Humpback whales are making a comeback.
Given full protection worldwide by the International Whaling Commission that banned commercial whaling in the 1980s, humpback whales have seen a steady rise in their numbers. Acrobats of the oceans, these magnificent animals are famous for their tremendous migrations from the polar regions to their equatorial breeding waters.
Here are ten more interesting facts about them.
1. The name is misleading
Humpback whales do not have humps on their backs. The name comes from the huge swell, or hump, that develops in the water before a humpback whale takes a deep dive.
2. They are big eaters
Humpback whales consume up to 1 360 kilograms of krill a day. Each krill provides the whale with just one drop of fat. A calf drinks about 600 litres of milk a day. The fat content of whale milk is about 50%.
3. You can find them just about anywhere
Humpbacks occur in every ocean on the planet.
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4. They stick to what they know
Neither the southern hemisphere humpbacks nor the northern hemisphere populations cross the equator. Furthermore, these two groups arrive at the equatorial limits of their breeding grounds at different times (the southern group in the southern hemisphere winter; the northerners in the northern hemisphere winter), so they never meet and thus never interbreed.
5. They don’t eat and drive
Humpbacks follow set routes and swim in neat lines. They don’t feed while migrating, with one exception. The Antarctic B group that goes up the west coast of Africa pauses in their migration when a south-easterly wind blows and creates conditions that cause an upwelling of krill. Groups of up to 200 whales then congregate to feed on the bounty.
6. They are bubble masters
Humpbacks employ a unique co-operative hunting method called bubble netting. By creating air bubbles, groups of whales disorient and corral their prey – fish, krill etc – in a ‘net’ of bubbles.
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7. Not all humpbacks are singers
Humpback whales are known for their haunting calls but it’s only the males that sing.
8. How to tell one from the other
Just as every human has unique fingerprints, each humpback whale can be identified by the unique shape of its dorsal fin and the patterns and colours on the underside of its fluke.
9. How big is big?
Humpbacks are among the largest species of whales. They can reach up to 18 metres in length, weigh around 30 metric tons, their flukes can be as wide as 5.5 metres, and the length of their flippers can measure 5 metres.
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10. They have no need for a dentist
Humpbacks are baleen whales. Instead of teeth they have fringed plates of baleen (made of keratin) hanging from their upper jaws. These plates filter the water the whales take in so that the krill and fish are trapped and the water is then expelled through the blowholes on the whales’ backs.
Read Andrea Abbott’s story ‘Comeback of the Humpback’ in our November 2019 issue.
Words Andrea Abbott
Photography Berno Phillipson; Chris Wilkinson