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 (whale watching), 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. Humpbacks 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.” Humpbacks’ 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 humpbacks have extensive amounts of white on their flanks and bellies. Their tail fluke patterns are unique to each animal, and therefore, distinctive enough to be used as “fingerprints” to identify individuals. Humpbacks are a favorite of whale watchers―they often perform aerial displays, 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 humpbacks. 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.

Status

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 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 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 humpbacks 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
Appearance

Humpback whales are primarily black, with varying areas of white on the belly and underside of the fluke (tail), as well as on both sides of the long flippers. Humpback whale flukes can be up to 18 feet wide—they are serrated, and pointed at the tips.

Dorsal surfaces of humpback whale pectoral flippers are typically white in the North Atlantic and black in the North Pacific. Many Southern Hemisphere humpbacks feature extensive amounts of white on the body.

Scientists are able to conduct photo-identification to identify individual whales through unique pigmentation patterns on the underside of their tail flukes. Also, varying shapes and sizes of whales’ dorsal fins and prominent scars help distinguish one whale from another.

Behavior and Diet

Humpback whales are a favorite of whale watchers, as they frequently perform aerial displays, such as breaching (jumping out of the water), or slapping the surface with their pectoral fins and tails.

During the summer months, humpbacks spend most of their time feeding and building up fat stores (blubber) that sustains them during the winter. Humpbacks filter-feed on small crustaceans (mostly krill) and small fish, consuming up to 3,000 pounds of food per day. Humpback whales use several hunting methods. One method, called "bubble netting," involves using air bubbles to herd, corral, or disorient fish, and is unique to humpbacks. Once the fish are corralled and pushed toward the surface, humpback whales lunge upward through the bubble net with open mouths engulfing their prey. Different groups of humpbacks use other bubble structures to do the same thing, and there appear to be regional “specializations” in bubble-feeding behavior among populations.

Location Description
Humpbacks live in oceans throughout the world. 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 humpbacks 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 feeding grounds are generally in cold, productive waters.
In the North Atlantic, two populations of humpbacks feed during spring, summer, and fall across 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 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 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. Their feeding grounds are in the Antarctic.
Humpback whale range map.

Humpback whale range map.

Lifespan and Reproduction

Humpbacks 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. Bouts can cause bloody injuries. 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.

Humpbacks 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. Gestation lasts for about 11 months and newborns are 13 to 16 feet long. Mothers are protective and affectionate toward their calves, swimming close and often touching them with their flippers. Males do not provide parental support. Calves nurse for up to a year.

Threats

Vessel Strikes

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

Entanglement

Humpbacks can become entangled in fishing gear, either swimming off with the gear attached or becoming anchored. They can become entangled in many different gear types, including traps, pots, or gillnets. Once entangled, whales 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.

Vessel-Based Harassment

Whale watching vessels, recreational boats, and other vessels may cause stress and behavioral changes for humpback whales. The Gulf of Maine stock is the focus of whale watching in New England from late spring to early fall, particularly within the Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. This same population of whales is also the target of tourism pressure when they migrate to the southeastern U.S. and West Indies. The central North Pacific stock is the focus of the whale watching industry on their wintering grounds in the Hawaiian Islands. The feeding aggregation in Southeast Alaska is also the focus of the whale watching industry and may impact the humpbacks in localized areas.

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.

Ocean Noise

Underwater noise threatens whale populations, interrupting their normal behavior and driving them away from areas important to their survival. Increasing evidence suggests that exposure to intense underwater sound in some settings may cause some whales to strand and ultimately die.

Scientific Classification

Kingdom
Animalia
Phylum
Chordata
Class
Mammalia
Order
Cetacea
Family
Balaenopteridae
Genus
Megaptera
Species
novaeangliae

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.

Science Behind the Scenes

We conduct various research activities on the biology, behavior, and ecology of the humpback whale. The results of this research are used to inform management decisions and enhance recovery efforts for this critically endangered species. Our work includes:

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

  • Researching humpback 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.