Wild Profile: Meet the humpback whale

A humpback whale jumping out of the grey-blue water By GUDKOV ANDREY/Shutterstock

So, you’ve never seen a humpback whale. Picture a city bus with fins, leaping acrobatically from the water. Unbelievable, right? If you happen to be near B.C.’s Salish Sea in the fall, you’re in luck: it’s prime humpback-whale time—and you can see this magic for yourself.

The humpback whale is big everywhere—even its heart weighs about three times as much as an average human being. Its powerful tail can measure as long as 18 feet. And its 15-foot-long pectoral flippers are the largest of all whales’ (compared to body size): one third of the entire humpback’s body length.

A six-hour rescue mission freed this humpback tangled in an anchor line

The Salish Sea is so humpback-heavy in the fall because this is the huge mammal’s last chance to stuff its face before moving elsewhere to overwinter. An adult whale will scarf up to 3,000 lbs per day, usually zooplankton, krill, or gobs of schooling fish. Humpbacks are baleen whales—they have no teeth (unlike, for example, orcas). So they don’t chew anything. Instead, they raise their upper jaws, and expand a series of folding plates—picture someone playing an accordion—to gulp down gallons and gallons of water and fish in one go. The whale can then use its tongue to squeeze the water through a series of bristly, hanging “plates” on either side of the jaw (a.k.a. baleens). It’s like pouring a can of stewed tomatoes through a sieve to drain the excess liquid.

What happens when humpback whales get into a rumble with orcas?

Working in groups, humpback whales also do something called “bubble feeding.” Whales will blow bubbles around fish to deliberately encircle them, as if in a net. Then, another whale, or several, will swim from beneath, swallowing the prey—helpfully concentrated into a mass—as they rise to the surface. Cooperation makes fish happen!

Humpbacks are also known for their stellar singing. The humpback whale’s song is more complex than the vocalizations of any other marine mammal. Their calls are audible—to other whales, at least—from hundreds of kilometres away. Whales don’t have vocal chords; they make noises by squeezing air through their sinuses. What they produce sounds like a series of whines, grunts, squeals, and cattle-like lowing. But it’s cool enough that in 1977, a Voyager spacecraft included a humpback whale recording as part of its “greetings from earth” messages. Has your voice ever been sent into space?

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