Humpback Whale | Oceana Canada

Canadian Marine Life Encyclopedia

Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae

Also known as

The translation of their scientific name is large-winged From New England


Tropical, temperate and sub-Arctic waters worldwide


High latitude summer feeding grounds; low latitude winter breeding grounds

Feeding Habits



Suborder Mysticeti (baleen whales); Family Balaenopteridae (rorqual whales)


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Humpback whales are renowned for their charismatic, awe-inspiring behaviours above and below the ocean’s surface. Humpbacks frequently launch themselves into the air and land with a splash, known as breaching. They also slap the surface of the water with their long, jagged pectoral fins, the largest relative to body size of any whale. Their equally huge flukes are uniquely marked with mottled patterns like fingerprints, which scientists use to identify individuals using photo-identification catalogues. Humpbacks can also be tracked acoustically, as they sing the most complex songs of any marine mammal and can be heard from hundreds of kilometers away. These songs are often repeated for hours by males to attract females, and can change over time as whales learn new dialogues from each other. Their incredible social behaviours don’t stop there: humpback pods will feed together by encircling a school of small fish with bubbles, condensing them in a so-called ‘bubble net’ for easy capture with a single lunge.

Humpback whales reach sexual maturity at age nine and are considered fully-grown by the age of 12 to18. Every one to five years, females give birth to calves that weight one tonne and are more than four metres long. Winter calving occurs between January and April at southern breeding grounds that are sheltered from predators, during which time mothers do not feed. Instead, the whales must rely on fat reserves developed during the summer at productive, high latitude feeding grounds. Calves are nursed for 10 to11 months, but can remain with their mothers after weaning for more than a year. Afterward, humpback whales will associate in loose, fluid groups that last only a few days at a time. They forage cooperatively for krill, zooplankton and small fish by bubble-netting and lunge-feeding.