Humpback whales average 40 to 60 feet in length and can weigh 40 tons (about the size of a school bus). Females tend to be larger than males—an unusual trait for mammals. Humpbacks have long flippers that can be up to a third of the length of their bodies.

The top dorsal fin often has a humped shape, providing one source of inspiration for their name. They are known for having large knobs along their head and body. The top of the body is black. The bottom has white areas and around 30 grooves running along the whale’s chest.


Humpback whales are opportunistic feeders that eat a variety of foods, depending on what is readily available. This includes plankton, plants, and various fish and animal life. In the North Atlantic, their diet is heavily fish-based. They usually open their mouths to take in large quantities of food and water. The water is then pressed out and the food is swallowed. They may also create bubble clouds or columns that they use like a net to herd their prey.


Their primary predator is humans. Though there are protections for humpbacks today, they used to be commercially fished for their oil. Humpback whales were added to the Endangered Species List in 1973. Today, they have made an impressive recovery and are only listed as threatened in a small part of their range.


Humpbacks are the most vocal of all the whales. They have incredibly complex songs that are used to communicate and attract mates.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Humpback whales breed during the winter months, usually every other year. Female whales carry the young for 11 months before they are born. The females have one baby at a time and are fully responsible for taking care of the young. The baby whales, called calves, are four to five meters long at birth. They are fully weaned by the time they are a year old, though they don’t stop growing until they are 10. Humpbacks can live for 75 to 95 years.

Did You Know?

  • While humpback whales aren’t common in the Chesapeake, there are usually at least a couple of sightings each year.
  • Humpbacks are known for their acrobatics. They often breach the surface of the water and leap into the air before coming back down with a loud slap. The whales will arch their backs before breaching, providing another source of inspiration for the humpback name.
  • Humpback whales likely have no sense of smell.
  • The scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae means "big-winged New Englander."
  • Humpbacks are particularly susceptible to parasites, perhaps because of their slow swimming speed.
  • Toxic contaminants like DDT (an insecticide) and PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyls which act as a flame retardant in electrical equipment and have also been used in inks, adhesives, sealants and caulk) can accumulate in humpback whale blubber.

Sources and Additional Information