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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.

This humpback whale is completing a dive, its tail arched upward and water droplets jetting from its tail in the air behind it.
Humpback whale spraying water and exposing its tail fluke as it dives off coast of Newfoundland, Canada

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.

Humpback whale surfacing with the white pectoral fins visible beneath the ocean surface.
Humpback whale surfacing within clear view of the shore in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland

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.

With its pectoral fins extended, this humpback whale breaches in clear view of the coast of Pouch Cove, Newfoundland
Humpback whale lunging up from the depths of the ocean and breaching in full view of the Pouch Cove coastline.

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.

The humpback whale's pectoral fin is seen amid a giant splash of ocean water as the whale fin-slaps the ocean surface.
Humpback whale pectoral fin slapping near the coast of Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, Canada

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.

The humpback whale's tubercles along its mouth are clearly seen in this surfacing whale.
As this humpback whale surfaces, head up, the tubercles are visible on its head

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.

Mama and calf humpback whale swimming alongside each other, the calves dual blowholes clearly visible.
The dual blowholes are seen in the humpback whale calf as it swims next to its mother

 This humpback whale thrusts forward with a powerful force as it descends in a diving motion next to a tour boat in Newfoundland.
This humpback whale's dorsal fin is seen as it splashes in the north Atlantic waters in Newfoundland, Canada

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.

Humpback whale arching its tail and showing its distinctive tail flukes as it descends the ocean's surface in a dive.
Humpback whale displaying its tail fluke as it dives off the coast of Newfoundland, Canada

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!

These two humpbacks, diving near the Witless Bay coastline, display their unique tail-fluke markings.
Each humpback whale has a unique appearance to its tail fluke as can be seen in this pair diving off the coast of NL

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.

Barnacles can be seen attached to the head of this humpback whale as it breaks the surface of the ocean's water.
This humpback whale has barnacles attached to the its head.

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.

The oily patch seen on the ocean's surface can be a whale's footprint and shows that a whale had been in that area moments before.
Beside a surfacing humpback whale is the "footprint" of another humpback who has just left the 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.

With gulls gliding through a fine mist of ocean spray, a pod of humpbacks can be seen near ocean’s surface in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland.
Pod of humpback whales clearly visible from land near the coast of Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, Canada

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.

This humpback whale lifts its head out of the ocean to "spyhop" spectators watching it from a tour boat.
Humpback whale "spyhopping" and observing spectators nearby

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!

Two humpback whales fin slapping close to the coast in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, Canada.
Humpback whale mama and calf fin slapping near the Pouch Cove coastline.

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.

Water is flowing from the mouth of a humpback whale and the fish are trapped in its mouth behind its baleen filter.
Humpback whale feeding near the coast of Pouch Cove, Newfoundland

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).

The area around the dorsal fin of this humpback shows evidence of trauma (possibly from boats or combat).
Humpback whale gliding through the ocean water in clear view from the shore of Pouch Cove, NL

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.

Humpback whale lunging to the left as it breaches close to the Pouch Cove coast in Newfoundland.
Humpback whale breaching, clearly visible from shore, in Pouch Cove, Newfoundland, Canada

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.

People on a boat tour capture photos of a humpback whale diving in close proximity to the boat.
Humpback whale diving as it approaches nearer to guests aboard Gatherall's boat tour to put on a "show"

Please continue to follow my blog as I showcase more amazing tourist attractions in eastern Newfoundland.

Sandra Murray, owner of Murray House Vacation Home and writer of Newfoundland Travel Blog standing on a bridge overlooking a forest clearing and waterfall.
Sandra Murray, owner of Murray House Vacation Home and writer of Newfoundland Travel Blog.


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