Few experiences can compare with the exhilaration of witnessing a humpback whale breaching the surface of the water at close quarter. Beneath the waterline, these massive mammals are perhaps an even more impressive sight to behold, and having the opportunity to observe the tender interactions between a mother and her calf is a highly sought-after experience by divers and underwater photographers alike. For all these reasons and more, the majestic humpback is our Wildlife of the Week:

Species: Megaptera novaeangliae

Class: Mammalia

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Diet: Consists almost exclusively of krill, although also known to eat small fish

Size: Adults are up to 18 metres long, with females larger than males, while newborns are about 4.5 metres in length

Behaviour: Active in the water and display a range of spectacular surfacing behaviours. Experts believe that some of these behaviours help them work out their position in relation to land, or allow them to communicate with other whales

Distribution: Humpbacks inhabit all the world’s oceans. In summer, they can be found in high-latitude feeding grounds. In winter, they migrate to breeding grounds in subtropical or tropical waters. There is a population in the Arabian Sea that does not migrate, remaining in tropical waters year round

5 Fast Facts:

  • There are many theories as to why whales are extremely active at the surface. Experts believe that fin slapping may be a warning of danger nearby, and another is that whales launch themselves out of the water and fall back with a splash to rid themselves of skin parasites
  • Humpback whales are so named because of their large hump on their backs
  • They are well-known for a unique fishing technique called bubble netting, where a pod of whales form a circle underneath a school of fish and begin to blow bubbles. After circling in smaller and smaller circles to force their prey into the centre, the whales will suddenly drive towards the surface and consume all the fish at one time
  • Humpback whales communicate through an amazing range of vocalisations which can travel long distances, researchers have determined that individual whale pods have a particular song which serves to identify pod members to each other
  • Newborn humpbacks weigh about a tonne, and fully grown adults can tip the scales at some 36 tonnes

Migaloo: The World’s Most Famous Humpback

It appears the famed white whale, Migaloo, has made quite a name for himself. One sighting off Hervey Bay, Queensland and a dedicated webpage later and the name Migaloo has become a household name within the homes of ocean enthusiasts. A title bestowed upon him by elders of an Aboriginal tribe in the Hervey Bay region, literally translating to mean “white fella”. 

About 14 metres long, Migaloo is not a proven albino due to the brown colour of his eyes (for true albinos, this is red). Some scientists have suggested that he may just be “hypo-pigmented” (loss of skin colour).

Until recently, Migaloo was thought to be unique, the only albino humpback in existence. However, in 2011, another white whale was spotted – a calf – and christened Migaloo Junior.

Migaloo off Port Douglas from Tim Henry on Vimeo.