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Humpback Whale
(Megaptera novaeangliae)

It is always fun to see humpback whales because they have so many interesting behaviors and you never know what they may do. These playful whales will sometimes slap their tails on the surface of the water which is called "tail slapping". Humpbacks will throw the lower half of their bodies out of the water which is known as "lobe tailing". They will stick their heads up out of the water to get a good look around which is called "spy-hopping". They may jump completely out of the water which is called "breaching", and will slap their flippers on the surface of the water which is called "flipper flapping". These behaviors mean different things at different times. Some of the meanings may include; a way to express angry, keep in touch, scare food into a tighter ball so they may get more of it, to remove barnacles from their body, and as play.

Humpbacks are different from other whales in many important ways. For one they have many round bumps on their heads which are scientifically called nodules. Whalers called these bumps stove bolts because they looked like the stove bolts that hold a ship together. Each one of these bumps holds a single long hair which may give the whales a sense of touch, much like a cat's whiskers. The hair may help them to judge water temperature or detect plankton in the water. Humpbacks also have flippers which are much longer than those of other whales. These long white knobby flippers may be 1/3 the length of the entire whale and are often in a size range of 8 - 13 feet, with the record length being 16 feet. The humpbacks scientific name (Megaptera novaeangliae) refers to these flippers. Mega means big, tera means winged, and novaeangliae means New Englander or all together, big-winged New Englander. The flippers can give one the impression that the humpback is flying through the ocean with wings. Flippers have many important uses for the humpback; during the winter in the Caribbean they will wave their flippers up in the air to cool themselves in the hot water, mothers use them to keep their babies close and to ward away sharks, and they do use them to help propel themselves out of the water when they breach.

The local whale research group called Allied Whale are located right here in Bar Harbor at College of the Atlantic. They house the North Atlantic and Antarctic Humpback Whale Catalogs. In the early 19 70's Allied Whale discovered that each Humpback whale tail was different enough that you could tell them apart and follow them over the course of their life. They found the pigmentation pattern on the underside of each whale tail was different much like each human finger print. Some tails are all white underneath while some are all black and all different shades of color in between. Many of the tails have marks or scars on them that stand. Scars come from Killer Whale attacks, fights, fishing line entanglements, boats, and even barnacles. This process of following whales through picture taking is called photo-identification and today there are over 5,000 whales in the catalog.

An important piece of information that Allied Whale scientists discovered early on is that there are five separate feeding groups during the summer. There is a group in the Gulf of Maine, one in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, one in New Foundland, a group in Iceland, and a group in Greenland. That is to say that the humpbacks we see during the summer here in the Gulf of Maine are not the humpbacks they see in New Foundland. We have roughly 500 hundred in the Gulf of Maine while they have over 5,000 in New Foundland. During the winter most of the humpbacks migrate to the Caribbean where they mate and give birth to their young. It is in these warm waters that males will sing their long songs to attract females. They will also do battle for females where they will bump and push each other. These gangs of fighting males are called "rowdy groups".



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