Other Sea Animals
The Right Whale for Whale Watching
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
Identification of Humpback Whales
This photo by Jon Woolf of NH Audubon shows several
of the most important identification features to
Humpback Whales from other common whales.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
|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
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
|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.
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
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".
Read more about the research program
on the web page of the Provincetown Center for Coastal
Next Page : Humpback whales feeding