Humpback whale: the ocean’s motivational leapers

Photo credit: Bryant Austin

If you have been feeling down or have lost touch with the fun side of life, then it’s time to purchase a ticket to see the famous motivational speakers, I mean the famous motivational leapers…humpback whales. The ocean’s merriment masters, thrill seekers and acrobatic all-stars.

Humpback whales or Megaptera novaeangliae are easy to spot with their flair for fun, their characteristic bright white coloring along the pectoral fins and flukes offset by deep navy blue-black on their bodies and their extra-long flippers (aka pectoral fins). According to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals, the flippers average “one-third the length of the body” and inspired the first part of the humpback’s scientific name Megaptera, which is Greek for big wing.

“With their ‘stovebolt’ bumps and record long pectoral fins, humpback whales are quite distinctive looking and are rarely confused with any other species of cetacean,” said Bernardo Alps, president of the American Cetacean Society’s Los Angeles Chapter (ACS/LA). “The coloration is also highly variable from all black to almost half white. Southern hemisphere populations tend to have more white than their counterparts in the Northern hemisphere. The pectoral fins can be all black, all white, black on top and white on the bottom and several gradations in between.”

Members of the family Balaenopteridae (aka the rorquals), humpbacks are considered to be average sized baleen whales usually measuring 46 to 50 feet and weighing up to 45 tons. Of course, it’s all relative when one of your family members is the blue whale; suddenly average isn’t really all that average after all.

But average sized isn’t what drives the libido of the male humpback whale. Apparently there’s no stigma associated with mating longer and heftier females; in fact that’s what males prefer. Fortunately, female humpbacks are usually three to five feet longer than males making it easy for males to find their preferred big mate. Males fight aggressively to mate with their chosen large lady and often hang around breeding areas competing for the chance to mate with more large ladies. These epic battles can last for hours and include “tail slashing, ramming or head butting,” according to the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals.

Humpback whales are “found in all oceans of the world” and migrate every year from feeding areas in productive cold high-latitude waters in both hemispheres to warm tropical waters during winter to give birth and mate. This makes male humpbacks’ marathon pre-mating mêlées even more impressive since scuffles take place after migrating thousands of miles.

Like Las Vegas, what happens at the breeding grounds stays on the breeding grounds. Once humpback whales return to their preferred feeding areas cooperation is a much better survival strategy. Many humpback whales use the unique technique of bubble feeding to trap fish. Here’s the description from the Encyclopedia of Marine Mammals: “Whales blow nets, clouds, or curtains of bubbles around or below schools of fish, then lunge with mouths open into the center of the bubble structure.”

Somehow humpback whales team up to make this work without any obvious pre-game huddle. For the “bubble net feeding play,” some members of the team blow the bubbles while a second line of humpback whales swims deep to drive the fish to the surface while a third group of whales sings to scare the fish together into the bubble net. Once the fish are huddled together the team lunges with mouths open and dinner is served. (This was all caught on a crittercam by Fred Sharpe of the Alaska Whale Foundation.)

“Humpback whales feed on a relatively wide variety of schooling prey like krill, anchovies, sardines, herring and squid and can therefore switch prey species rather than switching locations,” said Alps. With such a varied diet, this makes finding breakfast, lunch and dinner much easier for humpback whales, compared to picky eaters like the blue whale that feeds almost exclusively on krill.

And while humpback whales transition from complicated teamwork feeding strategies to bold aggressive breeding behavior, they still delight whale watchers with their fun loving nature. “Humpback whales regularly exhibit behaviors that make them fun to observe, like breaching, lob tailing, tail throwing, pec slapping, playing with kelp, spyhopping, approaching boats, interacting with other species of marine mammals, trumpet blowing and lunge feeding on the surface,” said Alps.

Yet, despite all this playful behavior, there is still one thing you never want to do when it comes to humpback whales and that’s end up in between a mom and her calf. Bryant Austin, president of Marine Mammal Conservation Through The Arts (MMCTA), accidentally did just that. He was diving and photographing humpback whales off Ha’apai in the Tonga Islands when a mom and calf surfaced around him.

“The mom swam behind me and the calf swam in front of me and the calf was literally four feet away from me and he curved and moved his fluke,” said Austin. “I saw his fluke coming for me and I put the camera down gently because I was worried that he would touch the camera with his fluke and his fluke went probably eight inches in front of my mask.”

“I didn’t move and by not moving he was able to move with that kind of precision and just as I put the camera down and just as he swam by I felt a tap on my shoulder and it was very firm. It almost felt like I had pushed up against the boat, the hull, because it felt so solid,” said Austin. “But it felt so gentle and I turned and looked and I saw it was the mom. She had reached out her 15 foot long pec fin and touched my shoulder to get my attention and she looked at me and I knew she was displeased about me being in between her and her calf. And I felt very humbled.”

Can you imagine being tapped on the shoulder, only to turn around and see a humpback whale eying you? Unbelievable. The intelligence and dexterity required to make such a move with a 15-foot long, one ton pectoral fin is astounding.

Needless to say, this was a life altering moment for Austin. When he locked eyes with the mother humpback whale it created an emotional connection between species. Now by creating and displaying life-size photographs of whales, he hopes to bring that emotional connection with whales to others, especially people living in whaling nations to inspire them to end whaling once and for all. (For more information visit

If only whaling was a thing of the past. A recent scientific study called SPLASH estimates there are 20,000 humpback whales in the north Pacific, this is a great improvement from the estimated 1,400 left after whaling. But could this all change? Right now, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) is considering a proposal to legalize whaling at their next meeting on June 21st. To find out how you can help stop this visit

And now is the perfect time to get fired-up by taking action to stop whaling and by getting your humpback whale groove on because the humpback whales that traverse Southern California waters are here. “They arrive from their wintering grounds off Central America pretty quickly at the beginning of March and can be found in dense feeding aggregations mainly in the Santa Barbara Channel until the blue whales arrive, usually near the end of June,” said Alps. “The humpbacks then slowly move up the coast to other feeding areas like Monterey Bay and the Gulf of the Faralones.”

So buy a whale watching ticket, head for the Santa Barbara Channel and get ready to be on your feet with your arms in the air shouting for joy as the motivational leapers share their enthusiasm for life.


  1. says

    Motivational leapers! I love it, and since they are not human, I do not have to worry about competition in my field of motivational speaking. Plus, their willingness to not put standard forms of attractiveness first when mating is empowering! Great post, thanks!

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