Two summers ago, I was lucky enough to witness humpback whales feeding in the waters of Alaska. Since then, these majestic creatures have held a piece of my heart.
The humpback whale, or Megaptera novaeangliae, can grow up to 62 feet in length and weigh up to 53 tons. Humpbacks spend their summers in the northern Atlantic and Pacific oceans feeding on krill and plankton, and they spend their winters close to the Equator for breeding. Their travels can add up to 10,000 miles a year.
Humpback whales have large tails that help them swim, which allow researchers to individually identify them. They also have tubercules, or small bumps, dotting their heads with tiny whisker-like hairs to provide sensory information.
When you think of a humpback whale, you might think of their eerie calls reverberating through the water. But did you know that only male humpback whales “sing?” These songs have a repetitive structure and usually appear during mating season.
However, researchers have discovered male humpbacks singing during feeding season as well. There are a couple of hypotheses about this phenomenon, including that male humpbacks are practicing their songs or attempting to impress females even during feeding season.
Although many find these creatures fascinating, humpback whales are in danger of going extinct. In 1973, humpback whales were listed under the Endangered Species Act due to illegal hunting, ship strikes and fishing net entanglements.
Additionally, plastic pollution poses an extreme threat to these magnificent animals. One study found that a fish-feeding humpback whale likely consumes 200,000 pieces of microplastic per day.
The loss of humpback whales would be devastating to our planet. When humpbacks feed, migrate, excrete waste and dive into the ocean’s depths, they spread essential nutrients through the water.
This allows phytoplankton to grow, which contributes to reducing carbon dioxide in the earth’s atmosphere — phytoplankton absorbs about 40% of global carbon dioxide emissions per year. Humpback whales also store carbon in their bodies, which sinks to the ocean floor after death.
I will never forget the awe of seeing a humpback whale jump out of the water or seeing their iconic tail slaps. Now that you know how important humpbacks are to our planet, I hope you have a newfound appreciation for these gentle giants.