Humpback Whales on Stellwagen Bank

One of my favorite places to be is out on the ocean, wind blowing through my hair, sun kissing my nose and the spray turning my skin salty. Since I knew it would probably be my last hurrah this year, I wanted to make it special, so decided to see the whales off New England’s Massachusetts Bay.

Massachusetts Bay

Even though it had been an unusually active year for whales in the area, it is the end of the feeding season in this part of the world. I still thought my chance of a sighting was pretty good. 

boats on Massachusetts Bay

Humpback whales Overview 

Their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, means “big wing of New England. “Referencing their giant pectoral fins, which can grow up to 16 feet long, and their appearance off the coast of New England, where European whalers first encountered the species.

Humpback whales have dark backs, light bellies, distinctive pleats on their throats, and a small hump in front of their dorsal fin, which led to the common name of “humpback.” They can grow to sizes reaching 48 – 62.5 feet in length, roughly the size of a bus. 

fin of whale

They can weigh around 40 tons. They’re omnivorous mammals and their songs can travel great distances underwater. Their moans howls and cries are beautiful and very complex, these calls can sometimes last for hours, humpbacks sing to communicate with others and to attract potential mates. Humpback calves are known to “whisper” to their mothers.

How do humpback whales feed? These baleen whales are usually found near coastlines, feeding on tiny shrimp-like krill, plankton, and small fish.

Humpback Whale blowing water

Migration and breeding 

Humpback whales will migrate annually from their colder feeding grounds at the poles and move to the warmer breeding grounds nearer the equator.

They can travel great distances during their seasonal migration with some whales migrating 5,000 miles between high-latitude feeding grounds and winter mating and calving areas in tropical waters.

During this time, the males exhibit competitive behaviours around females and they can be aggressive toward each other, which can sometimes cause bloody injuries. While breeding hasn’t been directly observed, it is believed that male humpbacks are competing for access to females.

Males will also sing complex songs for hours on end that can be heard over 20 miles away, the low-frequency portions of the song are audible much farther in deeper water.

Humpback Whale breaching

They reach sexual maturity between 4 and 10 years of age. Calves are born after an 11-month gestation, and can measure about 13 to 16 feet in length. How long do humpback whales live? They can live approximately 80 to 90 years. 

A mother will continue to suckle her young for almost a year. Mother and baby can be seen swimming very closely and touching flippers, often sharing affectionate moments.

The young calves continue growing for 10 years. A female will produce a single calf every two to three years. 

Threats

What are the main threats to humpback whales? The main threats to humpbacks is entanglement in fishing gear and accidental strikes by vessels.  All humpback whales are protected under the MMPA, and five populations are protected under the ESA. 

It is through observation that we learn more about these fascinating and important mammals, but being responsible about our interactions is important too. Be responsible when viewing marine life in the wild. Observe all larger whales from a safe distance of at least 100 yards by sea or land.

In Hawaii and Alaska, it is illegal to approach a humpback whale within 100 yards, by land or sea. It is also illegal to approach humpback whales in Hawaii within 1,000 feet (333 yards) by air.

Humpback Whale and dorsal fin

How to avoid collisions 

With collisions with vessels being one of the major causes of injury and death for whales. Here are some tips to avoid collisions, so as a guide to owners of vessels please keep a sharp lookout. Look for blows, dorsal fins, tail flukes, etc.

Watch your speed in areas of known marine mammal occurrence. Keep speeds to 10 knots or less to reduce potential for injury.

Keep your distance. Stay at least 100 yards away.

Stop immediately if within 100 yards. Slowly distance your vessel from the whale.

Humpback Whale in the ocean

Conservation 

Commercial whaling severely reduced the humpback whale numbers from historical levels. The United States listed all humpback whales as endangered under the Endangered Species Conservation Act in 1970,  then under the Endangered Species Act in 1973.

NOAA Fisheries worked worldwide to identify and apply protections for humpback whales. The International Whaling Commission’s final whaling moratorium on commercial harvest, in effect since 1985, played a major role in the recovery of humpback whales. With considerable global conservation efforts including the Endangered Species Act, the current population has rebounded up to nearly 80,000 Humpback whales up from a low-point of 10,000 to 15,000.

My friend and I set sail on the hour and a half trip into the Atlantic Ocean to Stellwagen Bank, a rich feeding ground for whales. The Bank is shallow, with depths of only about 100 to 120 feet. Because it’s so shallow, the sun creates a friendly ecosystem for plankton, on which whales love to feed. I figured if I was going to see a whale, this was the place.

diving whale above water view

Since I wasn’t sure we would see any whales, I decided to enjoy the trip, taking in the sites around me. Boston, rich in American history, is one of the most beautiful harbors on the eastern coast. It’s a large port city, so cruises come and go, and people sail in and out constantly in good weather.

As we got closer to Stellwagen Bank, our guide told us to watch out for the blow, the 15-foot tall water spout that shoots straight up out of the whales’ blowhole. Our eyes were peeled on the horizon for our first glimpse of the blow…or anything that might resemble whale activity. We were soon rewarded with the vanishing view of a whales’ tale in the distance. We had missed it!

I told myself right then that I wouldn’t miss the next surfacing of this fantastic creature! After about 10 minutes, time the whale spent feeding on the plankton below, we saw the blow and it surfaced again, this time a little closer.

This whale was a humpback whale. The humpback whales are the most social whale in this area, and sometimes put on a show of jumping out of the water, or breaching. We weren’t fortunate enough to see this whale breach, but we had a clear view of the fin and humped back, for which the humpback whale is named.

It wasn’t long before the whale was gone, back under water to continue feeding. It left me wanting more. I already have a plan to head back out on the ocean next year to catch another glimpse of these amazing creatures!

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2 Comments

    1. Deb Adadjo says:

      Thanks Mary! Definitely worth seeing!

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