Tag Archives: humpback whale

Humpback Whales

Humpback Breaching
Humpback Breaching

Humpback whales are the best-known members of the family Balaenopteridae. Like other rorquals, humpbacks have a dorsal fin, and they have ventral throat grooves running from the tip of the lower jaw to the belly, but humpbacks differ in many ways from the other species in the family Balaenopteridae, and because of these differences, humpbacks are classified in a separate genus from the other rorquals. The body of a humpback is more robust and not as sleek as the bodies of fin, sei, blue, and minke whales. The top of the head and the lower jaw of a humpback are covered by rounded bumps, each containing at least one stiff hair, and the pectoral flippers are very long, spanning one-third of the body length. The tail stalk is thin, and the tail has a series of ridges on the trailing edge. Humpbacks are slower swimmers than other rorquals, but they are more acrobatic than their cousins. They often raise their tails high in the air before diving and engage in breaching, tail slapping, flipper slapping and other physical activities. It is this acrobatic behavior, their curiosity, and their beautiful, haunting songs that make them so popular with humans.Humpback2

Adult humpbacks average 49 ft. (15 m) in length and weigh approximately 35 tons. They are predominantly black on the dorsal side and have varying degrees of white on the throat, belly, flippers, and flukes. The shape and color pattern on a humpback’s dorsal fin

Photo by Tony Ross
Photo by Tony Ross

and flukes are unique to the individual, much like a human’s finger prints. Once biologists realized this, they were able to catalog and follow individual whales during their migrations and throughout their lives, greatly increasing our understanding of humpbacks’ social, mating, calving, and feeding behaviors, as well as giving researchers a better estimate of population sizes.

The baleen of a humpback is black in color, and like most other baleen whales, humpbacks feed in high latitudes and breed and give birth in low latitudes, near Mexico, Hawaii, and in the western Pacific near Japan. We mostly see humpbacks in the summer near Kodiak Island, but a few individuals spend the winter here as well. Since humpbacks don’t reach sexual maturity until they are 5 to 7 years old, it is possible that some whales we see in the winter are not yet sexually mature, so they do not migrate to breeding and birthing areas. Humpbacks feed on krill, other zooplankton, and small schooling fish. As with other baleen whales, humpbacks feed almost exclusively during the summer months and live off their fat reserves in the winter. It has been estimated that a humpback eats up to 1.5 tons of food per day when it is feeding. Humpbacks sometimes employ a method known as bubble net feeding, where they release air bubbles while swimming in circles beneath their prey and then lunge open-mouthed to the surface through the center of the concentrated prey.

Humpbacks are known for their acrobatic displays, including breaching, spy-hopping, lob-tailing, tail-slapping, and flipper slapping, and some of these displays can last for hours, especially during mating. In a few weeks, I will discuss these behavioral displays in more detail

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Humpbacks are also famous for their long, complex songs. These songs are sung by male humpbacks in the winter, and it is believed that their primary function is to attract females, although it has also been suggested that the songs may be used between two males in order to establish dominance. All whales in a particular population sing essentially the same song, and as the song changes slowly over time, the males somehow coordinate these changes. A typical song lasts 10 to 20 minutes, but it may be repeated continuously for hours. During mating, males compete very aggressively for females, and these competitions that sometimes last several hours may involve tail slashing, ramming, and head butting. Although humpback whales are quite social during the mating season, they are usually found alone or in small groups on their summer feeding grounds.


Next week, I will post about gray whales, one of the most-researched and best-understood species of whales. As always, I welcome your comments, and would love to hear about some of your whale encounters.

For mystery lovers, please visit my home page and sign up for my monthly Mystery Newsletter. I will be sharing details of some true-life Alaskan crimes!

Mid-Summer 2015

Mid-Summer 2015 is the post I wrote for our Munsey’s Bear Camp website.


I love watching our guests relax as they transition from their stress-filled lives into our peaceful, wild world.  When they first step off the floatplane, they are often quiet and perhaps even a little wary.  They’ve just flown forty-five minutes into the heart of the Kodiak National Wildlife Refuge, and there are no roads or stores here.  There’s just a small lodge and a few boats.

We feed them lunch, Mike explains what they will be doing for the next few days, and we tell them to meet us at the dock in twenty minutes for their first-afternoon cruise on our 43-ft. boat.  They laugh at the sea otters and harbor seals and snap photos of bald eaglesDSC_1164 and other wildlife, but most remain quiet, and separate groups keep to themselves.

On the first full day, we go either bear viewing or fishing, and by that evening, I begin to see the first signs of relaxation, as our guests step out of their lives for a few days and into a world that revolves around tides and wild animals.  They ask us questions about the wildlife they’ve seen, tell us about their families, and describe other travel adventures they have had.  They linger for a few minutes after dinner, discussing the day’s events with their fellow adventures.

By the fourth day, the mood on the boat is often raucous.  These strangers, who on day one traded only polite comments, are now teasing each other and sharing photos and e-mail addresses. They sigh the last morning when they step off our boat for the final time.  They complain that the week flew by too quickly and vow to return again soon.

DSC_3890We’ve had beautiful weather so far this summer, and we’ve enjoyed great whale watching.  At times, we’ve been surrounded by fin whales, and one of the highlights of the summer was when a humpback breached several times right in front of us!  Halibut fishing has been very good, and we’ve had some of the best salmon fishing we can remember.  Pink salmon swarmed into Brown’s Lagoon in July, and we had non-stop action.  Meanwhile, large schools of silver salmon filled the bay.  The run was a month early, and it is likely that the early salmon were headed elsewhere and just stopped in Uyak Bay to feast on the large schools of herring and other small fish that have been so abundant this summer.  The rich food base of krill and small schooling fish is also undoubtedly why we’ve had so many whales in the bay.

Due to our warm weather, we’ve had another bumper crop of berries this summer, and theDSC_3823 bears are torn between catching salmon and feeding on berries.  Bears are much more plentiful than they were the first half of last summer, but we are sometimes frustrated as we wait for them to lose interest in berries and concentrate on salmon.  The rich and plentiful food source of berries and salmon the last few summers has provided great nutrition for the bears, and we’ve seen numerous groups of sows and cubs this summer.

On the home front, Mary Schwarzhans is again wowing our guests with her creative and delicious meals, and we are thrilled that Mary’s sister, Emma, is also working for us this summer.  The two of them make our lives much easier and more pleasant, and our guests tell us that even if we didn’t have spectacular wildlife and fishing here, they would return to Munsey’s Bear Camp just for the food.  I suspect that stepping out of their lives and truly relaxing for a few days might be another reason to return.