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Humpback Whales in Puerto Vallarta

Humpback whales are the species most frequently seen during the Puerto Vallarta Whale watching season. These Humpbacks are members of the North Eastern Pacific Population. This population has been estimated to now be over 18,000 whales and their annual growth rate estimated between 6-7%. The population is still considered vulnerable to extinction and is threatened by entanglement, ship strike, marine environment degradation, sound pollution, pollution and more.

Puerto Vallarta’s Bay of Banderas has seen both growth and depression of the population of Humpback Whales migrating to the bay since this population was first studied. Most recently the number of Whales in the Bay has been growing. From 2005 to 2009 the average number of Humpback whales sighted was 550 per year. Between 2010 and 2014 that number has grown to an average of 680 Humpback Whales sighted in the bay each season!

Puerto Vallarta Humpback Whale Migration

whale migration map puerto vallarta mexicoHumpback Whales are found in all oceans of the world and are a highly migratory species, the longest migration route measuring almost 7000 kilometers! The Humpbacks we see migrate in spring to their summer feeding grounds which are spread between California and British Columbia. In the winter these same Humpbacks return to Puerto Vallarta for mating and calving.

The migration route of this population typically follows coastal features. It can take as few as 40 days for a Humpback to migrate, typically transiting at about 6 to 8 kilometers per hour. In the summer feeding grounds Humpback Whales will focus their days on feeding. They feed mostly on krill and small fish, consuming up to 1400kg in a day!

During the summer the Humpback must eat so much food to create blubber which it will use to migrate and sustain itself during the winter in Puerto Vallarta. The Whales do not feed here in the bay. That is hard on the males, but imaging the demands on a female with a 600kg baby who will grow up to 3cm a day! Don’t forget the mother and baby Humpback will have to migrate north from Puerto Vallarta before Mom can start feeding again.

Humpback Whale Mating | Calving

puerto vallarta humpback whale mapThe Humpback Whale population in the Bay of Banderas reaches its peak in late December through January. During these weeks we often see the most mating activity. The Humpback Whale engages in what is called a Heat Run. When a female becomes receptive males start to follow her, soon forming a group of aggressive males who physically compete for the preferred position of Escort/pack leader. Once the female has successfully mated she will usually leave the area, migrating north to begin feeding in anticipation of the pregnancy.

Puerto Vallarta sits on the Bay of Banderas. The bay has a unique topographical profile, the shallow protected areas of the bay are used by pregnant females for calving and for nursing. Most births occur in early January, the later weeks of the season are dominated by mother and baby pairs.

Baby Humpback whales typically weigh 500-600kg and are 3-4 meters in length. The baby Humpbacks in Puerto Vallarta are born a very light gray color and quickly darken up from exposure to the sun. The pectorals can be all white but will darken on top over the first year. The baby Humpback will feed exclusively from the mothers milk, growing up to 45kg a day!

Humpback Whale Classification

The humpback whale is renowned for being one of the most energetic of the large whales with its spectacular breaching, lobtailing and flipper-slapping. Its scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae means ‘big winged New Englander’ because of its long flippers that look like wings when it breaches and because it was first described in New England. The species’ worldwide popularity on whale watch tours has helped to ensure that they are the focus of many conservation efforts. These measures have an umbrella effect and protect not only humpbacks but also many other species found in their protected areas, including species that experience the same risks.

Appearance:

The humpback whale can be distinguished by its large size, knobbly head and 5m long flippers. Individuals found in the Atlantic Ocean have mainly white flippers, but those found in the Pacific Ocean have a darker colouration on the upper surface of their flippers. Humpbacks in the southern hemisphere are generally more lightly coloured on the flanks. The bumps found on the head are called tubercles, and each one contains a single hair follicle, which may be used in a sensory capacity, much like a cat’s whiskers. The flukes are distinctive compared with any other whale species; the black and white markings and scalloped edges are as unique as a human fingerprint, allowing experts to name thousands of individuals around the world. The wavy edged flukes are raised during dives, enabling researchers to keep track of individual whales from year to year.

Behaviour:

Male humpbacks sing the longest, most complex songs in the animal kingdom. Songs consist of a complex series of whistles, squeals and deep sonorous calls divided into ‘verses’ and sung in a specific order, which may last for as long as half an hour. Males in the same area of the breeding grounds sing the same songs, which change gradually over time. Humpback whales have unusual feeding behaviour – they sometimes herd their prey or create a kind of fishing net by exhaling air in a spiral of bubbles. Fish cluster tightly inside these ‘bubble nets’ allowing the whale to swim through with its mouth open and eat them. Humpbacks are capable of travelling at 25 km/h or more, however during migration they move more slowly, resting and socialising along the way. Humpback whales make long journeys. Each population of humpbacks has its own migration route; generally they spend the winter in warm, low latitudes or tropical waters breeding and giving birth, and the spring, summer and autumn feeding in cooler, high latitude polar waters. The humpbacks which feed in Antarctic waters and travel north to breed off Colombia and Panama make the longest confirmed migration of any mammal.

Distribution:

More than 250,000 humpbacks were killed in past whaling operations yet they are currently recovering in many places and were recently reclassified as Least Concern (IUCN 2008), although certain populations retain an IUCN Endangered status. There is also concern about the apparently discrete, small populations of humpback whales in various oceans for which status information is lacking. The main humpback populations are found in the North Atlantic, the North Pacific and the Indian Ocean and there is some mixing between different populations. Threats to humpback whale numbers worldwide include: habitat loss; chemical and noise pollution; entanglement in fishing nets and lack of food.

Other names:
  • Hunchbacked whale
  • Hump whale
  • Bunch
Maximum length:
  • Male: 17m
  • Female: 18.5m
  • Calf: 5m
Maximum weight:
  • Male: Unknown
  • Female: 40,000 kg
  • Calf: 900 kg
Diet:
  • Krill
  • Schooling fish
Estimated population:

65,800

IUCN Listing:

LC (Arabian Sea subpopulation and Oceania subpopulation listed as EN)

CITES Appendix:

I

CMS Appendix:

I


humpback whale distribution map

Known range of the Humpback Whale