Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

Appearance: The humpback whale body is not as streamlined as the bodies of other rorquals. It is robust and quite stocky, narrowing to a slender peduncle, and presents a distinct, sloping rear profile. The head is broad and rounded when viewed from above but slim in profile. Two blowholes are contained within a prominent splashguard. The area immediately in front of them is covered with a distinct scattering of bumps or tubercles, each containing a single sensory hair. At least three different species of barnacles are commonly found on the head, the outsized flippers and the body.

Between 14 and 35 throat pleats extend aft up to or beyond the navel. Unlike other rorquals, the humpback whale lacks a distinct median ridge along the head.

Key CharacteristicsHumpback Whale

  • Black and dark grey upper body
  • Low, stubby fin “hump”
  • Large stocky body
  • Outsized white or black flippers
  • Knobs on head and lower jaw
  • Flukes raised before deep dive
  • Irregular, wavy edges on flukes
  • Bushy heart shaped blow
  • Acrobatic and active at surface

Dorsal Fin: Irregularly shaped and stubby, taking the form of a slightly elevated ‘hump’ located about two-thirds the way along the back.

Flippers: unusually long, between a quarter and a third of body length, displaying large knoblike excrescences on the leading edge. Variations in the appearance of the flippers are used to identify individuals.

Flukes: around 5m wide, with concave, lumpy. Serrated tailing edges and pointed tips. Also used, like the flippers, in photographic identification of individuals.

Baleen Plates: between 270 and 400 on either side of mouth, length 70-100cm. Colour varies from black to olive.

Colouration: The dorsal portion of the body is black or dark grey. The ventral portion is mottled black and white. Varying patterns of pigmentation on the tail flukes are used, like fingerprints or facial features in humans, to identify particular individuals. The flippers range from all white to all black on the dorsal side, but are usually white underneath. The undersides of the flukes vary from all black to all white.

Behavior: Humpbacks are the most acrobatic of all great whales. They can breach fully, with their entire bodies airborne, or roll on their backs with both flippers in the air. They also engage in flipper slapping, tail slapping and spy hopping. Their average travelling speed is 2-15km/h., though they are capable of higher speeds, up to 26 km/h.

The blow of a humpback whale is prominent, bushy and unusually wide relative to its modest 2.5-3m height. The shape of the blow varies: it may sometimes appear v-shaped or heart shaped.

As is also the case with other large whales, the blow is quite audible: the sound of rushing air can be heard, depending on atmosphere and sea conditions, up to 250m away. On average, humpbacks surface to breathe every 10-15 min, but can remain submerged for as long as 45 min. When resting at the surface between dives, they may blow every few seconds.

When the whale surfaces, the dorsal fin become visible soon after the blow, but disappears by the time the flukes emerge. When preparing for a deep dive, a humpback will arch its back and may lift its flukes upward, exposing the black and white patterned underside.

Group size: 1-3, up to 15

Diet: Humpbacks are expert lunge feeders, using bubble nets, bubble clouds, tail flicks and other techniques to help concentrate krill and small schooling fish for easier feeding.

Dive depth: 150-250m

Distribution: migratory. Humpbacks prefer coastal habitats but are known to traverse deep pelagic seas while migrating.

Sightings: Sri Lanka – uncommon. Best during northeast monsoon and first intermonsoonal season. Maldives – very rare. December and September are best. India – Uncommon.

Blow: low, lusty, 2.5-5m high and relatively wide. The particular shape is distinct to each whale.