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Humpback Whale Fact Sheet

Humpback Whale
Megaptera novaeangliae

New York Status: Endangered
Federal Status: Endangered


Drawing of Humpback Whale

The humpback is a chunky, heavy-bodied whale that weighs 30-40 tons (27-36 metric tons) and reaches about 30-60 feet (9-18 m) in length. It is dark gray to black above with white patterns underneath of various size. This species is distinguished from other large whales by a more robust body, fewer throat grooves, a dorsal fin that varies in size and shape, and very long white flippers (up to one-third the total body length). There are knob-like bumps on the head and snout, each holding one stiff hair. This whale is not actually humpbacked, but rather appears so when arching in preparation for a deep dive. Many people know humpbacks for their array of complex vocalizations or "songs" recorded during courtship. These songs can last from 3-40 minutes in duration. Another trademark of the humpback is its array of acrobatic antics including breaching, lobtailing, slapping the tail and waving the flippers in the air.

Life History

Both male and female humpbacks reach sexual maturity around the age of 9 years. On breeding grounds, males sing to attract females. Up to 6-8 males can fight for access to a single female via butting, jostling or lobtailing. Births take place between January and March after a gestation period of 11-12 months. The calf is about 15 feet long at birth and will nurse for about 1 year. It was previously believed that females give birth to one calf at intervals of about 2-3 years, but in Hawaii and the Atlantic Ocean females were recently found to calve every year.

Distribution and Habitat

Humpback whales occur in all oceans of the world, although they are uncommon in Arctic regions. During the summer months, humpbacks migrate to higher latitudes to feed. In the North Atlantic Ocean, there are separate feeding populations in the Gulf of Maine - Nova Scotia area, the Newfoundland - Labrador area and Greenland. In these areas, humpbacks inhabit waters over continental shelves and their ledges at latitudes of 40-75 degrees north.

The different Atlantic populations all migrate to and mix on the tropical breeding and calving grounds in the West Indies from January through March. After calving and/or breeding, humpbacks return to the northern feeding areas. Mothers return with calves, thereby imprinting the migration route on the offspring.


Humpback whales are among the most endangered of the large whales. Recent population estimates indicated about 2,000-4,000 individuals remaining in the western North Atlantic. There are better population estimates for this whale than for other species, because they can be seen easily from boats and airplanes and because they tend to gather at local breeding sites. Like other whales, this species has suffered greatly from exploitation by hunters. They gained protection in 1962 through the International Whaling Commission, and since then have shown some signs of recovery in the North Atlantic. This species is a "favorite" of whale-watching groups. The humpback is also the most common large whale recovered annually in New York's stranding program.

Management and Research Needs

Although hunting has been greatly reduced, many threats are still present. Among these are entrapment and entanglement in fishing gear, collision with ships, acoustic disturbance, commercial whale watching and research boats, and habitat degradation. A Stranding Network operated on Long Island by the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research and Preservation under contract to DEC serves to alert marine biologists to the possible rescue of live animals and the identification and autopsy of carcasses. The hotline number for reporting stranded animals is (631)369-9829.

Additional References

Katona, S. K., V. Rough and D. T. Richardson. 1983. A field guide to the whales, porpoises and seals of the Gulf of Maine and Eastern Canada. Charles Scribner's Sons, New York. 255 pp.

Leatherwood, S., D. K. Caldwell and H. E. Winn. 1976. Whales, dolphins and porpoises of the western North Atlantic -- a guide to their identification. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National Marine Fisheries Service NOAA Tech. Report NMFS CIRC-396, Seattle, Washington. 176 pp.

Leatherwood, S. and R. R. Reeves. 1983. The Sierra Club handbook of whales and dolphins. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco, 320 pp.

National Marine Fisheries Service. 1991. Recovery plan for the Humpback Whale (Megaptera novaeangliae). Prepared by the Humpback Whale Recovery Team for the National Marine Fisheries Service, Silver Spring, Maryland. 105 pp.

Drawing by Elane Eckert

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