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Humpback Whales

Humpback whales are renowned for their spectacular behaviour. Humpbacks will leap out of the water, roll in the air with their huge pectoral fins outstretched like wings, and crash noisily back into the water. This is called breaching.

Humpback whales have a small dorsal fin located nearly two-thirds of the way down their back, and their backs steeply arch as they dive – this is how the humpback got its name and it helps whale watchers distinguish them from other species.

Other distinguishing features include large pectoral fins (which may be up to a third of the body length), and unique markings of black and white on the underside of the tail flukes. These markings are like fingerprints, no two are the same. This fingerprint, or fluke identification, helps researchers identify individuals as they migrate along the coast.


The male humpback whale is famous for its extraordinarily long and complex songs. These submarine songs, composed by several elements, can last for hours. They are specific to different populations and can be heard hundreds of kilometres away.


Humpbacks have developed a unique method of gathering prey. They release rings of bubbles at depth to capture schools of small fish and then surface mouth-open in the centre of the ring. Cooperative “bubble-netting” also occurs with multiple whales all releasing bubbles and surfacing together.


Most humpback whales make exceptionally long journeys every year between their feeding and breeding sites. Humpbacks can travel up to 8 km/h but during their long migration journey they average only 1.6 km/h, resting and socialising along the way.

Because seasons are reversed on either side of the equator, northern and southern hemisphere populations of humpbacks probably never meet. Those in the north travel towards their breeding grounds in tropical waters as those in the south are travelling towards the pole to feed, and vice versa.

Humpback facts

Length  Adults: 14m to 18m; Calves: 4m to 5m at birth
Weight  Adults: up to 50 tonnes; Calves: 2 tonnes at birth
Gestation  11 to 11.5 months
Weaning age  up to 11 months
Calving interval  2 to 3 years
Physical maturity  Age: 12 to 15 years
Sexual maturity  Age: 4 to 10 years
Mating season  June to October
Calving season  June to October
Cruising speed  8 km/hr
Blow pattern  Small and bushy, up to 4m
Protected  Since 1965

  • NSW National Parks & Wildlife Service
  • NSW