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Humpbacks

The planet's largest gathering of humpback whales calls the waters off Newfoundland and Labrador their home from June to September. This on-line catalogue represents the largest web-based collection of Newfoundland and Labrador humpback whales in the world.

Tails
Mother and Calf
Orca Encounter Scars
Distinctive Marks and Scars
More About Humpback Whale Research

These images are posted to facilitate the work of researchers and students. Humpback census research involves the collection of clear, close-to-full-frame tail photographs that clearly show the distinctive black and white colour patterns on the underside of the tail. Scars and the irregular edges of the tails are also important photographic features.

See You Can Help with Whale Research under the Submit section for information on how to take and submit useful photos

As the number of tail images gathered world-wide by whale scientists started to total thousands of animals it was realized that some individual tails, especially the almost-all-black and almost-all-white varieties provided real challenges. Unlike finger prints, some humpback tails can very closely resemble one another. A close examination of the ridges and irregular patterns along the edge of the tail often but not always aids in separating similar individuals. While tail photos are still very useful to whale biologists, the patterns of ridges on the whale's back as it dives also can contribute to an individual identification. Serious whale science contributors are encouraged to collect these images too.

This Atlantic Whales database is also interested in studying the effect that the growing numbers of Atlantic orcas appear to be having on humpbacks in the north Atlantic. Another important area of research involves determining the effects collisions with ships are having on humpbacks and other whales. One complete section of this database collection features humpbacks that have been scarred by orcas. While most encounters between humpbacks and orcas appear to be non lethal to the humpback, they can cause permanent scarring and short term behavioural changes in the animals. (Humans who have been chased by tigers or bears may experience similar behavioural changes.) Details of some of these encounters can be found in our Atlantic Whales wildlife reports. These permanent scars also provide distinctive individual markings for whale scientists tracking humpback migration and population changes. Another section catalogues other individual humpbacks with distinctive markings from other sources including ships and natural birth features.

Getting to Know the Humpback Whale

The scientific name of the humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) means long-winged New Englander. As Dr. Jon Lien noted in the 1980s, humpbacks could more appropriately be called wet and fat Newfoundlanders. The waters off Newfoundland boast huge numbers of summer humpbacks plus some of the deep bays include humpbacks that remain during the winter to pursue herring and other marine prey. The "long wings" of the humpback are its pectoral fins the longest in the world which can measure over 4 m (12 ft) in length.

The humpback is a large baleen whale that ranges between 12-16 m (38-50 ft) in length and weighs approximately 36 tons. Humpbacks are found in all the world's oceans and usually follow a pattern of feeding in cold water while breeding in warm water. Their large size, overall abundance, and relatively slow swimming speed made them a favourite of 19th and 20th century whalers who turned to humpbacks after the slower moving right, grey and bowhead whales had been decimated or, in the case of the Atlantic grey, driven to extinction. By the 1970s, some jurisdictions considered humpback whales to be an endangered species. In most parts of the world the cessation of whaling has contributed to a remarkable recovery in humpback numbers. Their ability to pursue a wide variety of prey items and their relatively prolific rate or reproduction has resulted in a fairly rapid rate of recovery in population numbers as compared to whales like the Atlantic right whale.

Notes The humpback is famous for its acrobatics especially breaching (leaping out of the water) and for the complex, haunting whale songs that spawned centuries-old tales of sirens and ghosts in the ocean.
Audio Humpback whale song
(WMA)
Courtesy Whale Songs by Wildland Tours (Click to purchase)

The humpback is regularly sought out by whale-watchers and whale scientists because it is approachable, entertaining and more-easily studied than most other species. The distinctive colour patterns on the underside of the tail allow scientists to track individual animals and develop reliable population estimates.

Humpback whales become reproductively mature when they are between 4 and 8 years old. The North Atlantic humpbacks breed in the Caribbean in places like the Silver Bank Whale Sanctuary off the Dominican Republic. It is here that the females give birth to their 4 m (13 f) -long calves. At birth, calves weigh about two tons and grow rapidly as the mother feeds her newborn about 40 kg (100 lbs) of milk each day for a period of five to seven months until it is weaned. After weaning, the calf has doubled its length and has increased its weight five times, attaining a size of about 5 m (26 ft) and 10 tons. Usually, a female humpback will bear one calf every two or three years. Many of the humpback whales that overwinter off the Newfoundland and Labrador coast are likely females taking a feeding break from the rigors of reproduction. Scientists estimate the average life span of humpbacks in the wild to be between 30 and 40 years, although no one knows for certain.

It is in the warmer southern waters where the males sing their impressive 20-minute songs designed to woo the females. Mating behaviours can get more vigorous as males jostle for closeness to the females but the songs of the male humpbacks are remarkable for their complexity and variety. It is believed these songs inspired the legends of the Sirens from thousands of years ago. Humpbacks do not feed in the south. While the southern waters boast an impressive diversity of fish and marine life, it is the huge biomasses of fish and krill found in temperate and subarctic/arctic waters that sustains these massive animals.

Humpbacks have been likened to the canary in the coal mine. They are important indicators of oceanic health, and their ease of study, relative to other whales, makes them one of the best global indicator species for following the health of our ocean. If our blue planet cannot support the whales, then the humans who have depended on the oceans since they spread out from Africa millions of years ago will also be imperiled.

The Atlantic Whales website is designed to assist with this critical study of whale populations and oceanic health. We welcome your contributions. And we also ask, what could be more fun or rewarding than hanging out with whales and working towards getting to know the ocean better?

People interested in a gentle and fun whale study experience are encouraged to check out the Wildland Tours website. Wildland Tours is a corporate sponsor of Atlantic Whales.

 
 

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