Humpback whale breaching.

About The Species

Before a moratorium on commercial whaling in 1985, all populations of humpback whales were greatly reduced, some by more than 95 percent. The species is increasing in abundance in much of its range, but faces threats from entanglement in fishing gear, vessel strikes, vessel-based harassment, underwater noise, and habitat impacts.

Humpback whales live in oceans around the world. They travel incredible distances every year and have one of the longest migrations of any mammal on the planet. Some populations swim 5,000 miles from tropical breeding grounds to colder, plentiful feeding grounds. Humpback whales feed on shrimp-like krill and small fish, straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates that act like a sieve.

The humpback whale takes its common name from the distinctive hump on its back. Its long pectoral fins inspired its scientific name, Megaptera, which means “big-winged.” Humpback whales are a favorite of whale watchers―they are often surface active, jumping out of the water and slapping the surface with their pectoral fins or tails.

NOAA Fisheries is dedicated to the conservation of humpback whales. Our scientists use a variety of innovative techniques to study, protect, and rescue/disentangle humpback whales. We also work with our partners to ensure that regulations and management plans are in place to reduce entanglement in fishing gear, create safer shipping lanes, and protect habitats.


Commercial whaling severely reduced humpback whale numbers from historical levels. The United States listed all humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970, and then under the Endangered Species Act in 1973. NOAA Fisheries worked worldwide to identify and apply protections for humpback whales. The International Whaling Commission’s whaling moratorium, in effect since 1985, played a major role in the comeback of humpback whales. Currently, four out of the 14 distinct population segments are still protected as endangered, and one is listed as threatened.

Map showing locations of the 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales worldwide.

Map showing locations of the 14 distinct population segments of humpback whales worldwide.

Broad habitat areas and long migrations make it difficult to estimate population size. Of the 14 distinct populations, 12 are estimated to number more than 2,000 humpback whales each and two are estimated to number fewer than 2,000. Some populations (such as those off eastern and western Australia) are believed to number in excess of 20,000 animals—a remarkable recovery given that the same populations were almost eradicated by whaling almost sixty years ago. By contrast, the smallest known population is one which inhabits the Arabian Sea year-round, and may number as few as 80 individuals.

Three humpback whale stocks in U.S. waters are designated as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (as of the 2016 stock assessment reports).

ESA Endangered

in 2 distinct population segments

  • Central America DPS
  • Western North Pacific DPS
ESA Endangered - Foreign

in 2 distinct population segments

  • Arabian Sea DPS
  • Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa DPS
ESA Threatened

in 1 distinct population segment

  • Mexico DPS
CITES Appendix I

throughout its range

MMPA Depleted

in 3 stocks

  • Western North Pacific stock
  • Central North Pacific stock
  • California/Oregon/Washington stock

Humpback whales’ bodies are primarily black, but individuals have different amounts of white on their pectoral fins, their bellies, and the undersides of their flukes (tails). Many Southern Hemisphere humpback whales have extensive amounts of white on their flanks and bellies. Northern hemisphere humpback whales tend to have less white markings.

Humpback whale flukes can be up to 18 feet wide—they are serrated along the trailing edge, and pointed at the tips. Tail fluke patterns, in combination with varying shapes and sizes of whales’ dorsal fin and/or prominent scars, are unique to each animal. They are distinctive enough to be used as “fingerprints” to identify individuals.

When photographed, scientists can catalog individuals and track them over time, a process called photo-identification. 

Behavior and Diet

Humpback whales are a favorite of whale watchers, as they are generally found close to shore and are commonly surface active, including breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins and tails.

During the summer months, humpback whales spend most of their time feeding and building up fat stores (blubber) to sustain them throughout the winter. Humpback whales filter-feed on small crustaceans (mostly krill) and small fish, consuming up to 3,000 pounds of food per day. Humpback whales use several "tools" to help them herd, corral, and disorient prey, including: bubbles, sounds, the seafloor, and even pectoral fins. One specific feeding method seen in Alaska waters, called "bubble net feeding," involves using curtains of air bubbles to condense prey. Once the fish are corralled and pushed toward the surface, the whales lunge upward through the bubble net with open mouths engulfing their prey. Different groups of humpback whales use other bubble structures in similar ways, though, there appears to be regional “specializations” in bubble-feeding behavior among populations.

Location Description
Humpback whales live throughout the world's major oceans. They travel great distances during their seasonal migration with some animals migrating 5,000 miles between high-latitude summer feeding grounds and winter mating and calving areas in tropical waters. In the North Pacific, some humpback whales migrate from Alaska to Hawaii—they can complete the 3,000 mile trip in as few as 36 days. While calving, they prefer shallow, warm waters commonly near offshore reef systems or shores. Humpback whale feeding grounds are generally in cold, productive waters.
In the North Atlantic, two populations of humpback whales feed during spring, summer, and fall throughout a range that extends across the Atlantic Ocean from the Gulf of Maine to Norway. These two populations migrate south during the winter to calve and mate in the West Indies and Cape Verde (off the coast of Africa), and possibly in other areas.
The North Pacific features at least four humpback whale populations:
>> The Mexican population breeds along the Pacific coast of Mexico, the Baja California Peninsula, and the Revillagigedos Islands, and feeds across a broad range from California to the Aleutian Islands (Alaska).
>> The Central American population breeds along the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua and feeds almost exclusively off California and Oregon.
>> The Hawaii population breeds in the main Hawaiian Islands and feeds in most of the known feeding grounds in the North Pacific, particularly Southeast Alaska and northern British Columbia.
>> The western North Pacific population breeds in the areas of Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines, and feeds in the northern Pacific, primarily off the Russian coast.
There is also strong evidence for the existence of a fifth breeding area (location currently unknown), to which some animals from the Bering Sea and western Gulf of Alaska migrate.
Seven populations of humpback whales are found in the Southern Hemisphere, all of which feed in Antarctic waters.
Humpback whale range map.

World map providing approximate representation of the humpback's range.

Lifespan and Reproduction

Humpback whales probably live about 80 to 90 years.

They migrate to lower latitudes for breeding. During this time, males exhibit competitive behavior around females and often strike or surface on top of one another, sometimes causing bloody injuries. While breeding hasn’t been directly observed, it is believed that males are competing for access to females. Males also sing complex songs for hours that can be heard 20 miles away—the low-frequency portions of the song are audible much farther in deep water.

Humpback whales reach sexual maturity between the ages of 4 and 10 years. Females produce a single calf, on average every 2 to 3 years, although annual calving has been documented in some individuals. After an 11 month gestation, calves are born 13 to 16 feet in length. Calves nurse from and stay near to their mothers for up to one year before weaning. Mothers are protective of and affectionate toward their calves, swimming close and often touching them with their flippers. While calves are not believed to maintain long-term associations with their mothers, they are more likely to be found in the same regions of the feeding and breeding grounds as their mothers.


Vessel Strikes

Inadvertent vessel strikes can injure or kill humpback whales. Humpback whales are vulnerable to vessel strikes throughout their range, but the risk is much higher in some coastal areas with heavy ship traffic.


Humpback whales can become entangled by many different gear types including moorings, traps, pots, or gillnets. Once entangled, if they are able to move the gear, the whale may drag and swim with attached gear for long distances, ultimately resulting in fatigue, compromised feeding ability, or severe injury, which may lead to reduced reproductive success and death. There is evidence to suggest that most humpback whales experience entanglement over the course of their lives, but are often able to shed the gear on their own. However, the portion of whales that become entangled and do not survive is unknown.

Vessel-Based Harassment

Whale watching vessels, recreational boats, and other vessels may cause stress and behavioral changes in humpback whales. Because humpback whales are often found close to shore and generally surface active, they tend to be popular whale watching attractions. There are several areas where U.S.-managed stocks of humpback whales are the center of whale watching industries, including: The Gulf of Maine (particularly within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary), the southeastern U.S. and West Indies, California, Alaska (particularly southeast Alaska), and the Hawaiian Islands.

Habitat Impacts

Shipping channels, commercial fisheries, and aquaculture operations can affect areas in which humpback whales aggregate. Recreational use of marine areas, including resort development and increased boat traffic, may displace whales that would normally use those areas to feed, reproduce, or nurture offspring.

Ocean Noise

Underwater noise threatens whale populations, interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Sound has been shown to increase stress hormones in their system and mask the natural sounds humpback whales require to communicate and locate prey. Some underwater noise is loud enough to cause permanent damage to their hearing and could affect their survival. 

Scientific Classification


What We Do

Conservation & Management

We are committed to protecting and recovering the humpback whale through implementation of various conservation, regulatory, and enforcement measures. Our work includes:

  • Reducing the risk of entanglement in fishing gear.

  • Developing methods to reduce vessel strikes.

  • Responding to dead, injured, or entangled humpback whales.

  • Educating the whale watching/tourism industry and vessel operators on responsible viewing of humpback whales.

  • Partnering to implement the Whale SENSE program, a whale watching stewardship, education, and recognition program to increase wildlife viewing standards.

Science Behind the Scenes

We conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of  humpback whales. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this ecologically, economically, and socially important species that is endangered in certain areas. Our work includes:

  • Monitoring humpback whale abundance and mortality in U.S. waters.

  • Studying humpback whale population structure.

  • Collaborating with international scientists to track the movements and behavior of humpback whales as they migrate across international boundaries.

How You Can Help

Keep Your Distance

Keep Your Distance

Be responsible when viewing marine life in the wild. Observe all larger whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards by sea or land.

In Hawaii and Alaska, it is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, by land or sea. It is also illegal to approach humpback whales in Hawaii within 333 yards by air.

Learn more about our marine life viewing guidelines >

Marine Life In Distress

Report Marine Life in Distress

Report a sick, injured, entangled, stranded, or dead animal to make sure professional responders and scientists know about it and can take appropriate action. Numerous organizations around the country are trained and ready to respond.

Learn who you should contact when you encounter a stranded or injured marine animal >

Reduce Speed

Reduce Speed and Be on the Lookout

Collisions with vessels are a major cause of injury and death for whales. Here are some tips to avoid collisions:

Keep a sharp lookout. Look for blows, dorsal fins, tail flukes, etc.

Watch your speed in areas of known marine mammal occurrence. Keep speeds to 13 knots or less to reduce potential for injury.

Keep your distance. Stay at least 100 yards away.

Stop immediately if within 100 yards. Slowly distance your vessel from the whale.

Learn more about vessel strikes >

Report a Violation

Report a Violation

Call the NOAA Fisheries Enforcement Hotline at (800) 853-1964 to report a federal marine resource violation. This hotline is available 24 hours a day, 7 days week for anyone in the United States.

You may also contact your closest NOAA Office of Law Enforcement field office during regular business hours.