Humpback whale  Megaptera Novaeangliae

Illustration by Uko Gorter

Humpback whales are large baleen whales with dark colored backs and white undersides. Their large pectoral fins, which can measure one-third of their body length, distinguish them from other whales. Unique patterns on the underside of their tail flutes make individual whales identifiable to scientists and researchers.


Humpback whales can be found in every ocean.  They were fairly common in Northwest inland waters pre-1900, however their entire summering population was likely decimated during one whaling season out of Nanaimo, BC’s Page’s Lagoon in 1907-08.

A gradual comeback has occurred with sightings of humpbacks in Northwest waters increasing every summer.

Today, humpbacks are most often sighted along the Pacific Coast and at the western end of the Strait of Juan de Fuca, including the Whale Trail sites at Sekiu Overlook, Shipwreck Point, Neah Bay and La Push. Humpbacks are also occasionally seen in the San Juan Islands and lower Puget Sound.

Social Structure and Behavior

Humpback whales migrate from their warm winter breeding grounds to colder, more productive summer feeding grounds in higher latitudes.  They feed mainly on krill and small schooling fish like herring and sand lance.  They practice a cooperative feeding strategy called bubble netting, and work together to encircle their prey.  Humpback whales are the most acrobatic of all large whales, and may breach almost entirely out of the water.

Humpbacks are also known for their long and complex songs. Their songs have been shown to evolve over time, and the specific variations are shared between geographically distinct populations.

Current and Historical Threats

Humpback whales were hunted extensively in the early 1900s.  Due to conservation and protection efforts their numbers have recently rebounded, though they have not fully recovered and are still listed as an Endangered species.

Some of the greatest threats to the survival of humpback whales include entanglement in fishing gear or other marine debris which can often anchor them in one place during their migrations, ship strikes, and habitat impacts.

Learn More!


DK Readers: Journey of a Humpback Whale (Level 2: Beginning to Read Alone) by Caryn Jenner, 2002

Humpback Whales (Nature Watch) by Dianne M. MacMillan, 2003

Humphrey the Lost Whale by Wendy Tokuda, Richard Hall, and Hanako Wakiyama, 1992



Jefferson, T. A., et al. 2008, Marine Mammals of the World: A Comprehensive Guide to their identification. Academic Press.

Clapham, P. J. 2009, Humpback Whale, Megaptera novaeangliae, in Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals (Perrin et al. Eds.), pp. 582-585. Academic Press.

Wynne K. 1993. Guide to Marine Mammals of Alaska. Alaska Sea Grant.

Osborne, R. et al. 1988. A Guide to the Marine Mammals of the Greater Puget Sound. Island Publishers.

Webb, R. L., 1988. On the Northwest: Commercial Whaling in the Pacific Northwest 1790-1967. UBC Press.

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Adult ♂ : 40-48 feet (12.2-14.6 m)

Adult ♀ : 45-50 feet (13.7-15.2 m)

Birth Length :16 ft. (5 m)


Adult ♂ : 25 to 40 tons (22,680-36,287 kg)

Adult ♀ : 25 to 40 tons (22,680-36,287 kg)

Birth Weight : up to 1 ton (907 kg)

Life Expectancy

45-50 years


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