History and General Information on the Humpback Whale
No one knows exactly when Humpback whales first began wintering in the warm, shallow waters around the Hawaiian Islands. Reports from whalers document the appearance of these majestic giants in the 1840’s, but little written evidence substantiates an earlier presence.
Distinct populations of Humpback whales are found in each of the world’s oceans. Newborn calves, weighing an average 1.5 tons, range from 10 to 16 feet in length. Males may reach 43 feet in length, while females are slightly larger, averaging 45 feet. A mature Humpback weighs up to one ton per foot, or about 85,000 – 90,000 pounds. Researchers believe Humpbacks can live to 40 to 60 years.
Grayish-black in color, Humpback whales have white markings that are distinct to each individual. A whale swims by moving its tail or fins up and down (fish move their tails from side to side). The pectoral fins, located on each side of the whale, are used to turn and steer. Humpbacks breathe through a double blowhole located on top of their head. Even if you don’t take a whale watching tour or trip on a boat, if you are here in Hawaii during whale season, the “spouts” caused by their breathing is one of the easiest ways to spot Humpback whales from the shore.
The Humpback’s scientific name, Megaptera Novaengliae (“Great wings of New England”), refers to its huge fifteen-foot pectoral fins. The name “hump-back”, coined by whalers, probably resulted from the appearance of the arching of the caudal peduncle while diving, coupled with the prominent dorsal fin.
The North Pacific Humpback whales that you see on a Hawaii whale watching trip spend the summer in temperate waters from the Aleutian Islands of Alaska to the Farallon Islands off the coast of central California. During the colder winter months, November to May, the majority of the North Pacific stock is found in the warm waters of Hawaii where they breed, calve, and nurse their young. The remaining Humpback whales are found off the coast of Baja California, Mexico, and throughout the islands south of Japan. In the South Pacific, Humpbacks feed near Antarctica in the austral summer, November to May, and spend the austral winter, June to October, breeding off east Australia and South Pacific Islands. Consequently, researchers believe northern and southern stocks do not intermingle.
Humpback whales are not fast swimmers. While they can attain speeds of 20 mph for brief periods, they average three to six mph – and you will see this behavior out on one of our whale watching trips. How long it takes to travel the more than 3,500 miles between the feeding and breeding areas is not known. Timing of the migratory cycle ensures that pregnant females and mothers with newborn calves spend the majority of their time in the relatively warm waters of Hawaii.
Some migration of individual Humpback whales between breeding areas has been discovered. Whales photographed in Hawaii one year have been observed in Mexico and south of Japan in other years. One Humpback whale was observed in both Mexico and Hawaii during the same winter!
Scientists believe that whales are intelligent animals. An anatomical feature that scientists correlate with intelligence is the degree of folding of the upper surface of the whale’s brain, the area known as the cerebral cortex. This folding increases the surface area of the brain and is found in other intelligent animals, such as elephants and dogs. Whale brains generally show as much or more folding of the cerebral cortex as is seen in humans.
Complex behavior may reveal more about whale intelligence than brain structure. Some whales in captivity exhibit extensive learning and problem-solving skills. Dolphin curiosity and their often-eager interactions with humans also suggest a high level of intelligence.
Perhaps the most intriguing indication of whale intelligence came with the discovery in the 1970s of whale singing, most notably in Humpbacks. Humpback songs, which may last more than 20 minutes, consist of a series of phrases or sequences. All of the singing whales of a particular migrating group sing very nearly the same song. The songs change progressively from year to year, resulting in entirely new songs after four or five years. Singing most commonly occurs in the winter mating grounds, suggesting that it may be part of a mating ritual. Scientists acknowledge that they are still far from accurately measuring, or even knowing how to measure, the intelligence of whales.