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Megaptera novaeangliae - Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale image

Geographic range:


Key features:

Very long pectoral flippers.


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), Continental shelf, continental slope, pelagic zone, seamount, submarine canyon

Primary common name:

Humpback Whale

General grouping:

Whales, seals and sea lions, otters

ITIS code:


Geographic Range

Range Description:

Megaptera novaeangliae is found worldwide in all major oceans.

Maximum depth:

200 meters OR 666 feet


bay (rocky shore), bay (sandy shore), Continental shelf, continental slope, pelagic zone, seamount, submarine canyon

Habitat notes:

Megaptera novaeangliae occurs primarily in coastal and continental shelf waters, although they may also feed around some seamounts, and migrating whales frequently pass through deep waters and open seas. During the breeding season whales often concentrate around islands or reef systems. This highly migratory whale spends the summer feeding in mid and high latitudes and moves to tropical or subtropical waters in the winter.


Relative abundance:

Megaptera novaeangliae is common and widespread. They are especially common in Monterey Bay, California when they come in to feed between April and December.

Species Description

General description:

Megaptera novaeangliae is likely the most familiar of the whales due to its widespread distribution, acrobatic displays and haunting songs. It belongs to the rorqual family Balaenopteridae in the order Cetacea shared by all whales, dolphins and porpoises. All rorquals have dorsal fins on their backs and ventral pleats running down their belly. It is further a member of the suborder Mysticetes, the baleen whales. Its migration from high latitude summer feeding grounds to tropical mating and calving grounds is the longest of any mammal with some whales making a round-trip journey of 16,000 km. It is also the best studied of all large whales due to the ease with which individuals can be recognized by their natural markings, especially on their flukes. Its long flippers, which make it unmistakable to identify at close range, give this whale its scientific name. The literal translation of Megaptera novaeangliae is big wing of New England with the latter part of the name referring to the location where the first specimen was described.

Distinctive features:

Megaptera novaeangliae has a large robust body and long, narrow flippers that are one third the length of their body. The body is black above and black, white or mottled below. The flippers are usually white ventrally, but variable on the dorsal surface seemingly according to location. In the North Atlantic and the Southern hemisphere the dorsal surface is mostly white and in the North Pacific it is mostly black. The head and lower jaw have a variable number of randomly distributed rounded protuberances, called tubercles. The baleen plates are all or mostly black, with 270 400 per side. Megaptera novaeangliae has fewer and wider ventral pleats than other rorquals with only 14 to 25 that extend from the tip of the lower jaw to the umbilicus. The ventral pleats, or throat grooves, streamline the shape of the whale, but also allow the throat area to expand during feeding. The dorsal fin can vary dramatically, from almost absent in some individuals to high and falcate in others and it is often scarred. The dorsal fin is often located on a hump more than two thirds of they way back from the head and becomes especially noticeable when the whale arches its back during a dive. The flukes are deeply notched, concave with scalloped rear edges. They are black above with a highly variable pattern below that is individually distinctive ranging from all white to all black and everything in between. Upon diving, Megaptera novaeangliae often raises its flukes giving their back a humped appearance and lending this species its common name. It has paired blowholes on its head and the blow is often lower, rounder and bushier than the blows of other rorquals.

The long flippers of Megaptera novaeangliae, which are the longest of any cetacean, along with the presence of tubercles on the head, make this species difficult to mistake for any other. Megaptera novaeangliaes range overlaps with Fin Whales, Balaenoptera physalus, and Sei Whales, Balaenoptera borealis, and the blow of Megaptera novaeangliae can be similar to that of Balaenoptera physalus. However, Balaenoptera physalus and Balaenoptera borealis are larger, sleeker, have dark gray bodies and they rarely lift their flukes when diving. The three species of Right Whale, Eubalaena australis, Eubalaena glacialis, and Eubalaena japonica and the Gray Whale, Eschrichtius robustus, all lack a dorsal fin which differentiates them from Megaptera novaeangliae and furthermore Eschrichtius robustus has bumps along the top of the caudal peduncle.


Megaptera novaeangliae is 4 4.6 m at birth and weighs about 680 kg. Adults can grow to a length of about 16 19 m and a weight of about 48,000 kg with males being slightly smaller than females.

Natural History

General natural history:

Megaptera novaeangliae is well known for its incredible acrobatic behaviors, including breaching, lobtailing and flipper slapping. The reason for these behaviors is not clearly understood, however, they likely have different functions depending on the social or behavioral context. Another interesting social behavior Megaptera novaeangliae exhibits is singing. On the breeding grounds males sing complex songs with each area having a different dialect. These incredible songs can last up to 20 minutes long and can be heard for over 30 km and yet their exact function is not clearly understood.

These whales demonstrate marked seasonal contrasts in their social organization and behavior, but are normally observed alone or in small groups throughout the year. Groups are not stable and long term associations between whales are possible, but rare. During the summer feeding season, whales may forage together for short periods of time, even working together to feed. Amazingly, they do not feed during the winter breeding season, but instead rely on fat reserves stored in the blubber. Diving times are significantly different seasonally as well. During the summer dive times are usually three to five minutes, but during the winter dives typically last 15 to 20 minutes.

Megaptera novaeangliae was hunted extensively during the 20th century and their worldwide population was reduced to perhaps 10 percent of their original population size. Fortunately, populations appear to be recovering well from exploitation and strong population growth rates have been reported in many areas. Currently the North Atlantic population is estimated at 11,600 individuals, the North Pacific population is estimated at 6,000 8,000 and the Southern Hemisphere population is estimated at 17,000 whales or more. This species of whale probably lives to at least 50 years of age.


Megaptera novaeangliae is presently hunted in small numbers by isolated aboriginal fisheries and many die from entanglement in fishing gear.


Megaptera novaeangliae feeds on krill and a variety of small schooling fish, especially herring, anchovies, capelin, and sandlance.

Feeding behavior

Filter feeder

Feeding behavior notes:

Megaptera novaeangliae is a baleen whale and therefore in place of teeth it has horny baleen hanging down from the upper jaw. When the whale takes a big gulp, water can be expelled through the baleen plates and food is trapped inside to be swallowed. Large volumes of water and food can be taken into the mouth because the pleated grooves in the throat expand.

This whale feeds alone or cooperatively by lunging into schools of prey. Whales often use a bubble-feeding technique in which the whales swim in a circle beneath the water surface and blow nets or clouds of bubbles to concentrate and trap prey. Bubble nets consist of a series of small bubble columns blown in a circle or spiral that enclose a central space where in contrast a bubble cloud is a single very large burst of bubbles with no open water in the middle. The bubbles act to confuse and wall in schools of small fish or krill. The whales can then rise up from below with their mouth open and engulf their prey. Each whale eats up to one and a half tons of food per day.

December - February


Megaptera novaeangliae breeds during the winter after migrating into low latitude tropical and subtropical regions. These whales reach sexual maturity at about 6 10 years of age or when males and females reach a length of about 11.6 m and 12 m respectively. Males compete aggressively for females during the breeding season with lunges, tail slashes, charges and blocks. They may form groups of two to 20 males around a single female competing aggressively for hours. The breeding cycle is about every two years and after a gestation period of one year, females give birth to a single calf. Most births occur midwinter. Calves are weaned from their mothers when they are about one year old.


Megaptera novaeangliae is highly migratory. It feeds during the summer in mid and high latitudes and mates and calves during the winter in tropical or subtropical waters, often concentrated around islands or reef systems.
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Alden, P., F. Heath, R. Keen, A. Leventer, and W. Zomlefer. 2002. National Audubon Society Field Guide to California. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY.
Boschung, H.T., J.D. Williams, D.W. Gotshall, D.K. Caldwell, and M.C. Caldwell. 1998. National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Fishes, Whales and Dolphins. A.A. Knoph, New York, NY. 848 p.
Reeves, R.R., B.S. Stewart, P.J. Clapham, and J.A. Powell. 2002. National Audubon Society Guide to Marine Mammals of the World. A.A. Knopf, New York, NY. 527 p.
American Cetacean Society
Accessed 09/22/2006
Monterey Bay Aquarium. Online Field Guide, 2008.
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