Meet the humpback whale

Breaching humpback whale. Photo by Gregory “Slobirdr” Smith. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 07/21/2022.

It was an exciting weekend here in Boston! I went with my partner and some friends to go whale watching and had a great time.

The whale watching trip we went on took us down to Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. Stellwagen Bank is about 21 miles from Boston; it took us around 1.5 hours to get there. It stretches from south of Cape Ann to north of Cape Cod.

Why Stellwagen Bank? Well, the waters around this undersea plateau are super productive. There’s a ton of plankton in the waters (as we saw in the green wake of our boat). All of this plankton means fish and whales regularly come to feed. So it’s a good spot for whale watching around New England!

And we did indeed see some whales. We saw a minke whale briefly way off in the distance, and my partner saw a fin whale for a second. But the stars of the show were the humpback whales. We saw three humpback whales (named Chunk, Music, and Shuffleboard) and were able to spend a lot of time chilling and learning about these creatures.

Identifying humpbacks

One reason we were able to spend so much time watching the humpbacks is because they as a species tend to spend a lot of time swimming near the surface (perfect for whale watchers). Plus, humpback whales are large – it’s hard to miss a 60 foot whale swimming near the surface of the ocean!

In addition to being generally large, humpback whales have very long flippers. They can reach to nearly 16 feet long and are the reason behind the humpback’s Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae (big-winged New Englander). The long flippers are also what allow humpbacks to be so aerobatic in the water.

Photo by Christopher Michel. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 07/21/2022.

Now, humpback whales don’t usually have a hugely humped back; if you look at them while they’re swimming through the ocean, they have a small hump next to their tiny dorsal fin. However, the hump is emphasized when they bend their backs before a dive.

Humpback whales also usually show off their tails, or flukes, as they dive (this gives whale watchers that picture-perfect moment of a whale tail in the water. According to the naturalist leading our tour, the tail helps act as a counterweight as they dive. Humpback whale flukes are also useful for us humans to identify them – the white patterns and scars on the underside of the flukes are unique to each individual and can be used to tell who’s who.

Baleen whales

Humpback whales are baleen whales – instead of teeth, their mouths are full of 270 – 400 overlapping baleen plates. These baleen plates hang down from their upper jaws and are made of keratin (the protein our hair and nails are made of).

The baleen plates are great for filter feeding. Humpback whales will take large gulps of water, which is then filtered by the baleen plates. What’s left are all the goodies that humpback whales like to eat – small fish and krill.

Some groups of humpbacks have a specific hunting method called “bubble net feeding.” Basically, a group of humpback whales will create a lot of air bubbles that corral fish together. Once the fish are in a nice little group, they are pushed to the surface and whales can lunge through the bubble net to get a large mouthful at once. This feeding technique seems to be learned: different groups have slightly different bubble techniques, and there’s some regional differences. Watch some bubble net feeding here.

Hunting and eating is obviously important for humpback whales – like every other animal on the planet, they need to eat to survive. But humpback whales need to eat a lot of food to prepare for their migration. During the summer at their feeding grounds, humpback whales eat up to 3,000 pounds of food a day. All this food serves as fuel for the 3,000 mile migration between their breeding grounds and their feeding grounds. In fact, humpbacks fast during their migration and the mating season, living off their blubber stores. All the food they eat during the summer must last them until next year.

Singing and whispering

Humpback whales are known for singing in the ocean. These songs are made from sequences of moans, howls, and cries. Since they are only sung by males, scientists think that humpback whale song may be used to attract females. In fact, these songs can be heard from up to 20 miles away, which is a pretty good distance if you’re trying to find someone to mate with.

What I find extra cool about humpback whale songs is that different populations differ in the songs they sing. While all the males in a population will sing the same song, North Atlantic whales sing differently from North Pacific whales. It’s almost like different populations have different dialects or accents.

Now, just because males are the only singers doesn’t mean that they’re the only ones who are making sounds at all. Calves, in fact, have an “indoor voice.” Scientists have found that humpback whale calves make very quiet vocalizations when traveling with their mothers to feeding grounds. These vocalizations are 40 decibels quieter than the male songs, and up to 70 decibels quieter than normal vocalizations between adult whales. We think that these whispers may be used as a way for calves to keep in contact with their mom while not attracting the attention of killer whales.

Humpback with her calf. Photo by National Marine Sanctuaries. Retrieved from Wikipedia on 07/21/2022.

Hunted by killers

Speaking of killer whales: these animals (also known as orcas) are the only species known to attack and eat humpbacked whales.

However, only juveniles are at risk of killer whale attacks; the adults seem to be too big for the orcas to want to mess with.

According to our naturalist, orcas hunt humpback whale calves by harrying and annoying them. Basically, they keep the calves under the water until they drown (remember, whales are mammals and need to breathe air). Humpback whales that survive these attacks carry the scars for the rest of their lives on their body. These become the markings that let us identify different individuals – Music, one of the whales we saw, has scars from orca attacks on her fluke that look like a musical staff (leading to her name).

Overall, I had a lovely time out on the ocean watching humpback whales. I highly recommend it – although I knew that they were large, it’s different to see it in person.

If you do decide to go whale watching sometime, definitely go with someone who knows the proper way to watch whales. Boats can be dangerous for sea creatures, and we want to interact with them respectfully. The group we went with was trained how to properly interact with whales – we went slow, kept our distance, and never cut in front of the path the whales were going on.


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