Our whale of the month for October is the humpback whale, which is the 14th whale you will encounter with our audio guide. Humpbacks usually live to be around 50 years old, though some individuals are thought to have been at least 100 years old. On average, males are between 12-14 meters and females between 13-15 meters.
Humpbacks are typically grey-black on the top and white on the bottom. Each humpback whale has a unique fluke pattern on its tail which can be used to identify an individual and record sightings. They have long, wide flippers and bumps across their head. These bumps are called tubercles and are actually hair follicles!
Humpback whales are baleen whales, meaning they use their baleen plates to filter-feed. They eat krill, copepods and smaller fish like herring, mackerel, and pollock. To catch their prey they have a variety of hunting techniques, and different groups of humpbacks have learned different methods! They are incredibly diverse in their techniques. One of their most famous methods is called bubble net feeding. A small group of whales swims in a circle beneath a school of fish, and use a combination of releasing air bubbles and sounds to herd the fish into the bubble net. Once the fish are in place, the whales swim together to take the fish into their mouths. The size of the bubble net can reach up to 30 meters in diameter!
Humpbacks are famous for their singing, which is typically done by males. We wrote a blog post about how humpback whales learn songs from each other earlier this month – you can read more about it and listen to their songs here. There are many different vocalizations that these whales use to communicate including grunts, snorts, and moans.
Humpbacks are usually solitary creatures but will occasionally travel in small groups for opportunistic feeding or along migratory routes. Female humpback whales breed every 2-3 years and have a gestation period of just under 1 year. Calves rely heavily on their mothers milk for at least the first year of their life, which has a fat content of up to 60%. This helps them to build their blubber layer up.
Historically, humpback whales have been hunted extensively. The International Whaling Commission (IWC) banned commercial hunting of humpback whales in 1966. It is difficult to have an exact number of the population today, and estimates range from 40,000 – 80,000. On the bright side, according to a study just recently published in Royal Society Open Science (Oct. 16th, 2019) the population of the South Atlantic humpback population has nearly recovered to pre-whaling numbers! We hope that other humpback populations will be as successful in their recovery.
Today humpback whales face threats from ship strikes and entanglement in nets and other gear, both of which have the potential to be fatal. In the future, global warming may have a heavy impact on their food sources. Humpback calves are targeted by orcas. Mother and calf humpback pairs have been recorded ‚whispering‘ to each other, likely to avoid detection by predators.
Interaction with other species of whales is common and humpbacks are usually quite friendly. They have been seen interacting with dolphins, right whales, blue whales, fin whales, minke whales, gray whales, and sperm whales. There have been records of humpback whales intervening to protect other species from orca attacks.
Humpback whales can be seen around Iceland. While they are most commonly here during the summer months, some individuals stay year-round. In January of 2019, humpbacks were seen on 28 out of the 31 days from whale watching tours in Reykjavík! They are very popular with whale watching tours as they are quite curious and will approach boats – sometimes even doing some ‚people watching‘ of their own. Breaching, lunge feeding, fin slapping, spy hopping and diving are all incredible to see and are part of the reason this species is so popular with whale watching enthusiasts.
You can try your luck on a whale watching tour in Reykjavík by booking here.