfectly believable that the whale was trying to help him,” Corkeron said.

Dusky Sharks Hunt and Kill Humpback Whale Calf

In 2015 a group of dusky sharks was observed attacking and killing a four- meter-long humpback whale calf. It the first time that sharks had been recorded hunting and killing. New Scientist reported: “Spotted off the eastern coast of South Africa, in the Pondoland Marine Protected Area, a humpback whale calf some 4 meters long endured a harrowing ordeal, beset by a group of dusky sharks, each 2 to 3 meters long. These beasts tend to dine on fish found in coastal and pelagic waters and occasionally marine mammals such as dolphins and porpoises. [Source: Rachel David, Zoologger, New Scientist, December 16, 2015]

“For a couple of hours the humpback whale calf swam in circles, pursued by between 10 and 20 sharks, says cinematographer Morne Hardenberg, who witnessed the encounter. “The calf was bitten many times, thrashed vigorously at the surface when attacked, and attempted to swim away. “We stayed with it for a while and it was doing the same manoeuvring, with the sharks following it, and then it just disappeared,” he says. The calf probably drowned from exhaustion, its carcass never recovered — it’s not clear if the sharks ate it in the end.

“This is the first time any shark has been directly documented attacking a whale. Other species, such as tiger sharks, are known to be partial to whale meat, but they get it by scavenging. Matt Dicken from the KwaZulu-Natal Sharks Board in South Africa, who with his colleagues published a report of the incident, believes that such attacks might be more common than we think. “It’s still probably quite rare, but they are happening,” he says.

“Dicken doesn’t think that the sharks were actually hunting together. They were probably just aggregating around the calf attacking it opportunistically, he says. The East African humpback whale population is growing, so we might see more shark attacks in future, Dicken’s paper suggests. The study was published in the journal “Marine and Freshwater Research”.

Battle Between Orca Pod and Two Humpback Whales

In October 2022, whale watchers spotted an fight between transient orcas and humpback whales off the coast of Washington. The Pacific Whale Watch Association said the fight lasted three hours before the whales disappeared. One of the humpback whales, Hydra, was spotted afterwards in good condition. [Source: Hannah Getahun, Business Insider, October 3, 2022]

Business Insider reported: Fights between Bigg's orcas and humpback whales are rarely seen, but a whale-watching group witnessed such a brawl in the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington state. The Pacific Whale Watching Association documented the skirmish in a video, which shows the large group of orcas and whales jumping and splashing in the water. "I'm still trying to wrap my head around it because it was absolutely unbelievable," Mollie Naccarato, captain for Sooke Coastal Explorations, said. "At first the orcas seemed to be chasing the humpbacks, but then when it seemed there was space between them, the humpbacks would go back toward the orcas."

According to the Pacific Whale Watching Association, Bigg's orcas — or transient orcas — are known to feed on marine mammals like seals, sea lions, and porpoises, but there has never been a fatality between orcas and humpback whales in the Salish Sea. As a result of protections for humpback whales in the Salish Sea and a record number of Bigg's orca in recent years, encounters between the two could become more common as their populations grow.

Humpback Whales Rescue Sea Mammals from Orcas

There have been numerous reports of humpback whales helping other sea animals — namely sea;s and whales of other species — to deter killer whale attacks. Bryan Nelson wrote in Mother Nature Network: “Marine ecologist Robert Pitman observed a particularly dramatic example of this behavior back in 2009, while observing a pod of killer whales hunting a Weddell seal trapped on an ice floe off Antarctica. The orcas were able to successfully knock the seal off the ice, and just as they were closing in for the kill, a magnificent humpback whale suddenly rose up out of the water beneath the seal. This was no mere accident. In order to better protect the seal, the whale placed it safely on its upturned belly to keep it out of the water. As the seal slipped down the whale's side, the humpback appeared to use its flippers to carefully help the seal back aboard. Finally, when the coast was clear, the seal was able to safely swim off to another, more secure ice floe. [Source: Bryan Nelson, Mother Nature Network, July 30, 2016]

“Another event, involving a pair of humpback whales attempting to save a gray whale calf from a hunting pod of orcas after it had become separated from its mother, was captured by BBC filmmakers. Perhaps the most stunning aspect of this behavior is that it's not just a few isolated incidents. Humpback whale rescue teams have been witnessed foiling killer whale hunts from Antarctica to the North Pacific. It's as if humpback whales everywhere are saying to killer whales: pick on someone your own size! It seems to be a global effort; an inherent feature of humpback whale behavior.

“After witnessing one of these events himself back in 2009, Pitman was compelled to investigate further. He began collecting accounts of humpback whales interacting with orcas, and found nothing short of 115 documented interactions, reported by 54 different observers between 1951 and 2012. The details of this surprising survey can be found in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

“In 89 percent of the recorded incidents, the humpbacks seemed to intervene only as the killer whales began their hunt, or when they were already engaged in a hunt. It seems clear from the data that the humpback whales are choosing to interact with the orcas specifically to interrupt their hunts. Among the animals that have been observed being rescued by humpback whales were California sea lions, ocean sunfish, harbor seals, and gray whales.

“So the question is: Why are humpback whales doing this? Since the humpbacks seem to be risking their own well being to save animals of completely different species, it's hard to deny that this behavior seems altruistic. There is also some reason to believe that the behavior isn't entirely selfless. Mature humpback whales are too large and too formidable to be hunted by orcas themselves, but their calves are vulnerable. Orcas have been witnessed hunting humpback whale calves in much the same way that they hunt gray whale calves. So, by proactively foiling orca hunts, perhaps the humpbacks are hoping to make them think twice about messing with their own calves. Then again, maybe it's just as simple as revenge. Even if it has more to do with revenge than altruism, though, the behavior would represent evidence of an intense and complicated emotional life among humpbacks that is unprecedented in the animal world, outside of primates. One common feature among many humpback whale rescue efforts is that the humpbacks often work in pairs.

Image Source: National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA. One image from Greenpeace Japan, Wikimedia Commons,

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; 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 May 2023

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