Humpback whale: Look out 2024 Eurovision and Paris Olympics! This Australian mammal can sing, jump and swim!

Name(s): Humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae)

Size: Lengthapprox. 17 metres. Adult weight 20-40 tonnes!

Diet: Krill-o-vore! (I made that up). Mainly krill and fish.

Conservation status: No longer listed as endangered in Australian waters.

Habitat/range: Two main populations found in Australian waters: the west coast and east coast populations. Found in Southern Ocean waters, areas around Antarctica during the Austral summer. Migrates into Australian (possibly New Zealand) waters during the autumn/winter/spring along both the east and west coasts to breed. Range in Australian waters extends north to winter breeding/calving areas in the Kimberley (west coast population) and Great Barrier Reef (east coast population). Calving may occur well south of these locations during their migration north.

Superpower/fun fact: Look out Paris 2024! Introducing Australia’s next candidate for the water sports team, the humpback whale. These whales are the most acrobatic whale in the ocean. Humpback whales are famous for propelling themselves out of the sea (called a breach). They also have the largest pectoral flippers or arms of any whale species. They use them to slap at the surface, navigate in shallow water and turn fast, but are also used by some humpback whales to herd fish into their mouths.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale. Credit: Dr V Pirotta.

If you’re looking for a mammal that truly has it all, then look no further than the mighty humpback whale. We’re talking over 15 metres of pure blubbery power deliberately propelling themselves out of the sea and into the air. As they rise out of the water (think slow motion here with an epic soundtrack), they twirl ever so slightly for a second before crashing back down and making a huge SPLASH! Now that’s one way to make an entry into this year’s Australian Mammal of the Year competition.

But it doesn’t end there! This mammalian candidate not only jumps, it flaps. It has the longest flippers (also known as pectoral flippers) or pecs, of any whale. Yep, it has got the biggest pecs of all, something I’m sure other mammals could only dream of saying. The humpback whale also has eyeballs the size of rockmelons, hair on their face, and an expandable throat, much like a slinky. They use this to help scoop up krill and fish out of the sea – think Finding Nemo.

Humpbacks even have an inbuilt snorkel on top of their heads, with a splash guard to minimise water entry into their two nostrils. This well positioned nasal location allows them to breath on the swim, without having to bring their face out of the water like us humans have to do. They’re even known to blow bubble-nets to catch fish and to communicate with each other. Bubble-tastic!

Voting for Australian Mammal of the Year 2023 is now open!

More information about the voting process can be found here.

So far, everything I’ve shared has been true for both the gentleman and lady whales. But if we decide to part ways here, let’s talk about the superpowers of each sex, and then amplify the power of both sexes for this year’s competition.

Let’s start with the male humpback whale. Flippers down, male humpback whales would be your ultimate boy band when it comes singing. In fact, we should cut to the chase for next year’s Australian Eurovision entrant and just submit a video of male humpback whales belting out a whale banger. The song is unique to each population and changes slightly between years. It’s also known to transmit across the sea into other humpback whale populations in the Southern Hemisphere. While many sing, there’s also growing evidence on the east coast to suggest some males may prefer to engage in rough and aggressive behaviour, with the occasional whale fight known to happen along the humpback whale highway.

Humpback whale
Humpback whale. Credit: Dr V Pirotta

But what about the ladies? Well, these are the ultimate mammalian task masters. Lady humpbacks  are able to migrate, give birth, feed their young milk, fast (the majority of their feeding is done down in Antarctica but feeding also takes place in Australian waters), avoid predators such as killer whales, keep a look out for human dangers (such as entanglement in fishing gear and ship strike), and deal with males who wish to mate with them. Phew! That’s a lot going on, on the swim.

Humpback whales truly are magnificent creatures who have made the ultimate come back post-whaling. And, thanks to their faecal (pooing) efforts, they work hard to fertilise our ocean by feeding in one area and pooing in another. This feeds tiny creatures in the sea, which helps keep our ocean healthy.

The humpback whale really is your complete package when it comes to the ultimate mammalian powerhouse. Come on Aussies, cast your vote on this whale-y good entrant for this year’s AMOTY.

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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