Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale: Megaptera novaeangliae

IUCN Status: Least Concern

Status and Distribution summary:

Occurs in most major oceans of the world, where they undertake long migrations from cold water feeding areas to warm water calving and nursery grounds. Two populations exist in the northern Atlantic. The largest migrates between the Caribbean and north east North America. A much smaller population occurs in the eastern Atlantic.

There are estimated to be 80,000 Humpback Whales worldwide with c12,000 in the North Atlantic.


Heavily exploited around the world in the 20thC following the invention of the exploding harpoon. Global population was as low as just 5,000 in 1966 when a commercial whaling ban was introduced. Since then there as been a remarkable recovery in most oceans but still not close to pre-whaling populations.

Other threats:

Significant number of deaths from entanglement in fishing gear.

Where it is seen:

Usually recorded in summer in coastal waters, including the English Channel, though more frequently off southern Ireland. On migration they cross deep water, and occasionally enter Biscay, although their normal route is much further west.


Far from annual from the Biscay ferries. Either seen as individuals or in small groups of up to four.


Large cetacean smaller than fin whale, 11-18m in length. Plain blackish above with variable amount of white on underside.

In regular surfacing they usually show the following features:

  • Bushy, dense and very visible blow, occasionally V shaped (2.5-3m).
  • Variable, usually small dorsal fin; distinctive as it is located on a low bulge or 'hump' situated 2/3 along back.
  • A deeply notched tail fluke, often with uneven trailing edges and blotchy white marks on underside, which are unique to the individual and an aid to photo-recognition projects. The flukes are regularly raised at the end of the surfacing sequence. 

Extremely long, mainly white pectoral flippers very visible through the water.

The head is covered in fleshy tubercules that are only visible at close quarters.


Humpback Whales commonly exhibit spectacular behaviour at the surface, including frequent breaching, slapping their elongated pectoral flippers or tail on the sea. Has an array of feeding techniques, which are often communal and include spectacular lunge feeding at the surface.

Very vocal and can be heard underwater from small boats.  

Confusion species:

During normal surfacing sequences could be mistaken for other large dark rorquals, but the combination of bushy V blow, humped dorsal fin and showing of flukes at the end of the sequence is unique.