Have you ever heard a whale sing? They’re famous for it, and nowadays you can buy CDs (or downloads, for you more modern types) of whale song to listen to. The humpback whale is particularly noted for the long duration and long distance songs it produces. These can last up to an hour and be heard 20 miles away. But scientists have now discovered that humpbacks also whisper to one another.
Researchers attached sound and movement recorders to a group of humpbacks and found that mothers and their calves communicated via quiet squeaks and grunts which can only be heard at very close range. The reason? Probably to avoid being overheard by any predators. A killer whale would be very interested if it heard a baby whale singing!
So, what else do we know about humpback whales? Well, as their name suggests, they have large humps on their backs. They are black in colour above but white beneath. This is to help camouflage them – anything below looking up sees white against the light background of the sky.
As you’d expect for a whale, humpbacks are very large. The average size is about 15m but the biggest known humpback was 27m long and weighed 90 tonnes! They also have extra-large fins and huge tails measuring a third of their body length (which you’ll see above the waves when a humpback dives). These make humpbacks very manoeuvrable creatures.
Humpbacks are friendly with other types of whale. They’ve been seen hanging around with all sorts of cetaceans, playing with dolphins and even rescuing seals from killer whales. They’re less friendly to smaller sea life though as they are predators. They feed mostly on krill but also hunt mackerel, salmon, herring and other small fish.
Their only natural enemy is the killer whale, and even this is only a threat to calves. Sadly, mankind has been the humpbacks’ main predator and whispering is little defence against us. From the 1700s onward we went after humpbacks until, by 1966, only 5,000 remained. Thankfully, since then humpback hunting has been banned.
It’s not just hunting which endangers humpbacks though. Entanglement in fishing nets, collision with ships and even noise pollution (loud noises can kill whales) all take their toll. In addition, humpbacks are occasionally stranded on beaches where they meet their end.
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