Long-term research has uncovered some remarkable behavior in humpback whales. One example is lunge feeding.

They release air bubbles from their blowhole while diving to create a bubble ring entrapping prey. When they rise, they lunge through the middle of the ring to snag their prey.

They’ve also been known to exhibit site fidelity in three distinct Alaskan feeding regions – Glacier Bay/Icy Strait, Sitka Sound, and Frederick Sound. They return to these same areas each summer.
Their behavior

The humpback whale is a powerful, acrobatic marine mammal that migrates between Hawaii and Alaska each year to breed and feed. In their migratory journey, they must navigate thousands of miles by using ocean currents, temperature changes, acoustical cues and the Earth’s magnetic fields.

During the breeding season, male and female humpbacks compete for estrous females by performing ritualized behaviors. These include breaching, rolling, and lashing their tail flukes vertically. They may also display a distinctive “split tongue” maneuver, where the top and bottom of their mouths split open. After fertilization, the female gestates for 11 to 12 months before giving birth to a single calf.

Humpback whales actively search for food and have a flexible feeding strategy. These adaptable whales can switch between different prey types to maximize their foraging success.Within the California Current marine ecosystem, humpback whales commonly target Pacific sardine (Sardinops sagax), northern anchovy (Engraulis mordax), and Pacific herring (Clupea pallasii).

This allows the whale to swallow only the krill and other small crustaceans, while pushing the water out of its mouth.

When humpback whales feed, they frequently gather in groups and exhibit coordinated foraging behavior. One example of such behavior is bubble net feeding. During this technique, the whales work together to create a “net” of bubbles by blowing air underwater. The trapped fish are then easier to catch as the whales rise to the surface with their mouths open. This group feeding strategy allows humpbacks to efficiently capture their prey.

In this behavior, humpbacks form a circular curtain of air bubbles around a concentration of fish. The whales then herd the fish to the surface, where they engulf them with their giant mouths.

AWF has been tracking humpback whales with suction-cup attached CATS Cam tags since 2019. These devices carry cameras, hydrophones and sensors that provide new insight into the underwater behavior of these charismatic animals.
Their migration

When humpback whales arrive in Alaska, they are looking to eat. They gorge themselves on the krill and small fish that thrive in our nutrient rich waters. Humpbacks are baleen whales and their plates of keratin act like a sieve to filter food from the water. They have no teeth and can consume a ton of fish per day.

As they feed, they create large sheets of bubbles that travel upwards through the water column. This attracts other krill and fish to the area. As a result, humpbacks are known as “bubble net feeders”. To make a bubble net, they swim below the target prey and expel air through their blowholes creating a curtain of bubbles that travels upwards through the water column. This entangles the prey and then the whale lunges upward to engulf the krill or fish. During this feeding behavior, whales are often seen with their pectoral fins beating the surface of the water in a rhythmic pattern.

During their visit to Alaska, humpbacks also practice their mating rituals by singing long complex songs. The songs are generally sung by males. Each whale population has its own unique song. The songs are thought to help humpback whales locate each other and may even play a role in courting or mating.

After the Alaska season is over, humpback whales head to the warm Hawaiian calving and breeding grounds. The migration can take as little as 36 days. During this time, they are accompanied by their newborn calves that were born in Hawaii. In Hawaii, humpbacks will often swim with their mothers, or other calf pairs.

are not only a fascinating aspect of humpback whale behavior but also a distinctive feature of the Juneau whale-watching experience. As you embark on a whale-watching excursion in Juneau, you’ll have the opportunity to witness these incredible creatures in their natural habitat and hear their enchanting songs firsthand. The songs, sung predominantly by male humpbacks, serve various purposes, including communication, locating other whales, and potentially attracting mates. It’s truly a captivating sight and sound that showcases the awe-inspiring nature of humpback whales in Juneau.

A male humpback whale produces long, complex sequences of structured vocalizations called songs. Males also use these vocalizations to communicate with other males. In addition to the songs, humpback whales produce a variety of other noises including squeaks, squeals, and grunts.

US Navy ships in the 1950s made the first recordings of ethereal sounds near Hawaii and Bermuda, which were initially unknown to scientists. These sounds were later identified as humpback whale songs.

Humpback whales are seasonal feeders that come to Alaska in the spring and summer to eat large quantities of krill, small fish, and other prey in nutrient-rich waters. The whales eat enough to build up their blubber reserves for the rest of the year.

Scientists study humpback whale songs to learn more about the animal’s behavior. They also use them to help with conservation efforts.

The most well-known humpback whales in the world are found in Alaska. The state is famous for its spectacular whale watching opportunities. The most common sightings occur in the Inside Passage and along the coast of the Barren Islands between Kodiak and Homer where humpbacks often gather to bubble feed in large groups.

Researchers have also discovered that humpback whales in the Pacific Northwest sing while they are feeding on krill and small fish, which is an indication that they may be using their songs to communicate with other whales. This is important information because it indicates that whales are communicating with one another even when they are not at their breeding grounds.

Another interesting thing about humpback whales is that they are the only species of whale to sing during their feeding activities. This was a surprise to researchers because whales typically only sing during their migration and at their breeding grounds. Researchers are still trying to understand the purpose of humpback whale songs.

In a recent study, researchers used a long-term bottom-moored hydrophone in northern Norway to listen for humpback whale songs. This study is the first to show that humpback whales can sing for months on a high-latitude feeding ground. The re-occurrence of songs over adjacent years confirms that this is not an isolated event.

This study supports the idea that humpback whales engage in singing behavior not only on breeding grounds but also as a means of cultural transmission. It indicates that singing is not solely for reproductive purposes but serves as a means for whales to share and learn vocal patterns within their population. It implies that whales learn and share their singing patterns with others, potentially across different locations, indicating a cultural aspect to their vocalizations.

Their habitat

They typically spend the winter in warmer tropical waters, then migrate to Alaska’s polar feeding grounds during the summer.

Once in Alaska, humpbacks feed on small schooling fish and other forage species such as herring, anchovy, and sardines. They may also eat krill and euphausiids. The humpback’s two blowholes can create a spray of bubbles that help herd prey into groups for more efficient feeding. The humpback can also use their tail flukes to create a “flick” feeding method in which they flick their fins against the surface to make a circle of foam and then lunge into it, swallowing up the food within.

When not feeding, humpbacks entertain with their songs. The exact purpose of the whale’s songs is unknown, but researchers have speculated that they may sing to attract females, protect their territory, or communicate with other whales.

Because of their specialized air-filled blowholes, humpbacks can stay underwater for extended periods of time. In the aftermath of the COVID-19 pandemic, NMFS implemented a new rule to manage humpbacks as distinct population segments (DPS).. These sensors will measure the impact of human-caused environmental noise on whales as they swim through acoustically sensitive habitats.

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