Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Humpback whales are our most commonly spotted whales aboard the Cape May Whale Watcher fleet, so let’s learn a little bit more about these spectacular animals.

By Kristen Young

  Photo from Cape May Whale Watcher

Humpback whales are our most commonly spotted whales aboard the Cape May Whale Watcher fleet, so let’s learn a little bit more about these spectacular animals. 

Starting with the basics, humpbacks are classified as cetaceans, along with all other whales and dolphins. Cetaceans are then divided into two suborders, toothed whales (dolphins, porpoises, and sperm whales for example) and baleen whales (humpbacks, fin whales, and blue whales to name a few). Baleen whales are also known as mysticetes, which is possibly derived from the Greek word for “mustache.” The baleen plates in the whales’ mouths enable them to engulf huge amounts of water and prey, and then filter out the water. Humpbacks primarily feed on schooling fish and krill, depending on the hunting grounds.

Photo from Cape May Whale Watcher

Humpback whales are found all over the world. Generally speaking, there are three basic hunting regions- the North Atlantic, North Pacific, and throughout the Southern Hemisphere.  The cold, nutrient-rich waters of these regions supply the whales with enough prey to build up huge fat reserves called blubber. The whales depend on their blubber to sustain them during their long migrations to warmer latitudes where there is no prey, for their breeding and calving season. Humpbacks typically return to the same feeding ground each summer. Off the coast of North America, the major feeding grounds are in the Mid Atlantic States, Stellwagon Bank, the Gulf of Maine, the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Newfoundland. 

Humpback whale global distribution map. From NOAA Fisheries.


The humpbacks we see here in the Mid-Atlantic are largely (though not exclusively) from the Gulf of Maine stock. Furthermore, the majority of individuals spotted in Mid-Atlantic waters appear to be juveniles, and have yet to reach sexual maturity. The most current theory is that these young whales use the Mid-Atlantic waters as a supplemental feeding ground, rather than making the full migration to the West Indies since they are too young to mate. This theory explains their presence in the winter, but we certainly see whales here in the summer months too. We know that the humpbacks are feeding while they are here in the summer, as we often view them feeding on menhaden (also known as bunker), but it is unclear how long individual whales tend to stay in the Mid-Atlantic waters. It is possible that this region is a stop along their migration route, or that a subpopulation utilizes it as a primary feeding ground. It requires further scientific scrutiny to determine the exact makeup of the population being sighted in the Mid-Atlantic States for the past 30 years. We do know that the number of whales has increased over the years and the distribution is greater, now from Virginia to New York.

Photo from Cape May Whale Watcher

There is little published research on the humpbacks of the Mid-Atlantic, though that is about to change. The Navy Marine Species Monitoring program is in the final stages of a five-year study on Mid-Atlantic humpbacks. The study is mainly focused on the Virginia Beach, VA area, where there is a high volume of large shipping vessels and frequent Navy training operations. This study will provide valuable information on the population structure and behaviors of our Mid-Atlantic humpbacks. More importantly, we can learn how the whales are affected by the heavy anthropogenic influence in this region, and how to implement strategies to protect them. 

There are a number of threats that humpbacks and other marine species face that are directly related to human activity. Boat strikes, entanglement, and pollution are at the top of the list. The Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA), which prohibits the “take” (defined as harassing, hunting, capturing, or killing) of marine mammal species in U.S. waters, and the Endangered Species Act (ESA) are critical in the conservation of these species, but the threats remain. The Cape May Whale Watcher fleet strictly adheres to the NOAA Whale Watching Guidelines, and we are a Whale SENSE company committed to responsible whale watching. These guidelines ensure the safety of the whales, and that viewing vessels do not unintentionally violate the MMPA or ESA. 

NOAA Whale Watching Guidelines. https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/Protected/mmp/viewing/approaching/

Whale watching vessels are valuable lookouts for entangled or injured animals. We are out there every day looking for whales and dolphins, and we keep a watchful eye out for any signs of distress. If you see an injured, stranded, or entangled marine mammal or sea turtle, contact the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) at 1-866-755-6622, or onboard a boat, you can contact the US Coast Guard on channel 16. To report a stranding in New Jersey, you can also contact the Marine Mammal Stranding Center 24 hour hotline at (609) 266-0538. It is critical that you do not attempt to approach or disentangle an animal--leave it to the professionals!


Aschettino, J.M., et al. 2018. Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Monitoring, Virginia Beach, Virginia: 2017/18 Annual Progress Report. Final Report. Prepared for U.S. Fleet Forces Command. Submitted to Naval Facilities Engineering Command Atlantic, Norfolk, Virginia, under Contract N62470-15-8006, Task Order 17F4013, issued to HDR, Inc., Virginia Beach, Virginia. June 2018.

Barco, S.G. et al. 2002. Population identity of humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) in the waters of the US mid-Atlantic states. J. Cetacean Res. Manage. 4(2):135-141.

Marine Mammal Stranding Center. Report a Stranding. https://mmsc.org/strandings/report-a-stranding, Accessed on 6/12/2019.

NOAA Fisheries. Laws and Policies: Marine Mammal Protection Act. National Ocean Service website, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/topic/laws-policies#marine-mammal-protection-act, Accessed on 6/12/2019.

NOAA Fisheries. Humpback Whale. National Ocean Service website, https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/species/humpback-whale, Accessed on 6/12/2019.

NOAA Fisheries. Whale Watching Guidelines. National Ocean Service website, https://www.greateratlantic.fisheries.noaa.gov/Protected/mmp/viewing/approaching/, Accessed on 6/12/2019. 

ThoughtCo. Mysticeti: Characteristics and Taxonomy of Mysticeti. https://www.thoughtco.com/mysteceti-overview-2291666, Accessed on 6/13/2019.

US Navy. US Navy Marine Species Monitoring: Mid-Atlantic Humpback Whale Monitoring.https://www.navymarinespeciesmonitoring.us/reading-room/project-profiles/mid-atlantic-humpback-whale-monitoring1/, Accessed on 6/10/2019.

Whale SENSE. Responsible Whale Watching- Your Choice Matters. https://whalesense.org/, Accessed on 6/12/2019.

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