For me there is no creature more fascinating than the humpback whale, their impressive size, gentle nature and mysterious lives exploring the open ocean make me think these animals all have a life time of stories to tell. There is something about the eyes of a whale that reveal a glimpse in to that creatures soul. Staring deep in to those magical eyes you get the sense you are being seen by a creature full of wisdom, compassion and empathy on par with our own. Now these are purely anthropogenic projections, but there are plenty of tales about these ocean giants which have captivated people for centuries. So let's dive in to some facts about my favourite ocean inhabitant - the humpback whale!
How big are humpback whales?
Humpback whales can reach up to 17m in length, though typically adult individuals are 14-15m and weigh up to 40 tons! The humpback whale is in the rorqual family of whales, which also includes the blue whale, the largest animal to exist which is over twice the size of a humpback!
Humpback whales are easily recognised due to their large white pectoral fins which can be up to 5m long - almost a third of the body size of most humpback whales. In relation to body size these are the largest pectoral fins of any whale species.
Why are they called humpback whales?
The common name humpback whale refers to their distinctive dorsal fin. The dorsal of a humpback whale has an unusual bumpy shape in comparison to other species, and these unique fins can be used to help ID certain individuals.
The Latin name of the humpback whale is Megaptera novaeangliae,'Megaptera' is derived from Ancient Greek and can be broken down to mean: 'Mega' meaning giant & 'ptera' meaning wing, again referring to those huge flippers!
What do humpback whales eat?
There are two types of whale - toothed whales and baleen whales. Humpback whales are baleen whales which means their jaws are covered in baleen plates (- imagine a bristly brush instead of where your teeth are!). These densely packed plates are made out of keratin, when the whale scoops in a large gulp of water it filters the water across the baleen and this traps the food - mostly being krill, plankton and other small fish.
Humpback whales are called 'gulp feeders' so they will take a single gulp of food at a time, the large grooves down the under side of their body expand allowing them to maximise each gulp of water to catch as much prey as possible.
Humpback whales have also been seen executing an advanced hunting technique known as 'bubble netting' where they work together to herd fish to the surface in a bait ball. The whales cooperate to disorientate the fish by swimming around them releasing a stream of bubbles, they have been known to also make loud vocalisations to scare the fish in to tighter schools. With the noise and wall of bubbles surrounding them the disorientated fish swim to the surface where the whales follow them and each receive a huge mouthful of fish! This behaviour seems to have been learnt by whales in certain locations and is a fascinating insight in to their intelligence.
Why do humpback whales sing?
Humpback whales are known for their vocalisations often referred to as song. Male whales sing during the breeding season and this has been described as one of the most complex sounds in the animal kingdom. The exact reason they sing has not been identified but theories are mostly based around courtship - either to attract a mate, or warn away rival males. There is little evidence to suggest the latter, an alternative theory is it could have a role in echolocation, navigating and finding other whales.
All whales in the same area sing virtually identical songs, and over breeding seasons variations in songs are copied by other individuals. Whales usually sing for around 30 minutes, but one individual was recorded in Hawaii singing for 420 minutes! These hauntingly beautiful sounds still remain a mystery.
Are humpback whales good mothers?
Maternal care is common in cetaceans, lasting from months to years in some species and humpback whales are no exception. Female humpbacks will fast while they are nursing a calf as hunting for food would mean the young calf would be left unattended. The calf weighs around a ton and drinks over 200 litres of milk a day! You can imagine that would be quite tiring. The mother uses fat reserves from her blubber to provide a rich fatty milk to help the calf grow quickly. Mother whales will also swim with the calf tucked closely by their side - this is known as 'echelon' swimming, the calf gets the benefit of swimming in the mothers wake which is less energy consuming for them but quite literally a drag for mum!
I hope you have enjoyed learning a bit more about these beautiful animals - if there is a species you would like me to focus on for my next blog let me know!
My original A4 art work 'Mother Ocean' is now available - it's an original painting in watercolour, gouache and pigment inks of 320gsm cold pressed watercolour paper.