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Whale Wars Humpback Whale

posted: 05/15/12
Doug Allan and Sue Flood/Getty Images

This most charismatic and beloved of whales was subject to centuries of intense — and eventually illegal — hunting pressure.

In the days before whaling, up to 1.5 million humpbacks roamed the worldwide oceans. In the 19th and 20th centuries, these numbers were all but wiped out by commercial whaling. Today, humpbacks are tightly protected and recovering with an estimated 80,000 worldwide, though Japan plans to resume hunting of humpbacks in the near future.

What's a Humpback Whale

The name "humpback" derives from this whale's tendency to raise and bend its back when preparing to dive, which accentuates the hump in front of the dorsal fin.

Humpback whales feed and breed in groups along coasts. They are known for drawing attention to themselves by breaching and slapping their flippers, sometimes several times in a row. They have the longest flippers of any baleen whale, measuring up to a third of their total body length. These wing-like flippers have many purposes, including feeding and social signaling.

At the surface, humpback whales have a distinctive bushy blow that sometimes appears in a V-shape with spray falling outwards.

Humpback whales are usually sighted individually or in pairs, though they may form groups of 4 to 5 individuals. These larger groups are loose and unstable and the only long-term grouping is that of mother and calf. These whales feed on schooling fish and zooplankton, and in Antarctica the diet is dominated by krill. Humpback whales display an array of feeding methods that include coordinated herding of prey, synchronized lunging and disabling fish by striking with their flippers or flukes.

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