10 Facts You Didn't Know About Humpback Whales

How much do you know about the humpback whales we see in New Zealand waters? Here’s our list of the top 10 facts about humpback whales. Some of them might surprise you…

1. Humpback whales are easy to identify compared to some other baleen whales. The clue is in their name: they have a distinct hump in front of their small dorsal fins. They have dark backs ranging in colour from dark grey to blue-black, and paler bellies (some completely white, some more mottled). They have distinctive knobby heads and jaws, long flippers and broad tail flukes.

2. They can grow to around 15 metres in length and weigh up to 30 tonnes. Female humpback whales are usually larger than males.

3. Humpback whales live all over the world. Scientists believe there are 14 distinct populations worldwide, and within these populations are separate breeding stocks. The humpback whales we see in New Zealand are part of the Oceania population. They are probably part of the International Whaling Commission’s (IWC) Antarctic management zone known as Area V, and most likely belong to the group known as Breeding Stock E, whose boundaries extend from eastern Australia to Tonga.

4.  Humpbacks were one of the main target species for whalers all around the world, including in New Zealand waters. Whaling reduced some humpback populations by up to 95 per cent. Recent studies indicate the Oceania stock that our New Zealand humpbacks belong to is not recovering as quickly as the Eastern Australian population. 

5. They are known for their long-distance migrations. At the start of winter, humpback whales migrate north past New Zealand to the tropical South Pacific, where they give birth and mate. At the end of winter they travel back towards Antarctica, passing our coasts again on their way. Researchers have recorded individual whales swimming for as many as nine weeks non-stop. These trips between their feeding and breeding grounds can cover distances of 8,000 kilometres or more.

6. Humpback whales are famous for breaching and showing their tails when they dive. This makes them very popular with whale watchers as it’s a very dramatic sight! In fact, they are one of very few whale species that demonstrate this behaviour on a regular basis.

7. They have the longest pectoral fins of any whale. These fantastic flippers can measure up to one-third of their total body size! The Latin name for humpback whales is Megaptera novaeangliae,  with ‘megaptera’ meaning ‘big-winged’.

8. Male humpback whales are famous for singing songs to the females they are courting. These songs are distinctly different within each breeding stock, yet some of them seem to share their songs with other groups. A 2019 study found out how the songs were evolving. Dr Rochelle Constantine and her co-authors discovered that humpbacks from all over Oceania meet at New Zealand’s Kermadec Islands on their southern migration and share their songs with each other. Find out more

9. There are records of ‘white whales’ for humpbacks. The most famous one is ‘Migaloo’, who is often seen off the coast of Australia. In 2015 he chose to mix it up and migrated through the Cook Strait. Sightings were confirmed with DNA tests.

10. Humpback whales are not frequent visitors to the Hauraki Gulf, but we’ve spotted them over the years between the months of August and December. Our most recent sighting was in October 2020, but we weren’t able to capture a photo as it wasn’t keen to interact with us. The previous year, however, we had a fantastic encounter with a juvenile humpback. So you never know, if you’re joining us on safari during those migration months, you might just spot one!

If you do spot a humpback whale, you can log your sighting with Happy Whale and citizen scientists can help ID it and track its progress around the world!

Find out more about whales in the Hauraki Gulf.