Scientific name

Megaptera novaeangliae

Where does it get its name?

The scientific name for the humpback whale is inspired by its long pectoral fins! Megaptera, can be translated to mean “big-winged.” It gets its common name from the distinct “hump” in front of the dorsal fin.

Whale SENSE Region Found:




  • Central American DPS
    • Endangered
  • Mexico DPS
    • Threatened
  • Hawaiian DPS
    • Not at Risk


  • West Indies DPS
    • Not at Risk

Protected throughout its range

Depleted populations: Western North Pacific stock, Central North Pacific stock, California/Oregon/ Washington stock

Protected throughout its range

Where to watch:

Open ocean and nearshore

What to watch for:

Blow: Spout is usually short and bushy in appearance.

Diving: Typically flukes (lifts its tail out of the water) prior to a sounding dive.

Source: International Whaling Commission

Body: Humpback whales’ bodies are primarily dark, with differing amounts of white on their pectoral fins, their bellies, and the undersides of their flukes (tails).

Humpback whales’ bodies are primarily dark, with differing amounts of white on their pectoral fins, their bellies, and the undersides of their flukes (tails). They have long pectoral flippers, noticeable bumps on their snout and head called tubercles

Size: Length: 45 – 56 feet, Weight: 25 – 45 tons

Flukes are serrated at the trailing edge and may be completely white or black but are usually a variation of black and white.

Associations: Often solitary, but also may be found traveling in small groups. Known to cooperatively feed in groups of 3 to over 20 humpback whales.

Surface activity: Humpbacks are known for their acrobatic displays, including breaching, tail slapping and flipper slapping. Learn more in this humpback behavior ethogram!


Humpback whales primarily feed during the summer months in the higher latitudes. They mostly feed on krill (small shrimp-like crustaceans) and small schooling fishes (i.e., herring, sand lance, and capelin) by straining huge volumes of ocean water through their baleen plates.

Mating and Calving

Humpback whales migrate to lower latitudes during the winter months to mate and to have their calves. On average, females will have a single calf every 2 to 3 years. However, annual caving has been documented in some individuals. Gestation is approximately 11 months. Calves are an average of 15 feet long and up to a ton in weight. Calves will nurse from and stay near to their mothers for up to one year before weaning. 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.

Photo: WDC

Did you know?

The song of the humpback whale can mostly be heard during the breeding season and is only sung by males. It is considered a song because it is composed of a complex series of sounds that repeat over and over. The song is about 20 minutes in duration, but can be sung on repeat for hours. All singers within a population will sing the same version at any time, but its composition can change over time. While its purpose is not yet known, research suggests that it likely plays a large role in male-male interactions rather than female-male interactions.

What do humpback whales sound like?

Clip provided by NOAA Fisheries

Threats to humpback whales

Learn more about humpback whales

Humpback Whale Research

See the Whale SENSE Research and Catalogs page