Humpback Whale (North Pacific Population)
- No Status NS
- Special Concern SC
- Threatened TH
- Endangered EN
- Extirpated EX
|Not at Risk
- Not at Risk NR
- Special Concern SC
- Threatened TH
- Endangered EN
- Extirpated EX
At a glance
These giants of the deep are slow swimmers, making them easy targets for whalers in the first half of the 20th century, when they were killed by the thousands for their blubber. Now protected, Humpback populations have grown to nearly 54,000 worldwide— over 45 percent of their original numbers. Although the North Pacific population was previously estimated between 6,000 to 8,000, a recent population estimate based on 2004-2006 data was slightly over 18,000 individuals. Despite this dramatic increase, current numbers are considerably smaller than pre-whaling population estimates.
About the Humpback Whale
Often the first sight of a Humpback is its broad tail (called a fluke) arcing elegantly out of the water. Then the whale will break the surface and exhale a stream of misty spray that often rises to three meters above the two blow holes on the top of its head.
Humpbacks travel in loose groups (called pods) and may form distinct populations. Humpback Whales reach sexual maturity at nine years of age, and an adult female will bear a calf generally every one to five years. Female whales develop strong and lasting bonds with their calves. The calf nurses frequently on its mother’s milk until about 11 months old, and remains with its mother for a year or longer. The oldest documented age of a Humpback Whale was estimated at 48 years old; however, Humpback Whales are thought likely to live much longer.
How to recognize the Humpback Whale
With its black back and white belly, deeply grooved throat, long pectoral flippers, and huge fluke, the Humpback Whale is easy to identify. Small bumps are found on the whale’s head and neck, and the front edge of their flippers. Adults are typically 13 meters and 14 meters long for males and females respectively, and can weigh between 34,000 and 45,000 kilograms. The fluke of a male Humpback can measure up to 80 centimeters across. The underside of each whale’s fluke is colored black and white in a pattern that is as unique as a fingerprint.
What they eat
Humpback Whales feed on a diverse diet of krill, which are small, shrimp-like crustaceans, and a variety of small schooling fishes. The whale has no teeth; instead it has a series of fringed plates (called baleen plates) hanging from each side of its upper jaw. During feeding, pleated grooves in the whale’s throat expand, enabling it to gulp large mouthfuls of water and prey. When the whale closes its mouth, the water is forced out. The baleen plates act as filters, trapping food on the inside of the mouth, which the whale then swallows.
Humpbacks have developed an ingenious method of hunting known as bubble-net feeding. They circle beneath a large school of fish, blowing a wall of bubbles as they spiral slowly upward. The bubbles force the trapped prey to move to the surface in a concentrated mass, making it easy for the whales to consume large quantities of food in a single gulp.
Traveling from the frigid waters of Alaska to the tropical seas off Hawaii, Humpback Whales migrate through Canadian waters twice a year. The whales generally follow the coastline and take advantage of seasonal currents during their migrations. In the fall, the whales head south to breed in tropical waters; in spring they return to their northern feeding grounds for the summer. The highly productive waters of British Columbia (B.C.) serve as important feeding habitat for a portion of the Humpback Whale population during these summer months. As Humpback Whales use B.C. waters mainly as feeding grounds, their habitat needs are closely linked with ecological variables that affect their prey. Studies indicate that Humpback Whales may be dependent on specific prey of specific densities, at specific feeding regions.
Why it’s at risk
Threats to the species include entanglement in various types of fishing gear, and potential toxic spills that can negatively impact Humpback Whales as well as their prey species. Vessel strikes are the most significant threat to Humpback Whales. In B.C. waters, Humpback Whales are the most commonly reported whale species involved in incidents with vessels. These interactions can cause injuries ranging from scarring to the mortality of individuals. Many shipping lanes cross migration and feeding areas, making the risk of collision more likely. Reductions in the density and availability of prey species are also a potential threat to the species. Additionally, noise pollution from activities such as commercial shipping may displace or disturb the whales.
What’s being done
Humpback Whales are currently protected by two international conventions. The International Whaling Commission has banned the commercial hunting of Humpback Whales since 1955 in the North Atlantic and 1966 in the North Pacific. The Humpback Whale is also protected by the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES) – of which Canada is a party to – that bans the trade of Humpback Whales and their parts, and derivatives.
In Canada, the North Pacific Humpback Whale population was assessed by the Committee on the Status of Endangered Wildlife in Canada (COSEWIC) as Threatened in 2003 and then reassessed in 2011 as Special Concern, a lower risk category, as a result of an increase in the population. The Humpback Whale has also been reclassified from Threatened to Special Concern under the Species at Risk Act (SARA) in 2017 and is protected under the Marine Mammals Regulations, which fall under the Fisheries Act. A recovery strategy (PDF 1.23 MB) had been developed for Humpback Whales as required by SARA for Threatened species. A Management Plan will now be developed as required for species of Special Concern.
A variety of organizations in B.C. conduct research on Humpback Whales. This research includes the collection of acoustic and visual data to clarify local abundances and distribution of Humpback Whales in B.C.’s North Coast. The B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network, a collaboration of the Vancouver Aquarium Marine Science Centre (VAMSC) and the Department of Fisheries and Oceans (DFO), collects sightings information on cetaceans. Additionally, the Marine Mammal Response Network (MMRN), coordinated through DFO’s Cetacean Research Program, collects information on incidents, such as vessel strikes, entanglements, strandings, as well as injured or dead marine mammals.
What can you do?
Humpback Whales will get the protection they need only if all Canadians work together to reduce threats. Find out more about Humpback Whales and be aware of man-made threats such as vessel strikes, entanglement in fishing gear, and toxic spills. Do your best to reduce these threats wherever possible. Get involved with the Habitat Stewardship Program for Species at Risk (HSP) or another conservation organization.
While out on the water, follow the ‘Be Whale Wise: Marine Wildlife Guidelines for Boaters, Paddlers, and Viewers’ to reduce negative interactions between boats and Humpback Whales. Join a stewardship program such as the B.C. Cetacean Sightings Network. The Network’s main goals are to identify key habitats and help reduce threats. The Network also solicits cetacean sighting reports from mariners along B.C.’s coast. Find out more.
For more information, visit the Species at Risk (SARA) Public Registry Profile
Scientific Name: Megaptera novaeangliae
SARA Status: Special Concern
COSEWIC Status: Special Concern
Region: Pacific Ocean
Minstrels of the sea
Humpback Whales are the noisiest and most-imaginative of whales when it comes to song. They sing complex, eerie and beautiful ballads that last for between 10 and 20 minutes and can be heard more than 20 miles away. Today, we know more than ever about the song of the Humpback. We know, for instance, that while both male and female Humpback Whales can produce sounds, only males appear to sing songs with distinct themes and melodies. Males almost always sing on breeding grounds, often while suspended deep below the surface with their long front flippers jutting rigidly from their sides. Male Humpbacks frequently repeat the same song dozens of times over a period of several hours, and whales in the same geographic area sing in very similar ‘dialects.’ Song patterns change gradually over time, with new songs emerging every few years.
- Date modified: