Humpback Whale Behaviors

Humpback whales range in size from 35 to 55 feet, and weigh approximately 80,000 pounds. Their scientific name is Megaptera novaeangliae (Giant Wings of New England) which refers to their large pectoral fins that can reach a length of 15 feet. The humpbacks of the North Pacific live in the waters off Alaska in the summer, and migrate each year to the main Hawaiian islands for the winter. This amounts to a round-trip distance of approximately 7,000 miles, one of the longest migration distances of any animal species. During their stay in Hawaii, they devote most of their time to mating, bearing calves, and entertaining us with their acrobatic behaviors.


Adult humpbacks take a breath every 10-15 minutes, but can remain submerged for as long as 45 minutes. The most common behavior is when a whale comes to the surface to breathe. As the whale expels its breath, a sudden burst of vapourised water shoots into the air producing the classic blow or spout. Calves must rise to the surface every 3-5 minutes.

Spy Hop

A spy hop is when the humpback whale slowly rises vertically out of the water. It is a controlled maneuver that can last for minutes at a time if the whale is sufficiently inquisitive about whatever it is viewing. They rely on their exceptional buoyancy control and positioning with pectoral fins to maintain this elevated position. They may then slowly turn to look around, and drop back down in the water.

Fluke Up Dive

When humpbacks are about to dive they will roll their body forward and dive, throwing their tail flukes into the air and exposing the underside of the tail. This is the best time for researchers to identify individual whales - when the tail of the humpback appears out of the water in an upward arch.

Fluke Down Dive

A fluke down dive is when the surface of the tail is folded over and not exposing the underside. Most people think this is an indication they are diving deep, but a peduncle arch is more indicative of a whale diving into deeper waters. Fluke up and down dives are usually made for smaller shallow dives.


The breach is one of the most exciting surface behaviors of the humpback. This is when a whale will force most of its body from the water vertically and curve horizontally in the air, coming down with a massive splash. The humpback uses its powerful tail to launch itself out of the water, twisting and jutting in all directions, for an acrobatic display.

Pec Slap

During a pec slap, a Humpback will lie on their side or back and slap their long fin along the top of the water. The humpback's pectoral fin is longer than that of all other species of whales, measuring one-third the whale's body length. Humpbacks will slap the water’s surface with one or both fins simultaneously, serving as a communication to other whales. Photo by Deep Sea Images.

Head Lunge

A head lunge is when the whale lunges forward with its head raised above the water and forcing their head down on the surface with a splash. The mouth and throat are sometimes inflated with water which serves to exaggerate their apparent size. This is generally accepted as an aggressive behaviour and is most often observed during courtship battles between males.

Tail Slap

The most powerful part of the whale’s anatomy is it’s tail. By smacking it forcefully on the surface of the water, Humpbacks produce loud clapping sounds with big splash displays. Humpback whales will float vertically in the water, with their head pointing downward, meanwhile raising their tail out of the water and slapping their flukes against the surface. It's common to see humpbacks slapping their tails several times in a row, which can be heard for great distances by other whales.

Peduncle Arch

These are seen just before making a deeper descent. The whale will arch or humpback out of the water in order to breath and make a more vertical descent. This is often a sad thing to see when whale watching because they can stay down for a long time.

Peduncle Slap

The peduncle area of the tail is just before the flukes. In this energetic display the whale throws the lower portion of its body out of the water, and in a sideways action slaps its peduncle on the surface. This is one of the more powerful and aggressive behaviors a Humpback whale can perform. Photo by Capt. Gene Flipse.

Wing On Wing

The humpback whale's scientific name is Megaptera novaengliae, meaning 'Giant Wings of New England', which refers to their large pectoral fins that can reach a length of 15 feet. These fins are used for maneuverability, stabilization, enabling the whale to stop, and swim backwards. Photo by Phillip Colla.

More by this Author

  • Hawaii History - Polynesian Migration

    Archaeological discoveries provide this general sequence for the settlement of Polynesia: 300 B.C. or earlier - seafarers from Samoa and Tonga discovered and settled the Marquesas, and Tahiti. 200 A.D. or earlier -...

  • Hawaii History - Volcanoes And Creation

    Why are the Hawaiian Islands located in the middle of the Pacific Ocean more than 2,000 miles from any major land masses? The Earth’s surface consists of about a dozen rigid slabs or plates, each averaging at...

Comments 1 comment

John Frick 6 years ago

What is the photographers contact information for the Humpback breaching whale and pec slap photos on your Web-site.

Thanks, John Frick


    Sign in or sign up and post using a HubPages Network account.

    0 of 8192 characters used
    Post Comment

    No HTML is allowed in comments, but URLs will be hyperlinked. Comments are not for promoting your articles or other sites.

    Click to Rate This Article