Humpback Whales

Fact Sheet

Humpback Whale. Image: QM

The Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) occurs in all oceans of the world. Its predictable migration routes between winter breeding and summer feeding grounds once made it an easy target for whalers. Drastically depleted in all regions by the 1960s, the species was given complete protection by the International Whaling Commission in the southern and northern hemispheres in 1963 and 1966 respectively. The southern hemisphere baleen (filter-feeding) whales were designated into six areas or groups by the International Whaling Commission on the basis of longitudinal segregation. Those which migrated along the eastern Australian coast were known as the Area V (130ºEl70ºE) stock and those which migrated along the western Australian coast were the Area IV (70ºE-130ºE) stock. Humpback Whales measure about 4 m in length at birth, following an 11 month gestation period. They double their size within a year, by which time they are weaned. Physical maturity is reached between 5-10 years and the average length of adult whales is approximately 14-15 m. Females are slightly longer than males. Sexual maturity is reached before physical maturity. Although it is theoretically possible for a sexually mature female to calve at yearly intervals, it is likely that calving is followed by one or even two resting years. The minimum life-span of individuals in the nonexploited state is about 20-25 years. The extreme length of the pectoral flippers (approximately one-third of total body length) distinguishes the Humpback Whale from all other baleen whales and is the reason for the generic name Megaptera (= big-winged). The slapping of these large pectorals during courtship or play was once erroneously attributed to attacks by thresher sharks. Colouration is basically black dorsally and white ventrally.

The extent of black pigmentation varies between the southern hemisphere stocks, with those from the Atlantic being more heavily pigmented than whales from the Pacific. Occasionally completely black individuals are seen in eastern Australian waters, and an all-white (probably albino) individual has been a regular visitor here in the past. The dorsal aspects of the pectoral flippers of northern hemisphere humpback whales are white, whereas those of southern hemisphere whales are black. Because of the seasonal variation between the hemispheres, there is little opportunity for northern and southern whales to meet and mix. For example, during the northern winter, whales from that hemisphere are located in near-equatorial breeding grounds while the southern hemisphere stocks are feeding in Antarctic waters. The geographic and climatic isolation has resulted in observable DNA differences between various stocks. Pigment variations extend to individuals. Photographic catalogues of these unique markings, along with scars and tail fluke serrations, have now been established for many areas, including the eastern Australian coast. This method of individual identification enables long-term studies of migrations and reproductive rates. Barnacles are common on humpback whales, most frequently about the head, chin, leading edges of the pectoral flippers and genital aperture. Species such as Coronula diadema and C. reginae become attached during the polar summer and drop off when the whales enter temperate waters. Resultant surface scars are invaded by parasitic whale lice, particularly Cyamus boopis, which may cause extensive tissue destruction. Southern hemisphere humpbacks feed almost exclusively on the small crustacean known as krill (Euphausia superba), which occurs in vast quantities in Antarctic waters. A feeding whale gulps a huge mouthful of water

© The State of Queensland, (Queensland Museum) 2011

and krill and raises its tongue towards the roof of its mouth, forcing the water out through the baleen plates attached to the upper jaws. The baleen bristles (greyish-white in this species) act as sieves to collect the krill, which is then swallowed through a relatively small gullet. The song of the Humpback Whale is the subject of intense study and speculation. The calls are highly structured and complex and may be repeated for hours on end. The members of each stock sing the ‘same’ song and it is changed from year to year. It appears that only males sing and the song is produced most frequently at or near the breeding grounds. The range of sounds accords with the sensitivity of the human ear and the low notes can be detected by hydrophones for distances up to 20-30 km. The method of song production is also speculative, but almost certainly is produced by the larynx although in whales this lacks the typical vocal cords of humans. The eastern Australian Humpback Whale stock was exploited only minimally before the 1950s, but it was soon to experience an onslaught that was extreme even by the predatory standards of modern global whaling. Within 10 years the combined effects of the Antarctic fleets and the shore-based whaling at Tangalooma on Moreton Island and at Byron Bay had reduced the stock to less than 5 per cent of the pre-1950 numbers. In 1962 the shore-stations managed a catch of 173 compared with the allotted quota of 810. Since then the stock has shown signs of strong recovery, and is now estimated to be approximately 14,500 individuals. Some researchers suggest this figure exceeds pre-1950 numbers. Most whales return north from the Antarctic feeding grounds in winter and are commonly seen from high vantage points from Point Danger on the Queensland/New South Wales border to the Indian Head/Waddy Point region of Fraser Island between mid-June and early August. They then enter the sheltered waters of the Great Barrier Reef to calve and mate. Some reach latitudes lower than 15ºS (north of Cairns), but most seem to stay in the central and southern regions of the Reef. During the southern migration from mid-August to midNovember they enter Hervey Bay in large numbers and this event has led to the development of a thriving whale-watching industry in this area and also off Moreton and North Stradbroke Islands. Humpback Whales have become an important focus for conservation. This has resulted from a number of factors, including their previous over-exploitation, large size and relative accessibility to both the public and researchers, their playful behaviour featuring impressive breaching, and lastly by their eerie and complex songs. Further Information Dalton, T. & Isaacs, R., 1992. The Australian Guide to Whale Watching. Weldon Publishing, Sydney. Davie, P.J.F. et al. 2011. Wild Guide to Moreton Bay and Adjacent Coasts. Queensland Museum, Brisbane. Vol. 1, pp. i-xiv, 1-274; Vol. 2, pp. i-x, 1-322. Ryan, M., (Ed.), 2011. Wild Guide to Moreton Bay. Queensland Museum, Brisbane. Author: Robert Paterson & Steve Van Dyck Queensland Museum PO Box 3300, SOUTH BRISBANE QLD 4101 Phone: (07) 3840 7555
Queensland Humpback whale watching sites (June to October)

Humpback Whale migration calendar.

© The State of Queensland, (Queensland Museum) 2011

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