The humpback whale may not be the biggest whale in the world but it sure is one of the most popular and beloved species among whale watchers worldwide.
This charismatic cetacean can be found swimming in every ocean and is known for putting on quite a show for whale-watching aficionados that gather around the globe for an up-close encounter.
So you probably already know that humpback whales breach, tail slap, and travel great distances but what does a humpback whale look like?
In this article, I will be sharing information about their appearance, unique physical traits, and some fun facts that will help you be able to tell them apart from other whale species.
Let’s dive right in!
What Does A Humpback Whale Look Like?
The humpback whale is one the most easily recognized whale species due to some particular characteristics such as the bumpy protuberances it has along its head, the extremely long pectoral flippers, and of course, the hump.
Individuals of this species are mostly black or dark grey with the undersides of their flukes, pectoral fins, and their bellies having varying amounts of white depending on each particular whale.
However, it would be impossible to talk about a humpback whale’s appearance without first addressing its massive size.
As I mentioned before, this species is not the biggest but with a length of around 15 m / 49.2 feet and a weight of 36 metric tons its size is still pretty impressive.
What Features Does A Humpback Whale Have?
Humpback whales love to slap their flukes on the water’s surface; they do it so much actually that scientists can tell apart individuals by employing photo-identification techniques with pictures of their tails.
In case you’re wondering what makes their flukes so unique let me start by saying that they are HUGE! A humpback whale’s tail easily reaches a width of 5.5 m / 18 feet; it is also serrated along the edges and both tips are pointed giving it a kind of “butterfly” shape.
Now let me tell you the truth about the hump after which this species was named: There is no hump!
Unlike other whale species, the humpback’s small dorsal fin is sitting on top of a wide base that gives it that “humped” look when the whale arches its back before diving down into the ocean.
Moving up towards the head you will discover that humpback whales don’t have teeth!
Being a baleen whale, the humpback has a filter-feeding system with bristles inside its mouth that allow it to push out the water while keeping the small prey inside for swallowing.
These ocean-dwelling giants also have ventral pleats. These are ridges that extend from their mouths to their abdomens forming vertical lines that work as an accordion expanding to allow the whales to take in the large amounts of water from which their food will then be filtered.
What Makes Humpback Whales Unique?
Two words: Pectoral fins.
The pectoral fins of the humpback whale can each reach a length of 5 m / 16.4 feet, a third of its total body length!
In fact, its scientific name, Megaptera novaeangliae, translates to “big-winged New Englander” as the population swimming off the coast of New England was the most observed by Europeans.
The pectoral fins of the humpback are a common sight as they love to slap them against the water’s surface and, because of their unique protuberances and markings, can also be used by scientists as a way to identify different individuals.
More On Humpback Whale Appearance
Remember I told you about the bumpy protuberances on the humpback whales’ heads and pectoral fins? Well, those are actually hair follicles (each one as big as your fist) called tubercles; A not-so-subtle reminder that these giants are mammals after all.
Each tubercle houses one, sometimes two, long hair strands, and scientists are still not sure what purposes these hairs serve but most are inclined to believe it has something to do with detecting vibrations.
And some of the rougher, whitish stuff you see on the whale’s head, tail, and fins? Those are barnacles that attach to the whale to ensure they have a stable place to live while enjoying a free ride and lots of food.
The unlikely duo formed by barnacles and humpback whales display a perfect example of “commensalism”, a symbiotic relationship by which one of the species (in this case, the barnacles) benefits from the other (aka, the whale) without providing any benefits, but causing no harm.
If you’ve ever had the chance to see a whale up close you may have noticed they are covered in scars.
These markings are a product of attacks by some sharks and other cetacean species, collisions with boats, and drift nets among other causes.
These scars play an important role in identifying different individuals while also providing scientists with insight into inter-species aggression and a better understanding of the threats that humpback whales may face.
So what does a humpback whale look like? As a general description, individuals of this species are dark grey or black with white markings on their undersides. You can tell them apart from other whales by taking a look at their super long pectoral fins and extremely wide flukes.
Luckily for you and me, humpback whales love to show off by breaching, slapping, and getting very close to boats so if you ever have the dreamy opportunity of watching these magnificent creatures in the wild it will be pretty easy to tell them apart from other species.
As a matter of fact, humpback whales get so close to boats and show off so much that it has been one of the most widely studied species.
These gentle giants are also the main focus of most whale-watching tours being carried out around the world.
I hope that by reading this article you have learned to identify some of the key physical features present in a humpback whale and have enjoyed learning more about these breathtaking marine mammals.
Until next time!
I am a lover of everything nature and animal related with over 15 years of experience in the field of wildlife rescue and education. Currently living in Colombia working with wild and domestic animals and spending all my free time writing about them 🙂