Humpback whale

Megaptera novaeangliae


Size: max 15m

Key feature: Fleshy tubercles.

Humpback whales are rorqual whales which are covered in little fleshy lumps called tubercles. They vary in colour from dark grey to black, but have a lighter underbelly. They have long pectoral fins, up to 5m in length, which are white in colour. They have a tall vertical bushy blow.


Humpback whales usually travel in groups of 1 – 3 but are occasionally seen in much large groups when feeding. They are very acrobatic and active, often breaching and landing on their back. They have also been seen tail-lobbing and splashing their flippers on the surface water. They are renowned for their elegant complex songs, which are sung by the males during courtship. These songs have been studied intensely and have been found to vary a little year upon year. When they feed, they sometimes feed as a group by using a method called ‘bubble netting’. Here a group of whales create a curtain of bubbles around a group of krill or small fish and trap them inside. Whales will then swim up through the ring of bubbles with mouths open, catching everything in their path.


Humpbacks are distributed world wide. They feed in polar and temperate waters in the summer then migrate to the tropics in the winter to breed. They are occasionally seen off the south west of Ireland and the UK. ORCA surveyors have seen humpback whales in the North Sea, English Channel, Irish Sea, Bay of Biscay and further afield in Iceland and off Nova Scotia.


Humpback whales numbers were depleted by whalers; however since they became protected in 1966 they have been making a slow recovery. Other human impacts upon humpback whales include pollution, and prey depletion due to overfishing.

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