Humpback Whale

Humpback Whale Photo
One focus of WCS’s Ocean Giants program is humpback whales in the South Atlantic and Indian oceans.
©Tim Collins

Humpback whales inhabit all of the world’s oceans, but are more numerous in the Southern Hemisphere. This was not always so: Southern Hemisphere humpback whales were severely impacted by commercial whaling and estimates suggest that populations were reduced to just 2 percent of their original size. A whaling moratorium has enabled some populations to recover, but their long-term health is far from certain.

Humpbacks have stocky bodies, a prominent hump under their dorsal fin, and heads covered with knobs called tubercles, which actually contain hair follicles. Adult humpback whales range in size from 40-50 feet and weigh about 40 tons. These whales do not form family groups, but they are very social and gather together when feeding and breeding.

Humpback whales feed in the waters of Antarctica and the Southern Ocean during the Southern Hemisphere summer and migrate north to South America, Africa and Madagascar, Australia, or the South Pacific during the winter. The waters surrounding the island of Madagascar and the Gulf of Guinea in the South Atlantic are havens for the species in Africa. A long-term WCS study has estimated that about 7,000 whales migrate to Madagascar every year, congregating to breed and calve in areas such as Antongil Bay. During mating season, male whales will physically battle for access to females, often striking each other with their tail flukes, flippers, and chins, and even drawing blood in spectacular displays of aggression. Male humpback whales are also known for their songs, some of the most complex and breathtaking vocal displays in the animal kingdom. Because of its large size, concentrations near shore, and acrobatic stunts, the humpback whale has become an attraction for ecotourists around the world. The future of this vulnerable species depends not only on the health of the oceans at large, but also on responsible fishing in areas where these animals feed, and minimizing the impact of humans in their key habitats.

Fast Facts

Scientific NameMegaptera novaeangliae
  • Humpback whales occasionally launch themselves right out of the water in a behavior called breaching.
  • The vocal range and versatility of the humpback whale is among the broadest in the animal kingdom.
  • Humpback whales swim enormous distances during migration, sometimes as much as 4,000 miles each way!


Humpback whales are difficult to study. They spend much of their time underwater, out of our sight, and live in habitats that are hard to access. Effective humpback whale conservation requires a balance of skill, dedication, good communication, and patience. WCS’s Ocean Giants program focuses its efforts on humpbacks in the South Atlantic and Indian Oceans, with partnerships in other parts of its range. Threats in these areas include offshore oil and gas development, increasing levels of human-generated noise, mismanagement of fisheries that diminish the whales' food source, poorly managed whale-watching operations, climate change, and the possibility of renewed whaling. Addressing these threats in Africa and the island nation of Madagascar presents unique challenges. Many states lack the necessary resources to promote conservation and sustainable economic development.

WCS Responds

Our whale conservation projects center on identifying of at-risk populations and effectively managing and protecting the important environments that humpback whales inhabit. WCS has provided the first post-whaling population size estimates and identified the boundaries and linkages between populations. WCS conservationists ensure that their work in the field is translated into management decisions all the way up to the International Whaling Commission. WCS’s conservation efforts are focused at the local, national, regional, and international levels. We train Southern Hemisphere scientists and managers, and helped to create Madagascar’s first law overseeing whale-watching operators. We use scientific knowledge to devise sound conservation programs and implement effective environmental legislation to protect humpbacks and other marine mammals, as well as the seascapes that support them.

WCS Projects

Oil and Gas Exploration in the Gulf of Guinea

As oil and gas companies expand their reach into the world’s oceans, probing the depths for untapped stores of energy, many marine creatures could be under threat. WCS’s Ocean Giants Program is working off the coast of the Gulf of Guinea in west-central Africa to identify and mitigate the potential impacts of the industry’s activities to marine mammals and their habitats.

From the Newsroom

Arabian Sea Humpback Whales Isolated for 70,000 YearsDecember 3, 2014

"Save the Whales" Still the Rallying CryApril 15, 2013

Reflecting on the American Museum of Natural History’s captivating new whale exhibition, Dr. Howard Rosenbaum, director of WCS’s Ocean Giants program, describes the challenges these beloved, but troubled creatures face in today’s oceans.

A New Look into Humpback HistoryFebruary 13, 2013

A study co-authored by WCS conservationists shines light on the important question of how many humpback whales swam the North Atlantic before commercial whaling. This historical information will help guide future conservation goals for the species.

Madagascar Gets 'Roadmap' To Conserving Marine LifeFebruary 27, 2012

A study by WCS and partners presents a novel approach for establishing new large-scale protected areas in Madagascar’s waters.

Same Ocean, Different SongsFebruary 2, 2012

Researchers from WCS, Columbia University, and other institutions find an unusual divide in song themes sung by humpback whales in Madagascar and Western Australia.


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