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 (81 FR 62259, September 2016).
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.
- Central America DPS
- Western North Pacific DPS
ESA Endangered - Foreign
- Arabian Sea DPS
- Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa DPS
- Mexico DPS
CITES Appendix I
- Throughout Its Range
- Throughout Its Range
- 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.
Where They Live
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. At least four humpback whale populations occur in the North Pacific:
- The Mexican population, which breeds along the Pacific coast of Mexico and the Revillagigedo Islands, transits the Baja California Peninsula, and feeds across a broad range from California to the Aleutian Islands (Alaska).
- The Central American population, which breeds along the Pacific coast of Central America, including off Costa Rica, Panama, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Nicaragua, and feeds off the West Coast of the United States and southern British Columbia.
- The Hawaii population, which 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, which breeds in the areas of Okinawa, Japan, and the Philippines, and feeds in the northern Pacific, primarily in the West Bering Sea and off the Russian coast and the Aleutian Islands. There is also evidence for the existence of a fifth breeding area in the western North Pacific.
Seven populations of humpback whales are found in the Southern Hemisphere, all of which feed in Antarctic waters.
Lifespan & 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.
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.
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.
Humpback whales are protected under both the Endangered Species Act and the Marine Mammal Protection Act. NOAA Fisheries has made significant progress toward their protection worldwide. We have taken many steps to reduce injury and mortality caused by fishing gear, reduce the threat of vessel collisions, minimize the effects of vessel disturbance and noise, and protect habitats that are essential to the survival and recovery of this species.
Recovery Planning and Implementation
Under the ESA, NOAA Fisheries is required to develop and implement recovery plans for the conservation and survival of listed species. The ultimate goal of the humpback whale recovery plan is to help humpback whales thrive, allowing every population to be reclassified from “endangered” to “threatened,” and ultimately removed from the ESA.
The major actions recommended in the plan are:
Reduce or eliminate injury and mortality caused by fisheries and fishing gear and by vessel collisions.
Minimize effects of vessel disturbance.
Continue the international moratorium on commercial whaling.
Collect as much data as possible from dead whales through our Health and Stranding Program.
Together with our partners, we undertake numerous activities to support the directives of the humpback whale recovery plan, protect humpbacks, and reduce adverse impacts from human activities. The goal is to help humpback whale populations grow to at least 60 percent of their abundance before commercial hunting and expand into formerly occupied ranges.
Efforts to implement recovery for humpback whales include:
Marine protected areas for humpback whales.
Minimizing vessel disturbance.
Reducing entanglement in fishing gear.
Reducing vessel strikes.
Understanding and addressing the effects of ocean noise.
Commission on Environmental Cooperation Humpback Whale Conservation Action Plan for the U.S., Canada, and Mexico
In 2016, NOAA Fisheries revised the ESA listing for the humpback whale by identifying 14 distinct population segments and determining that nine populations have recovered enough that they do not warrant listing. Five populations are still listed as either endangered (Central America, Western North Pacific, Arabian Sea, and Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa DPSs) or threatened (the Mexico DPS). NOAA Fisheries collaborated with state and federal agencies to draft a monitoring plan for the nine distinct population segments of humpback whale that are no longer protected under the ESA.
Currently, there is no critical habitat designated under the ESA for humpback whales. The original listing of this species predated the requirement for critical habitat designations. However, the 2016 revision to the humpback whale listing under the ESA triggered the requirement for NOAA Fisheries to designate critical habitat to the maximum extent prudent and determinable. We are currently working to determine what areas meet the definition of critical habitat for the listed DPSs that occur in areas under U.S. jurisdiction.
Designating Marine Protected Areas for Humpback Whales
In 1992, the U.S. Congress created the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary to protect humpback whales and their habitat around Hawaii. NOAA Fisheries co-manages the sanctuary with the State of Hawaii, conducts research on humpback whales, and operates a sanctuary education and learning center.
NOAA Fisheries and the Dominican Republic’s Ministry of Environment and Natural Resources have established the world’s first sister sanctuaries to protect humpback whales. The Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary, off the coast of Massachusetts, and the Santuario de Mamíferos Marinos de la República Dominicana are two marine protected areas 3,000 miles apart. Around 900 humpbacks spend spring and summer in the rich feeding grounds of Stellwagen Bank before they head south in the late fall to mate and give birth in the warmer waters of the Dominican Republic. The sister sanctuary agreement strengthens coordination and management efforts between the two sanctuaries and improves humpback whale recovery in the North Atlantic.
Minimizing Whale Watching Harassment
NOAA Fisheries supports responsible viewing of marine mammals in the wild and has adopted a guideline to observe all large whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards by sea or land. In addition, federal approach regulations for humpback whales in Alaska and Hawaii require, with limited exceptions, that you:
Not approach within 100 yards of a humpback whale.
Not place your vessel in the path of oncoming humpback whales, causing them to surface within 100 yards of your vessel.
Not disrupt the normal behavior or prior activity of a humpback whale.
Operate your vessel at a slow, safe speed when near humpbacks.
In Hawaii, regulations also prohibit operating an aircraft within 333 yards of a humpback whale.
WhaleSENSE is a voluntary education and recognition program developed by NOAA Fisheries and partners in collaboration with the whale watching industry to recognize whale watching companies committed to responsible practices in the U.S. Atlantic and Alaska.
Companies participating in the WhaleSENSE program agree to:
Stick to the regional whale watching guidelines.
Educate naturalists, captains, and passengers to have “SENSE” while watching whales.
Notify and report whales in distress.
Set an example for other boaters.
Encourage ocean stewardship.
Reducing and Responding to Entanglement
Entanglement in fishing gear is a leading cause of serious injury and death for many whale species, including humpback whales.
In the Atlantic, we implemented the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan to reduce the incidental mortality and serious injury of right whales, humpback whales, and fin whales in gillnets and trap/pot fisheries along the East Coast.
In the Pacific, we implemented the Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan to reduce mortalities and serious injuries of several marine mammal stocks, including humpback whales, incidentally injured in the California thresher shark/swordfish drift gillnet fishery.
In Alaska, we have a network of trained entanglement responders around the state. When an entangled whale is reported, responders can be authorized to evaluate the entanglement and, in cases where the entanglement is life threatening to the animal and a response can be carried out safely, a team may attempt to cut the whale free from gear.
Reducing Vessel Strikes
Collisions between whales and large vessels can injure or kill whales, damage the vessels, and injure passengers, but they often go unnoticed and unreported. The most effective way to reduce collision risk is to give whales a wide berth or avoid whale waters altogether. If this is not possible, second best is for vessels to slow down and keep a lookout.
In the Atlantic, we have taken both regulatory and non-regulatory steps to reduce the threat of vessel collisions to North Atlantic right whales, which may also reduce the threat to humpback whales, which occur in the same waters. The steps include:
Requiring vessels to slow down in specific areas during specific times (Seasonal Management Areas).
Advocating for voluntary speed reductions in Dynamic Management Areas.
Recommending alternative shipping routes and areas to avoid.
Modifying international shipping lanes.
Developing mandatory vessel reporting systems.
Increasing outreach and education.
Improving our stranding response.
Overseeing Marine Mammal Health and Stranding Response
We work with volunteer networks in all coastal states to respond to marine mammal strandings including large whales. When stranded animals are found alive, NOAA Fisheries and our partners assess the animal’s health. When stranded animals are found dead, our scientists work to understand and investigate the cause of death. Although the cause often remains unknown, scientists can sometimes identify strandings due to disease, harmful algal blooms, vessel strikes, fishing gear entanglements, pollution exposure, and underwater noise. Some strandings can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Addressing Ocean Noise
Underwater noise can pose a threat to whales, interrupting their normal behavior and potentially causing temporary or permanent reductions in hearing. NOAA Fisheries is investigating all aspects of acoustic communication and hearing in marine animals, as well as the effects of sound on whale behavior and hearing. In 2018, we issued technical guidance for assessing the effects of anthropogenic (human-caused) sound on marine mammal hearing.
Commercial whaling severely reduced humpback whale numbers from historical levels, and the United States listed all humpback whales as endangered in 1970. NOAA Fisheries worked nationally and internationally 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 recovery of humpback whales.
NOAA Fisheries developed a recovery plan in 1991 to identify actions that would protect the species in important breeding and feeding areas. In addition, we have taken steps to reduce threats to the species, such as establishing regulations to:
Restrict vessel and aircraft distance from humpbacks to reduce disturbance.
Limit vessel speed in certain areas to reduce the likelihood of deaths and serious injuries from vessel strikes.
NOAA Fisheries conducted a global status review of humpback whales. In 2016, we revised the ESA listing for the humpback whale to identify 14 distinct population segments. We determined that nine populations have recovered enough that they do not warrant listing, while four populations are still protected as endangered (Central America, western North Pacific, Arabian Sea, and Cape Verde Islands/Northwest Africa). The Mexico population is listed as threatened.
All humpback whales are protected under the MMPA and three stocks are listed as depleted (i.e., they have fallen below their optimum sustainable population levels). Under the MMPA, the Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan and Pacific Offshore Cetacean Take Reduction Plan address the threat of fishery entanglements.
Regulatory Actions & Documents
- 1997 Take Reduction Plan (Final Rule)
- 2000 Amendment to Plan (Final Rule)
- 2002 Amendment to Plan (Final Rule)
Atlantic Large Whale Take Reduction Plan’s Massachusetts Trap/Pot Restricted Area and the Great South Channel Trap/Pot Restricted Area
Approach Regulations for Humpback Whales in Waters Surrounding the Islands of Hawaii Under the Marine Mammal Protection Act
NOAA Fisheries conducts research on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the humpback whale. The results are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this species.
NOAA Fisheries conducts research cruises that investigate the whales’ habitat preferences and feeding ecology, as well as doing photographic and genetic identification. Information from these research projects can be used to inform management actions that protect the humpback whale and reduce their human-related mortalities.
The Structure of Populations, Levels of Abundance, and Status of Humpbacks (SPLASH) Project, conducted from 2004 to 2006, brought together many research programs and researchers from across the world, including NOAA Fisheries, to monitor humpbacks.
The Years of the North Atlantic Humpback Project in 1992 to 1993 and the follow-up project, More North Atlantic Humpbacks, in 2003 to 2005 were international collaborations to monitor humpback whale populations, investigate human-caused deaths, and conduct various other surveys, including research on humpback songs, across many humpback habitats.
Other research is focused on the acoustic environment of cetaceans, including humpback whales. Acoustics is the science of how sound is transmitted. This research involves increasing our understanding of the basic acoustic behavior of whales, dolphins, and fish; mapping the acoustic environment; and developing better methods to locate cetaceans using autonomous gliders and passive acoustic arrays.
Marine Mammal Unusual Mortality Events
To understand the health of humpback whale populations, scientists study unusual mortality events. Understanding and investigating marine mammal UMEs is important because they can serve as indicators of ocean health, giving insight into larger environmental issues that may also have implications for human health and welfare.
Scientists use small aircraft to spot large whales (including humpbacks) and record their seasonal distribution. Understanding their migration patterns helps managers establish measures to reduce vessel strikes.
Determining the size of humpback whale populations helps resource managers determine the success of conservation measures and regulations. Our scientists collect population information on humpback whales from various sources and present the data in an annual stock assessment report.
Humpback Whales in Alaska
Our research on the population dynamics, diet and foraging behavior, distribution, and movement patterns of humpback whales provides information crucial for understanding and protecting humpback whale populations in Alaska.
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