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Humpback Whales



Identification of Humpback Whales


Humpback Whale Research

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The coast of New England is one of the best places in the world to observe feeding whales due to Stellwagen Bank, the Great South Channel of Massachusetts and Jeffreys Ledge in NH.  Photo of Humpback Whale by Jon Woolf of NH Audubon.

Getting this close to a whale is indeed a thrilling experience.

The Right Whale for Whale Watching
The Northern Right Whale was named because it was the animal early whalers considered the right whale for killing. It provided good oil and was easy to catch because it floated after it was killed. Today the name of the game is whale watching and the right whale to watch is the Humpback Whale. It is slow moving, does not seem to mind boats and puts on a good performance of surface activities. Most birders enjoy natural history in general and you can share whale watching with your children and other non-birders. Taking one or more trips on a whale watching boat is one of the best ways to see the birds on Stellwagen Bank or Jeffreys Ledge.

Some of the activities you can observe and photograph are: tail lifts, flipper slapping, head lifts, breaching, bubble feeding, and tail slapping. While not all behaviors are observed on every trip, you can easily take more than one trip. No two trips are ever alike and seldom are they boring.

Identification of Humpback Whales
This photo by Jon Woolf of NH Audubon shows several of the most important identification features to distinguish  Humpback Whales from other common whales.


Long Flippers
The Humpback Whale is the only whale with long flippers. Shaped like a boat oar, the flipper can be up to 15' long. Usually white on the underside, the flippers have a variable amount of white on the upper surface.  On this whale, the upper surface is mostly white.

Lumpy Dorsal Fin
Notice the lumpy dorsal fin.  The blow hole and the dorsal fin are above the water at the same time. Like other  Baleen Whales, the Humpback has  two blow holes (nostrils) on the top of the head. Blow and dorsal fin visible at the same time.

Tail Lift on Dive
The Humpback whale on a dive, rolls forward and lifts its tail. Other whales that do the same are: Bowhead ,Blue, Right, and Sperm Whales. Whales that do not lift flukes are:Minke, and Fin,

Jagged Trailing Edge to Flukes
See photo below for this characteristic.


Throat Groves or Pleats

The group of Baleen Whales known as Roquals have throat groves on the underside of the head. The whale feeds by swimming underwater with its mouth open capturing fish and water.  The groves expand to hold the water and food.

For more information on how Baleen Whales feed see Humpback Whales Feeding.

In this photograph by Lauren Kraus, a Humpback Whale with a mouth full of water and fish has just surfaced and closed its mouth.  It is in the process of pushing the water out of its mouth. Notice the expanded throat pleats.

Right Whales and Bowhead Whales are Baleen Whales that do not have throat groves.

Jim Besada photo of Humpback Whale Head

If you as an air breathing mammal were to decide to live full time in the water, the most convenient place for  your nose would be on the top of your head so that you could surface and exhale and inhale without lifting your entire head. 

Mammals evolved on land.  Whales and dolphins returned to the ocean and during this evolution their nose migrated to the top of their head.  Seals and Sea lions also evolved on land and returned to the water but retained the position of their nose so they have to lift their entire head to breath.

Humpback Whales like all Baleen Whales have two blow holes on the top of their head. 

This excellent photo by Jim Besada clearly shows the two blow holes of the Humpback Whale.

Notice also the long flipper under the water which appears to be mostly white on top.  The amount of white on the flipper varies from individual to individual.

Leonard Medlock photo of Humpback Whale blow.  Notice you see the blow and the dorsal fin of the whale above the water.

The Blow
Whales are mammals and breath air. When they surface from a dive, they expel the air and water in their nostrils located on the top of the head. This is the called the blow. At the beginning of the trip, the naturalist will scan the horizon looking for a blow which can be seen from a considerable distance. The blow of the Humpback Whale is usually bushy and 3-5 feet tall depending upon the wind. It does not usually appear to be double despite having two blow holes.

Humpback Whales will blow 4 or 10 times before diving. If you see a whale blow keep looking in the same direction for another blow.

When you get closer to the whale you will be able to hear as well as see the blow and if the wind is in the right direction expect a whiff of fish smelling whale breath. Sometimes the whales make an even louder noise when they breath called a trumpet.


Here is a closer picture of the blow of a Humpback Whale by Lauren Kraus. Notice the blow is directed backward and puffy.  There was probably a wind that tended to flatten the blow.  Notice also the white flipper visible in the water just below the whale.   Big flippers usually mean Humpback Whale.

It is never easy to photograph the blow of a whale because it is over before you have time to get ready.  Nice photo Lauren.  Thanks for sharing.

The Dive
When a Humpback Whale dives, it usually arches its back and starts rolling forward. Get your camera ready and watch for the small dorsal fin. Humpback whales have small lumpy dorsal fins.

Tail Lifts
After the dorsal fin disappears hold on few seconds and usually the whale will lift its tail just long enough for one good shot Once a whale dives you can put the camera down as it won't resurface for a number of minutes and probably will come up some distance from where it went down.

Individual whales show different patterns of white and black on the under tail.  This is how researchers identify individuals. 

This picture clearly shows the jagged trailing edge of the flukes which distinguishes the Humpback Whale from other large whales.


When a whale swim under water it makes mighty up and down thrusts with its tail. This causes the water pushed by the tail to well up to the surface forming slick spots known as whale footprints. Sometimes a series of footprints marks the path the whale is taking underwater. You can do this yourself in the swimming pool with your feet, but your footprints will not last as long as those made by a whale. Try it with fins.  It works even better.

Whale footprint.

Flipper Slapping
Humpback whale pectoral fins or flippers generally have a considerable amount of white on the underside and can be up to 15 feet long. Sometimes a whale will float on the surface while repeatedly slapping one of the flippers on the water as this whale is doing.

Humpback Whales are the only ones with long flippers. Notice they are white on the underside.  The general rule for animals that live in the sea is dark on the top, white or light on the bottom.  Humpback Whales show different amounts of white on the underside.

Tail Slapping
Another popular activity for photographers is tail slapping or lobtailing. The whale lifts its tail out of the water and slaps the water. This behavior is usually repeated several times and seems to be associated with feeding. Tail slapping often attracts birds and dolphins.

Notice the jagged trailing edge to the tail.

Humpback Whales Breaching


Humpback whale breeching by Emmalee Tarry

The Most Spectacular Activity - A Full Breach 

One of the most exciting activities is the full breach. Here the whale has jumped out of the water and turned its ventral side toward the boat giving a full view of the throat pleats. It will land on its back with a tremendous splash.

You will not see a breaching whale on every trip, but you will never forget it when you do.

Notice on both of these pictures that the underside of the flippers is white.

Eye of A Leviathan

On a BBC trip on the Newburyport Whale Watch in 1998, this Humpback Whale breached repeatedly within 20 feet of the boat. Ron Lockwood was ready with his camera and got this spectacular picture. Picture used with Ron's permission and remains the property of the photographer. Notice the throat pleats. The eye of the whale is not often recognized.

Humpback by Emmalee Tarry


Before a whale makes a full breach, they sometime just raise their head as this Humpback is doing. This photo was taken  by Emmalee Tarry.

This is not common behavior and the author has only observed it once.

Humpback Whale Research
Several organizations in the area have been conducting research on the whales of the Gulf of Maine for 30 or more years. The first step in researching the biology of a natural species is to develop a method for identifying individuals.  Humpback whales can be identified by taking pictures of the underside of the tail when it is raised for a dive. A large database is maintained with pictures of the undersides of the whale tails. 

See the web page for the Blue Ocean Society for more information.

Mother and Calf
The only permanent association between Humpback Whales is the mother calf pair. Here the much small calf on the left swims alongside the mother. While the calf is still with the mother, a picture of the underside of the tail is obtained.

Naming Whales
Each winter researchers get together to compare photographs and assign names to the new calves. Whales are not given human names or names that imply gender because the only sure way to decide if a whale is a female is to see her with a calf. Names are usually selected to remind the researcher of the tail characteristics. For example, a whale with a long vertical mark was named Nile because the mark looked like a long river.

Some whale families have been followed from mother to daughter to granddaughter. One whale is a known great grandmother.

Whale Tail ID
This is the type of photograph that can be used to identify an individual whale. Notice the tail is white and black and the pattern remains for the life of the whale. The naturalist on your boat will probably recognize the whales you see. Carole Carson writes that this whale is "Putter".

More Information
Read more about the research program on the web page of the Provincetown Center for Coastal Studies.


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