Humpback whale breaching in Alaska. Photo by Rhett Butler.
The humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) is a conservation success story. Decimated by centuries of whaling, most populations have risen since a moratorium was placed on commercial whaling in the 1966. Today, over 60,000 humpback whales migrate through the world’s oceans, though this is still considerably less than the historic population.
Humpback whales, one of the most iconic cetaceans, grow over 50 feet long (16 meters), with females slightly larger than males. These behemoths mate and reproduce in warm tropical waters then migrate to feeding grounds in the more productive northern latitudes.
Male humpback whale are known for their long complex songs. Males can sing continuously for 24 hours. Researchers do not yet know why the whales sing, though they have offered a number of competing hypothesis, such as courtship or general communication with other whales.
Although listed as Least Concern by the IUCN Red List, humpback whales still face many challenges, such as collisions with ships, underwater anthropogenic noise, and entanglement in fishing equipment. In 2007 Japan announced it would kill 50 humpback whales for scientific purposes. The move caused condemnation worldwide and eventually Japan backed down on the plan. Though the nation still kills hundreds of other whale species annually. Critics say Japan’s annual hunting of whales is not about science, but simply a way to get whale meat into market.