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General facts

Photograph: Fredrick BromsBreaching humpback whale. Photograph: Fredrik BromsHumpback whales are large robust baleen whales with extremely long pectoral flippers. Their scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae translates to “The big-winged New Englander”. “Big winged” refers to the long white flippers of the whale and “New Englander” refers to the fact that the species was first described in the waters off New England in the US.

At close range, humpbacks are very distinctive and one of the easiest whales to identify at sea. Their knobbly head and their fairly stocky body shape together with the characteristic dorsal fin which is located on a small hump of tissue ca two-thirds of the way back from the head, usually rule out all other species.  Their body is primarily dark grey in colour but individuals also have varying degrees of white on their belly, their flukes and on their pectoral fins.

Diving behavior is variable but dives usually last ca 3-10 minutes followed by 4 to 8 blows at 15 to 30 second intervals. When diving, humpbacks typically raise their flukes high out of the water, showing their unique knobbly trailing edges and black and white markings. At a distance humpbacks may be confused with other large whales but are usually easily distinguished by their bushy blow, their diving behavior and their habit of lifting the fluke when they dive. Compared to most other whales, humpbacks also often display a huge variety of acrobatic behaviors at the surface, including leaping clear out of the water (breaching) and slapping at the water surface with their long flippers. The species habit of frequently performing aerial displays and generally showing much of themselves above water make humpbacks very popular among whale watchers.

Humpbacks can reach a maximum of 16-17 m in length, but lengths of 14-15 m are more typical. Like other baleen whales, females are usually longer than the males (typically 1-1.5m longer body length). Adult animals can weigh up to 40 tons and makes them one of Earth’s largest mammals. Longevity is not well-known but probably exceeds 50 years.