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  1. 231_1 Photo by David Donnelly
  2. 231 Photo by David Donnelly
  3. 231_0 Photo by David Donnelly

Humpback Whale

Megaptera novaeangliae


  • Colour: Dark grey to black on top and usually white on the belly
  • Features: Humpbacks have very large, elongate pectoral fins, a small but prominent dorsal fin and a large, bushy blow (up to 5 metres tall)
  • The large fins, dark tail with white underneath, active breaching and tendency to raise “hump” their backs and raise their tail out of the water before diving, distinguish humpbacks from other whales
  • Size: Adult humpbacks can reach a length of up to 15 metres


Humpbacks are generally active whales. When resting, they are often seen jumping spectacularly out of the water, rolling belly side up, or waving their tails and fins out of the water. Females with their new born calves often rest quietly at the surface. Humpbacks migrate alone or in temporary aggregations of usually non-related individuals. 

What to Observe

  • How many adults and calves
  • Behaviour: stationary, milling (lazing around), feeding, active (describe in the comments if the whale was jumping, rolling or waving its fins), travelling (and travel direction)
  • Distance from shore (Hint: If you're unsure use a nearby buoy or other feature of know distance from shore)
  • Weather and sea state (cloud cover, wind and swell)
  • Photograph of dorsal fin and tail (photo tip: Individual humpback whales can be identified by the unique scars and patterns on their tails. Tail photos are best taken from behind the whale after it has raised its body and tail to enter a dive. Photos should be taken of all whales sighted and having your camera set to ‘continuous shooting mode’ will ensure the best possible chance of clear identification from photos)

ClimateWatch Science Advisor

Climate change may reduce the productivity of the Southern Ocean, impacting the distribution and availability of the Humpbacks main food source: krill. Changes to ocean circulation patters and temperate could affect the timing and location of humpback migration and breeding. Competition with humans and other whales for food sources and increasing interaction with tourist vessels and commercial shipping, may stress population recovery for humpback whales. Humpbacks may alter their feeding behaviour and migration in response to changes in ocean currents, temperatures and stress caused by increasing human interaction.  

When To Look

Humpback whales are first sighted swimming north on the Australian coast around May each year.  They are returning from their Antarctic feeding grounds and heading towards tropical calving grounds in the Kimberley region of WA and the Great Barrier Reef. By August the majority of whales have begun to migrate south along both coasts and by November have left Australian waters, heading back to the Antarctic. The exact timing of migration can vary from year-to-year and may be related to food supplies in the Antarctic. They have been sighted all year round in South Australia and Victoria, indicating that not all of the whales in the two Australian populations migrate to the Antarctic to feed. 

Where To Look

Southern populations of humpback whales travel from Antarctic feeding grounds in summer and migrate northwards to tropical waters where they mate and calve over the winter months. Whilst it is likely multiple populations occur in the same Antarctic feeding grounds over summer, two migration pathways occur on the east and west coasts of Australia. The west coast population (known as Breeding Stock D) migrate to breed as far north as the Kimberley and Ashmore Reef, whilst the east coast population (known as Breeding Stock E1) mate and calve in the Coral Sea near the Great Barrier Reef.

Humpback whales occur across the globe, feeding in polar regions during the summer months and breeding in the tropics during the winter months.

Humback Whale compiled distribution map - Australia - Species of National Environmental Significance Database (Public Grids)

Humback Whale compiled distribution map - Australia - Species of National Environmental Significance Database (Public Grids)


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  1. What Else?

    Southern right whales are similar in size and shape but lack a dorsal fin. They have a distinctive V shaped blow and smaller square-shaped fins and white bumps on their heads called callosities.

  1. Did You Know?

    Humpback whales have one of the longest migrations of any mammal. One humpback whale was recently reported to have travelled up to 10 000 km in one season, from Brazil to Madagascar, the longest recorded single migration on record.