Humpback Whales: Characteristics, customs and much more

The humpback whales or  Megaptera novaeangliae in scientific term, belong to the category of toothed whales. They are easily identified from others whales ,due to the hump they have on their dorsal fins.

  • Humpback whales can measure up to 52 feet in length, and weight between 30 and 50 tons, although these anatomical aspects vary a little bit, depending on the area where they inhabit.
  • These creatures possess great skills to move in  the water. To observe them represents  a wonderful spectacle; since they like to do acrobatics, when they emerge  towards the surface
  • Humpback whales are also known as yubarta or gubarte and are quite sociable with their equals. They usually swim in small groups which they maintain for a long time unlike the blue whales.
  • Humpback whales emit vocalizations, which are louder  than those of the others whales;  and can be heard 100 miles away, which is something really incredible. Such vocalizations, which resemble a song, are likely employed to attract the female
  • The humpback whale is a wonderful sea mammal; which curious way of life, we will discover throughout this interesting article.

 Humpback Whale, Yubarta or Gubarte: Main Characteristics

The Humpback Whale is characterized by being one of the largest rorquals, and it is one of the few cetaceans where the female, which reaches up to 19 meters long; exceeds the male in proportion.

In addition, these whales have pectoral fins that reach a third of their size. These extremities are white on the inner side, and black on the upper side, although there are also humpbacks with completely white fins, especially those that inhabit the Arctic regions. The humpback whales that develop in the Pacific north tend to have black fins.

Humpback whales are commonly black or dark gray, while their bellies can be black, white or speckled with both colors. They have some prominences on their head that characterize them and are the reason their name. These formations are known as tubers, which are actually hair follicles, that is, a part of the skin where hair can possibly grow.

The dorsal fin varies according to each humpback; and it can be from almost imperceptible, to prominent like a sickle. As for the pectoral fins, they have a certain unique and mottled form; which makes of  them a sort of  fingerprint for each specimen. Their size is defined by the total length of the whale, since it is around a third of it.

The humpback whales have the largest dorsal fins among all cetaceans, which  allows them to perform the acrobatic skills they presume

These cetaceans,  have 14 to 22 folds that go from the jaw to the navel. These folds work like an accordion, which expand to increase the size of their stomach.

It is common to see the humpback whales,  when they  expel the air from their lungs, since  they emerge to the surface, to throw a cloud of hot steam that looks like a geyser. When the steam makes  contact with the cold air of the environment,  it condenses in the form of jets of water.

let´s learn more about this just beatiful creature….

Humpback Whales’ Common Behavior 

These wonderful specimens, have many interesting features, regarding their behavior…

Social Life

The humpback whales maintain a social life formed by small groups. The main link is established between mother and the offspring; although at the moment of looking for food, they become cooperatives, forming a great work team.

In sightings performed around the world, these whales have been seen interacting with mysticetes , dolphins and even sharing food with birds. This means,  they are able  to feel comfortable with other species.

In general, they are peaceful and quiet ; unless they feel their young are in danger. So they become violent and aggressive.

Sexual Behavior

Humpback whales reach their sexual maturity from 4 to 6 years of age. The male may take more time than the female for this purpose.

During mating, males can establish an aggressive competition to win the female in heat.  They perform a sort of ritual,  emitting  songs ( vocalizations), in an intermittent and sharp way every 20 or 30 minutes.

Generally, mating  is carried out during summer in tropical waters.

During this season, the male’s testicles enlarge and synchronize with the ovulation of the female.

During copulation, the Humpback Whales swim in pairs.  Then, they interlock their pectoral and dorsal fins joining their belly. Later, they sink in the depths without separating and emerge vertically towards the surface, where they separate to fall hitting the water.

The gestation period takes 11 and a half months; and  the offspring  can measure from 4 to 4.5 meters in length. They are breastfed for the first 12 months, although after 6 months they start to eat small fish.:

Swimming Skills

The humpback whales, are slow swimmers, which  can reach a maximum speed of 27 kilometers per hour.  They are able to remain up to 20 minutes submerged in the water, at a depth of 7 meters.

These creatures are  really exhibitionists, since in spite of being slow, they stand out for coming to the surface hitting the water with  their head. They have been seen, jumping and circling on the surface of the sea.

Alimentation Habits

humpback whales: bubblesThe Humpback Whales have a very varied and weird diet. They eat mainly  during summer, while in winter they survive with the   fat reserves of their bodies..

They use two techniques to catch their prey. The most outstanding is to create a circle of many whales,  releasing  bubbles through their spiracles under the shoals of fish. Once the preys are caught, the humpback whales jump on them. For this task, the collaboration of a dozen whales is required, some of them must submerge to move the fish into the «bubble net», while the others corner them with their songs.

Another of their techniques to catch their prey,   is to hit the water strongly with their pectoral and caudal  fins;  stunning their victim which then will be devoured.

Songs

These cetaceans can emit certain sounds, produced by the expulsion of air through the nasal cavity. The males perform the longest and most complex songs, which last between 10 to 20 minutes.

It’s  possible for a male to sing during  24 continous hours ,and although there are no studies to explain this ritual, the mating season has been related to the intensity of such songs. So, they are probably performed  in order to  attract the female in heat,

Other scientists have created the hypothesis, that these songs can be produced to accomplish an echolocation function,  since they usually occur during the food season, to concentrate the fish into the bubble net.

On the other hand, the vocalizations are often  heard in some creatures during their solo trips, which could mean that they are employed to locate other nearby whales.

The humpback whales can communicate among them , employing  different sounds like bellows, grunts and / or barks;  as well as the wops that are performed mostly between the mother and her calf. It is a kind of communication in a unique language between them.

Watch this wonderful documentary, about The Ocean Singer

The Humpback Whales’ Population

There are approximately 60,000 humpback whales distributed throughout the world. According to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN),  they are distributed between the north of the Pacific, the North Atlantic and the largest number in the Southern Hemisphere.

This is a migratory species that travels more than 25,000 kilometers away, obtaining the world record among mammals in doing so. And they go in search of warm waters, especially during the reproduction and birth of their offspring.

They can also move in small groups, during the summer to go to areas where schools of fish abound . Only the species that inhabit the Persian Gulf, remain in this location without migrating,  since the summer winds attract large schools, so the food reaches them in an easy way.

The HumpBack Whales’ Main Threats

As most marine specimens, the humbback whales are threatened by many things

Human Beings

The Humpback Whale and the humans beings have many things in common, especially  in the social aspect. They maintain a communication between their group, especially in the mother and offspring relationship; as a human mother does.

In the same way, they are able to organize themselves in order to search for food; and they also have their own  socio-cultural language, as humans do.

However, the relationship between this species and people are not entirely harmonious, since humans have been responsible for promoting situations,  that go against the survival of  the humpback whales in the world.

It is important to know, that  humpback whales do not have natural predators; the human being is their only enemy, through the indiscriminate killing of whales, environmental pollution and toxins poured into the seas. These factors contribute negatively,  in the life of these and other marine creatures.

It is good to remember, that the humpbacks whales take 7 years to reach their sexual maturity,  and 2 years to conceive a baby whale.  Due to  different human activities, that affect the environment; many females of this species do not reach reproductive age. As a result, the population of humpback whales,  decreases every day. Hence, the humpback whale is considered  as an endangered species

Real Situation of the Humpback Whales

These cetaceans are the most appreciated species in the world whaling industry. Their slaughter in recent years, have caused a drastic decrease in their  population. In the North Atlantic, this practice often reaches at least 11,570 individuals; although this number has lowered; thanks to the efforts of conservationists around the planet.

Despite these efforts,  the populationsof these cetacean has decreased  considerably in the last two centuries

In countries like Venezuela, specifically in the Gulf of Paria,  there has been a drop in the birth rate of humpback whales; where they used to go from different regions during the summer,  to reproduce and have their offspring. So,  it is estimated that each year there are less of this species; in spite of the several measures that have been taken.

Threats

Whaling is an activity, which is very difficult to control. During summer, when the humpback whales go out in groups searching  for food; they become easy targets for hunters.

During the years of 1960-1962, it was found that the whaling industry was at its highest peak, killing an average of more than 67,000 individuals of this species.

Another threat for the humpback whales,  is the collision with boats and fishing equipment, such as nets;  which makes thousands of whales die every year.

On the other hand, military sound equipment also affects these cetaceans. Due to their sensitive hearing, the radars and sonars used by the coastguards and the military; affect their ability to orient themselves within the water, getting  into a state of shock.

The Pollution of waters produced by oil spills, is another threat that these creatures face. This situation affects considerably  the schoal   of fish, which are their main source of food. The global warming and climate changes, also have negative effects over the humpback whales

Finally, although the humpbacks whales don´t have natural threats; the pollutants make them vulnerable to other more voracious whales; as well as to parasites and bacteria that are produced by this effect in seas and oceans. That they get sick , and therefore their fatal outcome.

Conservation Measures

Since the year 1,966, the humpback whales and other cetaceans, have been protected, by the Convention on International Trade Endangered Species (CITES).  The purchase and sale of this species has been prohibited;  they can be hunted only for investigation purposes, regarding their  conservation and breeding.

In this sense, the referred entity  declared the Indigo Ocean, as the International Sanctuary of the Humpback Whale or Yubarta, in the year 1979.

On June 2, 1970, the humpback whale was designated as «endangered species». So, it is  prohibited to kill, damage, annoy, trap, buy or sell these cetaceans, as well as to manufacture products derived from them. These activities are considered a federal crime in countries like USA, and a violation of the rights of protection of endangered species.  There are penalties of   $ 100,000 and one year in prison, for those who fail to fulfill these regulations.

Tourism and Sightings

The humpback whale is a very docile cetacean, as much as the beluga white whale. They can coexist spontaneously with human beings, and swim peacefully near boats.  However, this behavior is what really makes them vulnerable to whale hunters.

The most common places for the sightings of these great marine creatures, are the north of the Pacific Ocean, in front of the state of Washington, the island of Vancouver and Alaska. Also near Sydney in Australia; in the Atlantic coast, Boston, Bahia de Samana and Banco de la Plata  (Dominican Republic).

The Humpback Whales  are very popular because of  their characteristic grace, aerial acrobatic  maneuvers, docility and songs; that captivate children and adults.

Despite being very quiet, the humpback whales can be extremely protective, when they have to take care of their calves. In the presence of boats, the mother places herself between them  and her offspring in protection mode. For this reason,  the ships that take tourists during the season of sightings; take measures to prevent the mother whales from being disturbed. They usually become violent, when they face a potential threat for their calves.

Fishing Humpback Whales

The Yubarta or humpback whale, is a very popular species in the trade of meat, oil and other products. In past centuries, when the oil lamps were the only source of light; the people near the coasts, used to hunt the whales very often.

Since one whale was enough to stock up on food;  the others whales  were captured to take advantage their skin, beards, bones and  fat.  All the animal was useful. These activities, contributed to the decline of whales´ populations;  and the fishermen went deeper and deeper into the seas and oceans in order to attract them.

It was not until the twentieth century, specifically in the year of 1.985, when, as a result of the indiscriminate hunting of whales; the population of these species was plummeted. Thus,  the proper laws and agreements were created,   for their protection; specifically, the regulation of whaling, that is extendable to all the countries of the world, whether or not they are whaling merchants.

Humpback Whales’ Migrations

The Humpback Whale are recognized worldwide for their long distance migrations. They can travel from arctic areas of low temperatures, where schools of fish are scarce; to the seas and oceans in the warm equatorial waters, to find food and reproduce.

There are evidences of journeys,  over distances of more than 8,000 kilometers. However, there are still many questions about these travels; since biologists and researchers, have doubts  about how these whales orientate themselves  to reach such distances.

However, a recent investigation based on technological advances, gave extensive details on the migration of the humpback whales. The strategy consisted of placing devices to a considerable number of these  creatures, to identify the trajectory and behavior that they followed.

The tracking of these whales lasted 8 years, and it was found that the whales always followed an almost perfect direction, from one point to another in their trips. Their course remained constant and without any desviation; during 28 days without stopping. Even when there were storms and strong winds, they continued swimming in spite the  climatic and environmental changes.

It is believed  that the humpback whales,  can interpret signs and signals of the environment, such as sun rays and stars;  to guide themselves. This is the main hypothesis,  about how can they keep the same path for years.

However, there are still many questions to answer, since migrations usually happen at different times and seasons.

So, the studies and trackings of these whales, are still carried out; to unravel the mystery of their migrations.

Watch this video to learn more about these journeys…

Curious facts about Humpback Whales

Unique Footprints

The humpback whales are cetacean,  that belong to the family of the fin whales  ( rorquals); which also includes the blue whale, the fin whale, the Bryde whale, among others.

There is a particular fact about these specimens, related to their dorsal fins; which  have a unique shape and color in each individual; very similar to a fingerprint.

This discovery has been quite useful, for the scientific investigations of this species; since it allows the monitoring of the whales separately. The «photo identification» as they have called this way of knowing each individual; allows the study  of each specimen without getting confused.

It gives the advantage, of knowing exactly the behavior of each one of the whales in an individualized way.

The humpback whales and their navel

A curiosity about this and all the whales, is that they have navels. And of course they should have it; since they are mammalian animals. The mother who carries her offspring in the womb, feeds it through the placenta.

It should be noted, that when the small calf is born, its tail is the first thing that comes out from the mother’s uterus. This happens, to allow the calf emerge to the surface, since it requires air to make its lung work.

Then they turn to the mother,  to hit her belly and make the breasts hidden in the skin sprout, to feed on them. 

Teamwork

These whales are characterized by being extremely organized. They have a great ability to form work teams , to stock up on food. In general, they can swim alone, with their young or in small groups.

However, when they need collaboration, they achieve a whole group willing to work for the common good. The strategy is to surround a schoal, and while a group produces huge amounts of bubbles to disorient the fish, the other group submerge, to make the prey come to the surface and devour them.

The Humpbacks Whales’ Contagious Rythym

The males of this curious species have a unique song for each activity. Above all, they use the same melody during the mating season. And the most outstanding thing is that all of the same group, sing the same song over and over again; as if it were the music of the moment.

However, these melodies are not maintained, but with the passing of the years they change the rhythm. What has been shown, is that the same music is heard in the humps of the whole world. If there are changes, they also get in tune with the new rhythms.

Humpback whales: luban, a satellital-tracked whaleThis phenomenon is only comparable with the cultural evolution of music in the human species.

The specialists  have formulated hypotheses in this regard. They consider that during the migrations, the humpback whales carry their song to the populations of this species, and consequently they are infected with the new musical trend; so to speak.

The mysterious and inscrutable Humpback Whale or  Yubarte, remains as one of the most complex marine species to study;  especially for its organized and precise behavior.

Its perfect navigation system is so linear, that it seems to have a GPS installed in its collective memory,  to meet with the same groups throughout its life.

In spite of that, they are very gentle and sociable. The female has a natural instinct of protection and infinite love with heroffspring, an indestructible link that last their all lives..

And above all things, they are part of our planet. So, they deserve our  respect and protection

Watch this amazing video, before learning about other whales…

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