Humpback Whales

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) and blue whales sightings are what many visitors think of as “seeing a whale.”  Breaching, aerial acrobatics, fin slapping and those awesome spouts are the ultimate whale sighting experience.  By contrast, the gray whales can reliably be sighted during their southern and northern migrations, but these animals are intent on getting to a destination and are spotted as they swim determinedly past Point Lobos.  Humpback whales are following abundant food sources and with full bellies and no place to be, they breach, flap, and generally make a show of themselves.  The favored foods of humpback whales are anchovies, squid, sardines, herring, krill – basically any small fish that swims in schools – and their baleen is used to take huge mouthfuls of fish and water, filter the water through the baleen back into the ocean, and swallow the retained fishes.  A mature humpback whale will eat about 4000-5000 pounds of fish a day.  Many of these calories are stored as blubber (fat) which insulates the animal as well as provides energy stores.  An excellent example of humpback whale baleen is displayed outside the Whaling Station Museum at Whaler’s Cove.

Humpback whale sightings are unpredictable since they will be found wherever their food is abundant.  The Monterey and Carmel bays often have abundant squid, anchovies and sardines in summer and so a display of humpback whale antics is more likely in May to September than the rest of the year.  A clue that humpbacks are in the area is a pool of ocean bubbles with hundreds of sea gulls excitedly hovering about.  When the humpbacks’ prey are scattered in the ocean, the whales cooperate to swim around the fish and blow bubbles that frighten the fish into a central group and cause them to move towards the ocean surface.  The gulls appreciate the easy catch as well as the whales!

Humpback whales are about the same size as gray whales, reaching 50’ in length and weighing about 45 tons.  However, their shape is quite different.  The stockier humpback whales have very small dorsal (top) fins and very long pectoral (side) fins that do the slapping during a breach.  The whale’s back is very dark with a white underbelly.  Humpback whales are found in all the oceans of the world and the estimated total population is 26,000.