Whale Watching in Newfoundland
Whale watching adventures rank highly on the travel itineraries of those planning a trip to Newfoundland. Whales of many species migrate to our northern waters each year but the majestic humpback whale, with its playful nature, is most popular by far. These amazing mammals hold many fascinating secrets.
Humpback Whale Facts
Humpback whales have a life expectancy of 45-50 years but some have been known to live for up to 80 years! Unlike many love stories in the wild, this species does not mate for life and the male may have many sexual partners in one breeding season.
The female humpback whale is larger than the male, weighing about 45 tons and reaching a length of about 49 feet. From a distance, it is hard to distinguish the sex of a humpback whale as the male's sexual organs are tucked inside a slit on the whale's underside. However, if you see a mature humpback with a calf nearby, it suggests that the adult is a female because the mother and calf stay together for about one year after the calf's birth and they share quite a strong bond. Male humpback whales, on the other hand, do not typically remain with the family.
Humpback Whale Physical Appearance
The physical appearance of a humpback whale is quite spectacular. Its pectoral fins are quite long, measuring about 15 feet and extending about 1/3 the length of their body! Among other uses, the humpback whales use their fins to defend against predators, to help regulate their body temperature, and to steer and stabilize their bodies as they glide through ocean waters.
An interesting feature found alongside the humpback's mouth are round knobs known as tubercles. These tubercles are much like whale whiskers as they contain a hair filament that enables the whale to detect information about its surroundings.
Centrally on the humpback whale's head, you can see two blowholes (baleen whales have two blowholes whereas toothed whales have only one blowhole). Blowholes are essential to the whale in allowing it to breath. Impressively, humpback whales can inhale as much as 90% oxygen from the air through their blowholes (in comparison to humans who inhale an average of only 5% oxygen with each breath). The high volume of oxygen inhaled allows the humpback whale to oxygenate its lungs and hold its breath for up to an hour. A musculature flap seals off the blow hole and prevents water from getting in and air from escaping as the whale submerges under the water.
Along the back of the humpback whale there is a dorsal fin which is small and stubby in comparison to its body size. When the whale is bending to dive, the small hump in front of the dorsal fin becomes more pronounced and is more clearly visible. The dorsal fin enhances the whale's balance and allows for more controlled swimming movements as it glides through the waters.
At the far end of its body is the humpback whale's tail. Did you know that a whale's tail is the strongest muscle of any mammal? The humpback whale uses its tail in its defense against predators, including Orca whales. Oh, a whale's tail can make quite a splash too!
The tail is divided into two lobes known as flukes. Impressively, each humpback whale's fluke has a distinctive appearance that, much like a human fingerprint, is unique to each whale. If you are interested, why not submit your tail fluke images to the link below to identify your whale and to receive information about its migratory pattern?
Humpback Whale: Barnacles
Some portions of the humpback whale's body may be covered in barnacles. These barnacles are usually harmless and can provide a source of natural protection from predators. If the barnacles cause skin irritation, the whale can rub its body against hard objects such as rocks to remove them.
Spotting Humpback Whales
As you visit the ocean in hopes of spotting a whale, keep an eye out for a greasy looking circle atop the ocean. This is most likely a humpback whale's footprint and signifies the spot where a humpback whale had, moments earlier, surfaced in that area.
Also remain alert for signs of light shades moving underwater. These may be reflections of the humpback whale's fins and ventral grooves which become more visible as the whale nears the ocean surface.
Humpback Whales: Pods and Migration
With the exception of mamma, calf and perhaps an escort, humpback whales do not travel in large pods. However, they sometimes form associations when in the cooler waters in their feeding zones. When the humpbacks are in warm waters during the mating season, there may be several males in close association with a female as they compete for pairing with her.
The migration of the humpback whale is the longest migration of any mammal on earth. Many tourists time their holidays to Newfoundland with the arrival of whales and hope to see one during their travel. Likewise, many humpbacks enjoy the thrill of "spyhopping" (people watching) and will pop their heads out of the water and watch people as people are watching them!
Humpback Whales Feeding Habits
Humpback whales fin slap, tail slam, and breach to startle fish and surround them during feeding. Most times, when humpbacks are seen along the coast of the feeding ground, such as Newfoundland, they are feeding. Did you know that humpback whales are baleen whales (meaning that they have no teeth but, instead, 300-400 bristly filters lining their mouth?)
As the humpback whale feeds, it plunges through the fish-rich waters. Simultaneously, ventral grooves extending from its mouth to its belly expand to hold the high volume of water and fish entering its mouth. Fish are trapped in the whale's mouth but water is permitted to filter out of the mouth through the baleens. Not all sea water gets released back to the sea through filtration. The remainder is expelled through its two blowholes. Humpback whales will eat an average of 3000 pounds of food daily.
Most humpback whales feed by plunge feeding. However, some feed by bubble net feeding. Although I have never seen the later, bubble feeding involves a pod of whales engaging in a cooperative group feeding method. This is well demonstrated in the video above.
When Can You Expect to See Humpback Whales in NL?
Humpback whales are most commonly seen in Newfoundland in the summer months (mid June through mid September). Their migration to cooler waters, such as Newfoundland, is timed to the migratory pattern of fish (in the case of Newfoundland, chiefly the capelin).
Humpback Whale: Mating and Calving
After the feeding season ends, most humpback whales return to warm waters to mate and give birth. Sometimes immature males may remain in the cooler waters throughout the year and not migrate south. During calving months, humpback whales typically do not eat but, instead, live off the blubber which has been deposited as food stores during their feeding season. A female humpback whale reaches sexual maturity by age 6-10 and can give birth to one live calf every 2-3 years. The gestation period of a humpback whale is about 12 months.
At birth, a calf is about 15 feet long and weighs about 1500 pounds. In its first year of life, the calf will double in length. The mother's milk has a high fat content (about 50%) that is essential for the calf's continued growth. A calf will consume 150 gallons of its mother's milk every day! The mother will lose up to 1/3 of her total body weight before returning north to feed. The young humpback whale will continue growing until it reaches about 10 years of age.
Book a Whale Watching Boat Tour
Imagine the excitement when, for the first time, you see a humpback whale fin slapping, lobtailing (tail slapping), and breaching! Many people book a whale watching tour boat to increase their chances of seeing these majestic mammals in the open sea as it is hard to predict where and when they will be visible from land. There are many charters from which to select, including Gatherall's puffin and whale watching boat tour.
Please continue to follow my blog as I showcase more amazing tourist attractions in eastern Newfoundland.