Cetacean Society International

Working for whales, dolphins and porpoises worldwide

CSI Photo Gallery

Humpback Whales

(Megaptera novaeangliae)

Most of the humpbacks summering off New England have been given nicknames derived from visible marks, which helps everyone identify them. The right fluke of Liner shows the line he's named for, while Salt's white-topped dorsal fin looks as if salt was poured on it (though not visible in this photo due to the lighting, which illustrates one of the difficulties of photo-identification). Salt is one of the most famous and popular humpback whales, first seen in 1976. All of her calves have names associated with salt: Crystal, Halos, Thalassa, Brine, Bittern, Salsa, Tabasco and Wasabi. (Photo by Patricia Sullivan)
You can see here why humpback whales are the dramatic favorite of many whale watchers. This whale, named "Triton" for a mark on his tail, is often playful around familiar boats. He probably weighs over 20 tons; how powerful his tail must be to lift his body out of the water!
"Ase" is breaching near the Dolphin V whale watch boat, perhaps to communicate with other whales, perhaps just for fun. The small white circles are scars from barnacles perhaps knocked off during breaching. Do barnacles itch?
Baby humpbacks are born in warm, tropical waters, travel thousands of miles back to summer feeding areas with their mothers, nursing frequently on very rich milk. Many return to these same areas for the rest of their lives. Off Cape Cod some humpback mothers introduce their calves to favorite boats, or vice-versa.
Two feeding humpbacks show their baleen, which traps small prey in their mouths. Notice "Bislash's" rope-damaged baleen. Many humpbacks show scars from nets, ropes, or propellers. Does "Bislash" have to work harder to survive because of the injury?
The dorsal fins of these two humpbacks are very different. Scientists also identify individuals by flukes and body marks, allowing populations to be estimated. Tissue sampling is a controversial but valuable method to define populations, along with an individual's sex, genetic background, and toxin load. Toxins from human pollution accumulate in tissue, especially blubber. Sometimes that can kill even a whale.
Look for the scars on the tail stock, or peduncle, of "Icarus" as she dives. She was nearly killed by a rope, and her nickname reflects her struggle. The pattern on her flukes identifies her, and allows us to keep track of her as she recovers.
Whales' flukes are very powerful and efficient. They have to be; they are this humpback's main defense against predators like sharks or orcas, and must allow this whale to swim many thousands of miles a year. The humpbacks with the longest known migration of any mammal travel from Antarctica to Columbia every year!
"Senestra" is playing, "lob tailing" upside down. Her calf was imitating her. The only visual clue to the sex of a humpback, other than an obvious mother and calf, is a lobe females have just in front of the genital slit, which you can see here just above the water.
This whale stranded. Many people came to help but we were all helpless. After he died scientists learned many things. We all learned that he had been entangled in a fishing net in Canada, and drifted for perhaps a year before dying of dehydration and starvation. The next picture shows his damaged tail.
The fishing gear on the tail of this humpback killed him. He finally came ashore on Cape Cod, and many caring people came to help, including the scientists who risk their lives to free entangled whales. There was nothing anyone could do. Yes, we could do something about the fishing gear that kills so much marine life "incidentally", which means by mistake.

Scientists work hard to study whales, literally from dawn to dark. This research boat is only one example of the many ways people get to understand whales and dolphins where they live. Sometimes that can be cold, uncomfortable and remote, but the work is always challenging and satisfying.
Only an underwater view can hint at the incredible grace and freedom cetaceans enjoy in their water world. This humpback is hovering. He can rise to the surface, dive down hundreds of feet, leap straight up out of the water, roll upside down, or even sleep, all with ease.
This humpback is playing with a log, rolling it on his head like a toy. Close by a calf was playing with dolphins, which were jumping over him as he rolled. Whales and dolphins play in many ways, and some seem to display a sense of humor.
Ase is breaching upside down, perhaps because it's fun. The noise of his splash travels at different speeds in the air and water. Another humpback might be able to tell how far away Ase was, as well as his direction. His name comes from the asymmetrical marks on his flukes.
Warrior and her new calf, Keel, are slapping their pectoral fins on the water at the same time. Keel will have to learn many lessons before he is weaned, such as which tiny creatures are dangerous and which giant creatures are not. Is the baby learning here? Are they just having fun together?
Sockeye's pectoral fin is just about to slam down on the water in play. The explosive noise will echo across the water. He uses his long fins to maneuver gracefully, to touch other humpbacks, and also to startle fish into concentrations that he can easily swallow.
Sockeye is lying on his side, lifting his pectoral fin to make another slam on the water in play. His fin has many of the bones you have in your hand, but it weighs as much as a car. The bumps on the leading edge may be tactile sensory organs, or much more.