I love all of the whales that we're lucky enough to see, but my true passion is the Humpback Whale so for that reason I felt the need to give them their own "spotlight" page. Humpback Whales are a whale watcher's favorite for many reasons. They tend to spend the most time up at the surface. They're generally not bothered by the whale watching boats and will often times even show some curiosity towards us. They're the most acrobatic and will often times show surface activity which is always exciting to see.
The really great thing about whale watching in the Gulf of Maine is that our whales have feeding site fidelity. This means that the same whales tend to return to the same feeding grounds year after year. Because our whales are also individually identified and named, it gives us a chance to follow any given whale’s behaviors, patterns, and even lineages going back 3 or 4 generations (there may even be 5th generations out there by now too!). It also gives us a chance to get to know them as individuals. These whales are just like people in that they have their own personalities. Some are known for being more quiet and reserved while others are known for being more showy and acrobatic.
HANCOCK | born 1991 to Clipper
People like me who spend a LOT of time on the water watching these whales have a favorite or two… or twenty. I personally have a lot of favorites that I watch out for year after year. Whales such as Pinball, Pumba, Etch-a-Sketch, Nile and Putter to name a few, but it’s no secret to anyone who knows me that Hancock is my absolute favorite! Hancock is a very big girl and has proven time and time again that she’s a great feeder to watch. The thing that I like the most about her though, and this will sound weird, is how loud her inhale is. I’ll never forget hearing it for the first time. She had just surfaced through her bubble cloud and as she swam alongside the boat she flared out her flippers signaling that she was about to dive, she exhaled one last time, and then she took in this huge amount of air which sounded like a giant wind tunnel of some kind. She’s the first whale that I ever heard inhale before and that memory just stuck with me for some reason. To this day every chance that I see her I always get excited because I know I’ll get to hear that sound once again. She never disappoints. I absolute love her!
FLUKE PATTERNS | A Humpback Whale's tail measures roughly 15-18' across from tip to tip and it essentially acts as a giant living billboard. The Gulf of Maine population of Humpbacks are individually identified and named for the pattern on the underside of their flukes. This pattern ranges from completely white to completely black with all kinds of variations in between and they're broken down even further by type. The photos below show these variations. From left to right we have a whale named Mayo (type 1 / almost all white), Cajun (type 2 / mostly white with a little bit of black), Hancock (type 3 / half white and half black), Tornado (type 4 / mostly black with a little bit of white), and MilkyWay (type 5 / almost all black).
There are many surface behaviors that Humpback Whales show and they're all pretty spectacular in their own way. While I won't say it's rare, it's not exactly typical or to be expected to see these behaviors on a regular basis either. If there's a higher number of whales around, or if you're watching a calf or juvenile, your chances of seeing something more "showy" certainly increases. There's really no definitive explanation on why whales choose to be surface active although there are many theories such as communication with other whales, to aid in digestion, to loosen barnacles, and it's certainly possible it's just for fun! For young calves it's a way for them to build muscle and strength, learn how to be a whale, and of course to get rid of energy much like children do through playing. Only the whales know for sure.
FLIPPER SLAPPING | This is when the whale rolls on it's side and raises its long pectoral fin (which measures approximately 1/3 of the whale's body length) out of the water and slaps it down on the surface. Sometimes the whale will also roll on its back and raise both flippers out of the water. This is probably the most common type of surface activity and I have to say that the sound made when that flipper hits the surface of the water is one of my favorite sounds.... ever!
LOB-TAILING | This is when the whale will raise its tail out of the water and slap it back down again. This is usually done repeatedly several times before the whale will pause, take a breath, and continue on. They can also do this belly up and in that case it's referred to inverted lob-tailing.
TAIL BREACHING | This is also impressive to see. This is when the whale will literally throw it's whole entire hind end clear out of the water. Everytime that I see this behavior I'm in awe over the sheer power that these animals possess in order to pull off such a maneuver.
CHIN BREACHING | This is kind of the opposite of tail breaching. When a whale chin breaches it'll lift its head and a good portion of the front half of its body out of the water before crashing back down on the surface.
FULL BODY BREACHING | This is the behavior that most whale watchers, myself included, love to see. In my opinion, this is one of nature's most impressive displays, if not THE most impressive! To think that a whale can launch itself out of the water the way it does using only a few strokes of its tail shows how truly powerful these animals are. You have to be quick to get a photograph though because often times it happens so unexpectedly and so quickly that if you're not looking in the right spot, you'll miss it completely.
CLOSE TO BOAT | This incredibly special behavior is my absolute favorite, but unfortunately it does not happen very often at all. Sometimes the whales become curious about the boat and will approach very closely. Sometimes they'll swim right under it while other times they'll swim all around it. Sometimes they'll get a little showy and will roll around right next to us or even spyhop! Moments like these have a way of embedding themselves in your heart and memory. Even as I'm approaching 20 years as a hobbyist whale watcher it's the close to boat behavior that I wish to see the most and when it happens it just makes me love this species even more.
As mentioned before, much like people, every whale has its own unique personality. The same can be said for the style of feeding each whale uses. Some are kick feeders and some are bubble cloud and/or net feeders. Some seem to specialize in surface feeding while others seem to specialize in deep feeding.
DEEP FEEDING | This is what we tend to see more times than not on the feeding grounds. When a whale is deep feeding it's spending a lot of time beneath the surface and out of our view while it's moving, searching, corralling, and feeding coming up to the surface long enough to get a few breaths of air before returning to the depths again. Humpback Whales are known to rub their heads on the sandy seafloor of Stellwagen Bank to get the sandlance to come out from hiding. In doing so these whales will scuff up their jaws pretty badly. It's interesting to note that just like people are righties or lefties, whales are too and its the same ratios as humans as well.
BUBBLE NET FEEDING | This is by far my personal favorite feeding method to watch. There's just something that I love about not only watching in anticipation of where the next bubble net will be formed, but also watching the ring of bubbles slowly rise up towards the surface of the water. It's believed that Humpback Whales blow these bubbles in an attempt to confuse, corral, and scare the fish into a tight ball which in turn makes it easier for the whale to take in as many fish as possible in a single gulp. It certainly makes sense!
BUBBLE CLOUD FEEDING | This is similar to bubble net feeding, but with this feeding method instead of seeing a large ring of bubbles forming you'll typically only see one column of bubbles rising.
KICK FEEDING | When a whale is kick feeding it'll normally life its flukes high up out of the water before slapping it back down on the surface. Normally the whale will repeat this a few times before diving below and will then blow bubbles from beneath the surface. It's believed that the actual "kicking" part is done to stun the fish. Some whales will even use their heads by chin breaching/slapping before moving on to using its flukes. It's hard to catch, but very exciting when you do!
BREEDING GROUND BEHAVIORS
ROWDY GROUPS | On the breeding grounds groups of mature males will come together in pursuit of a single female, who basically sets the pace for the entire group, and literally fight each other for their chance to mate. I'll never forget the first time I saw a rowdy group in action. Up until that point I'd only seen the humpbacks here on the feeding grounds where they're generally no hostility or aggressiveness. On the breeding grounds it's a completely different story. The males will do everything within their power to win these battles and that means hitting each other with their flippers and flukes, breaching on or very near each other, and while I haven't seen it myself it's been observed where one male will try to position itself on top of another male to prevent it from surfacing for air. The whale being pinned down eventually gets so winded from not being able to breath that it has no choice but to admit defeat and leave the battle.
DANCING | I've had the chance a few times now to snorkel with Humpback Whales and it's truly an amazing experience. Being in the water with dancing whales is something really special. It's believed that dancing occurs in the final stages of courting. During this stage the whales seem to be performing an underwater ballet as they twist and twirl around and circle each other. Often times they'll even include you, as a snorkeler, in their performance as well. I've been lucky enough to snorkel with two pairs of dancers and it's such a humbling experience.
"We owe it to our children to be better stewards of the environment. The alternative? - a world without whales. It's too terrible to imagine." ~ Pierce Brosnan