By: Phil Clapham
Edited by: Poul Vendel
Megaptera is from the Greek, mega meaning "big", and pteron
meaning "wing" which
refers to the large flippers which are characteristic of this species. The
specific name novaeangliae is Latin for "New England" because
the first specimen to be scientifically described came from that region.
Humpbacks are black dorsally and have variable combinations of black and
white underneath. As with all rorquals, the ventral surface contains pleats
which run longitudinally from the chin to the navel. The humpback's giant fins, at one-third the body length, are proportionately larger than those of
any other cetacean. On the head are numerous knobs called tubercles, each of
which contains a single white hair. Humpbacks have a dorsal fin which varies
considerably in shape and size, from very low to high and falcate. The underside
of the tail has a pattern of black and white markings which is unique to each
animal and is used by scientists to identify individuals.
A drawing of a Humpback Whale
Adults average about 14 m in length, with a maximum recorded length of about 18 m.
Females are about 15m in length. Maximum weight is between 40-45 tons.
The location in Africa:
The humpback is widely distributed in the waters around this continent.
Throughout its worldwide range, the species makes a long migration from summer
feeding grounds in high latitudes to tropical mating and calving areas in
winter. Thus most African humpback populations are seasonal, coming to warm
water regions to breed. Known concentrations occur off the Cape
Verde Islands (a now-small breeding population from the North Atlantic which was
heavily exploited in the 19th century), off Madagascar, Mozambique and South
Africa (a breeding stock which feeds in the Antarctic), off equatorial West
Africa (breeding populations which may come from both hemispheres at different
times of year), and off the Arabian Sea coast. The latter is an interesting
group in that it appears to be the only population of the species in the world
which remains in tropical waters all year-round. Little is known about humpbacks off
southwestern Africa, but they are almost certainly present ther during the
More is known about humpbacks than any other large whale, although African
populations are generally poorly understood. Humpbacks make one of the longest
migrations of any mammal (up to 5000 miles one-way). They feed on euphausids in
other words "krill" and various species of small schooling fish. Males sing long songs
during the breeding season (and ocassionlly else where) which are perhaps the
most complex such vocalizations in the animal kingdom. Their purpose is probably
primarily to attract mates, but they may also serve to maintain spacing among
males. Males humpback also engage in highly aggressive competition for females
in the winter, with protracted and often spectacular fights being common.
Humpbacks were heavily whaled, notably this century. Their numbers were
reduced by perhaps 95% of their original size notably in the Antarctic where
almost a 1/4 of a million animals were killed. Today, most populations appear to
be making a strong recovery, although little is known about the status of this
species off Africa. Whaling for humpbacks occurred in this and the last century
in various locations, including South Africa, Madagascar, Congo, Gabon and the Cape
Verdes. There is thought to be a continuing aboriginal whaling operation for
humpbacks off the remote island of Pagalu (equatorial West Africa), but it is
unlikely that this has a large impact on the population concerned. Humpbacks often
get entangled in coastal fishing gear, including off Oma, but the
magnitude of this problem in African waters is largely unknown.