About Humpback Whale Migration Routes

By April Sanders
About Humpback Whale Migration Routes

Humpback whales, once hunted almost to extinction, are slowly returning to their original numbers. Known for their beautiful whale song and acrobatic behavior, they have one of the longest migrations of any species and are found in every ocean in the world. During the summer, they migrate north to cooler polar waters to feed, and during the winter they return to the tropical waters in the south to mate. During their migrations, they stay close to shore and swim slowly, making them a favorite of whale watchers throughout the world.

The Facts

Humpback whales migrate to feed and breed. They migrate to warm equator waters in the winter and cooler polar waters in the summer. The migration pattern followed by humpback whales is as follows: Winter is spent in tropical waters, where the whales mate and calve. When summer arrives, the whales begin to move north to polar waters, where they feed. The total amount of miles traveled each year by humpback whales averages around 6,000, which makes humpback whale migration one of the longest of any species.


Humpback whales are found in every ocean in the world. They are separated into three different populations: those living in the north Atlantic Ocean, those living in the north Pacific Ocean, and those living in all of the oceans found in the Southern Hemisphere. The largest humpback whale populations are found in the northwestern Atlantic Ocean. Most populations of humpback whales have been found to follow the same migration route every year, excluding the whales found in the Arabian Sea. The humpback whales of the Arabian Sea stay there year-round.


Humpback whales have broad, round heads. They are black on top and have a patterned black-and-white underside, which is different on each whale. The flippers can be all white or all black. The humpback whale has a dorsal fin about two-thirds of the way down its back. The tail of the humpback whale can be very long--up to 18 feet. The tail is pointed at the tips.
Adult male humpback whales can reach 48 feet long, while adult females can grow a bit longer--up to 50 feet. Their weight ranges from 20 to 40 tons.

Expert Insight

Humpback whales are popular with whale watchers because of their active behavior and their beautiful whale song. They are known to breach frequently, throwing themselves completely out of the water, as well as swim on their backs, slapping their fins on the water. They are also known to slap their tails on the water, thrilling whale watchers and scientists alike. This behavior is called "tail lobbing," and scientists are not sure why humpback whales do it, although they speculate that the whales do this to communicate with each other.
Scientists have recorded humpback whales "singing" long, detailed "songs" to each other. They have found that the groups of humpback whales that inhabit each ocean sing the same song to each other, and each song is different from the groups that reside in other oceans. A typical song can last anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, at which time it is then repeated, sometimes for hours at a time. These songs also change slightly from year to year. Only the male whales sing, which leads scientists to believe that it could be related to mating behavior.

Risk Factors

The United States considers humpback whales to be an endangered species. They are slow swimmers, unafraid of boats, and they feed, mate and calve near shore. Because of this, they were an easy target for whalers. Although protected now by the International Whaling Commission, they are still only numbered at 30 percent of their original population.