humpback-getty Humpback whales are the stars of the annual whale migration and are one of the most common whales you will see when whale watching. To view these majestic creatures, see them on their annual migration along the NSW coastline.

Humpback whales are a baleen whale and 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 and scientists are still trying to figure out why humpbacks do this. They might do it to clean pests from their skin or they might simply do it for fun. 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 which travel very far throughout the oceans. 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. Scientists think that the humpbacks do this to communicate with other whales and to potentially attract a mate.


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 1.6km/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 traveling towards the pole to feed, and vice versa.

Watch humpback whales in NSW

Coastal NSW national parks are a great place to go to whale watching. From Byron Bay in the north, to Eden, in the south, you’re sure to see some humpback whales cruising along the ‘humpback highway’ as they make their annual migration.

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: 8km/h
  • Blow pattern: Small and bushy, up to 4m
  • Protected Since 1965