n streamon a cold winters morning is a beautiful sight. However, to look out over the horizon and
see the white spray of salt water coming from the blow of a huge hump-back whale is
much more exciting sight and a whole lot warmer. I lived in the mountains of Colorado
for most of my childhood. The first time I had the opportunity to see the ocean was on a
vacation to California, when I was about 15 years old. It was even better than I had
dreamed it would be. The different animals in the ocean, the color of the water, and the
warm sand between my toes was probably what led me to come to the islands of Hawaii.
When I first saw the hump-back whale I was amazed at their huge size and how they could
breach out of the water so gracefully. It is as if they were trying to play or show off. So
when we were asked to choose a favorite animal, I had no problem deciding on the hump-
The hump-back whale gets it’s name from the distinctive hump in front of the
dorsal fin and from the way it raises it’s back high above water before diving. They are a
member of the order Cetacea. This order is of aquatic mammals and the hump-back
belongs to the suborder of the Mysticeti. The Mysticeti are the baleen whales which have
three families and several species. The family in which the hump-back belongs is the
Balaenopteridae, the true fin backed whale. The thing that separates this genus from the
other fin-backed whales is the pectoral fins, which grow in lengths of about 5 meters (16.4
feet). This Genus is called Megaptera meaning great wing (Tinker 290). There was a
controversy over the species name in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. In
1932, Remington Kellogg finally settled the matter with Megatera Novaeangliae
(Cousteau 84). The common English name is the hump-back whale.
The hump-back whale lives in both the Atlantic and the Pacific oceans. Since we
live in the Pacific I’ll be discussing the hump-backs of the North Pacific. They migrate
from North to South. In the months of July through September they gather in the
Aleutian Islands, Bering Sea or the Chukchi Sea. They head south for the winter. They
go to one of three areas: (1) Between the Bonin Islands, the Marianas Islands, the
Ryukyu Islands and Taiwan; (2) The Hawaiian Islands, and (3) Along the coast of
Mexico (Tinker 291).
One of the reasons these whales go North is for feeding. They have a short food
chain compared to most mammals. Phytoplankton turns sunlight into energy and this
energy is consumed by zooplankton. The zooplankton and phytoplankton are eaten by
small fish. The whale in turn eats the fish. The chain is complete when waste products or
dead whales decompose. They have a very short time frame in which they eat compared
to the twelve months out of the year. They have not been seen feeding in Hawaii. It
seems that they only feed during the summer months up north. During the fasting periods,
in Hawaii, they survive on their blubber. They mix their diet with copepods, euphausiids
(krill), and small fish, primarily herring and capelin. They are considered filter feeders,
using baleen plates to filter out their food. They take huge amounts of water into their
mouth using a gulping method and then when they push the water out, they put their
tongue up so the water must pass through the baleens. The food becomes trapped and
falls toward the rear of the mouth. The two gulping methods hump-back whales use are
lunge feeding and bubble net feeding. Lunge feeding is used when food is abundant. The
whale simply swims through the prey with it’s mouth open engulfing the prey. They can
do this vertically, laterally or inverted. This is done toward the surface of the ocean.
Bubble net feeding is used when the prey is less abundant. The whale dives below the
prey and discharges bubbles from it’s blowhole. As the bubbles ascend they form a net
that disorients the prey. Then the whale swims upward and fills his mouth with the net of
fish and bubbles (Kaufman 55). Hump-backs have ventral grooves in their throat that
expand allowing an enormous amount of water to be gulped. Hump-backs consume
nearly a ton of food in a day’s time during their feeding season.
The hump-back whale’s stomach consists of three chambers and the duodenal
ampulla much like a cows. The three stomachs are separate from each other. They have
small and large intestines, a rectum, caecum and an anus. These organs are very similar
and work much the same as in most mammals. The digestive glands of a whale are
somewhat different. They do not have salivary glands that are functional. The liver is
bilobed and the gall bladder is absent. The pancreas however resembles that of most other
mammals (Tinker 63).
Mammals, which live in the sea, have a continued problem of dehydration. Hump-
backs get water from the food they eat and during their fasting periods they get it from
their blubber. However, the salinity in the whales bodily fluids is much higher than land
mammals but it is still lower than the seawater. This creates a problem. They are in
danger of losing too much water. In order to maintain a proper balance the whale passes
large quantities of highly concentrated urine. The kidneys are specialized to do this. The
feces also permit discharge of salt. However, few studies have been done on hump-back’s
feces or urine (Kaufman 31).
As humans we can breathe either from our mouth or nose. This is not the case of
the hump-back whale. The whale can neither inhale or exhale through their mouth. The
nasal openings of a whale are known as the blowhole. There are two paired openings at
the top of the head. The holes are closed and made water tight by two plugs
If you weighed ten elephants that would be the average weight of one hump-back
whale. The male and female whale alike weigh between thirty and fifty tons. This weight
will vary depending on the season. While fasting in Hawaii the weight will be much less.
The calves are born in January and early February as a result from the previous years
mating. They are born at approximately fourteen feet long and end up as long as sixty-
two and a half feet with an average of fifty feet. The calf, a young hump-back, will drink
one-hundred pounds of milk each day. This milk is very rich compared to domestic
animals. The calf will begin to nurse soon after birth from two nipples located on either
side of the vaginal slit. (Coustea 86). After birth they grow very fast. By March they
more than double their weight and are ready to begin their migration north. They will
wean in about five to seven months from birth.
. Whales are not monogamous. Males have been seen romping and playing with
females and it is thought that sometime during this romping and playing mating occurs. It
has never been determined when. Over eleven to twelve months later, back in the same
waters, the female gives birth. Usually they do not have calves each year, however, it is
possible. The birth of twins has never been recorded however it is possible. Sexual
maturity is as early as four years old for both sexes. They live for about thirty years but
studies have shown they can live much longer. Using a “wax plug” system, much like the
system of the rings of a tree, one whale was thought to have been fifty-eight years old
before it died. (Balcom 15-19).The reproductive organs are located internally. The males
penis is withdrawn into a slit. An erection of the penis is accomplished by a pair of
muscles, much like that of cattle and horses. The females ovaries produce single celled
eggs. When the egg is mature it is discharged into the fallopian tubes, a process known as
ovulation. At this time if mating occurs and the egg is fertilized with sperm from the male
the birth of a baby whale is on the way. (Kaufman 31-33).
Most mammals usually have five sense organs. The whale only has three. Touch,
which is located in the skin, is the sense that can feel pain, heat, cold and vibration. They
also have feelers called vibrissae. These feelers are very similar to whiskers on a domestic
cat. The vibrissae are located in rows on the end of the lower jaw, on the sides of the
lower jaw and on top of the head. Sight is the sense that allows the whale to see. The
shape of the whales eyeball tend to make them far-sighted below the surface and near
sighted above the surface. Since the eyes are located on either side of the head it makes it
impossible for their visual fields to overlap, therefore, they do not have depth perception.
Their auditory sense, or hearing, is very important because in the ocean the visibility is
poor. Good hearing is used to help locate food, hear the approach of enemies, and
communicate with each other. Their ears are gone and only a slit appears midway
between the eye and the base of the flipper. The sense of smell and taste are not present
like in most mammals (Tinker 81-85).
Due to the size of these enormous animals they have few predators. Man is their
worst enemy. However, they do have confrontations with other whales. Some of the
defenses used are, filling their mouth with water or air so to bluff the invader into thinking
they are bigger than they are. As a second line of defense they will use the head and fins
as weapons. They also use their huge body as a defense mechanism by positioning
themselves between the invader, like a boat, and mother and calf. (Kaufman 93-115). A
more subtle defense is countershading , where the top of the whale is dark which makes it
harder to see from above looking down and the bottom is light so looking up it is hard to
see against the lighter surface of the ocean.
Hump-backs produce a wide range of sounds. Often these sounds are long and
complex that are repeated for hours. The first sounds were recorded here in Hawaii in
1952 by O.W. Schreiber on the basis of recordings collected at the U.S. Navy Sound
Fixing and Ranging Station. One whale sung a song for fourteen hours without stopping.
Since singing is done primarily during the mating season it is thought to serve a
reproductive function. It has been shown that only the males sing this song. It may also
attract females, scare away other males, or maintain the distance between singers. Males
and females alike make other sounds which are associated with feeding and socially active
groups (Kaufman 73-77).
The whales pectoral fins is not used for propulsion but to balance and steer. The
tail or fluke is used to move this massive mammal through the water. The muscle caudal
peduncle move the fluke in an up and down direction which propels the whale through
the water (Tinker 55).
The worldwide population of humpbacks is estimated between ten thousand and
fifteen thousand animals. This count is down from over one hundred and fifty thousand
last century. (Dietz 39). Man has hunted the whale close to extinction. The good news is
that we have bans against killing whales in most waters. Hopefully we did this in time to
save them from extinction. It would be a true shame if my grandchildren could not enjoy
these wonderful creatures.