The humpback whale has several distinctive features which set it apart from other species of whales. Humpbacks derive their common name, humpback, from the high humping of their back when they execute a deep dive and from the pronounced hump at the leading edge of the dorsal fin of larger individuals.
The humpback whale’s most distinctive physical feature are their long pectoral fins, which average one third of the whale’s total body length, to more than 15 feet, the longest pectoral fins of any species of cetacean and the longest appendages of any living animal on land or in the sea. The exceptionally large pectoral fins are reflected in their Latin name, Megaptera novaeangliae, with Megaptera translating as “big-winged” (Mega: big; ptera: wing). These pectoral fins make humpback whales among the most maneuverable of the great whales and in fact, humpback whales are able to turn around within their own body length, much like a dolphin can. Coloration of the fins can vary from completely white to completely black, with white being the predominant color for the North Atlantic humpback whale.
The leading edge of the pectoral fins feature unique patterns of tubercles, which are knobby protuberances that help direct the flow of water over the fin, making the fin more efficient. The tubercles themselves are unique to humpback whales as well and are also found along the top of the rostrum and under the tip of the lower jaw. These tubercles contain vibrissae, a single short, stiff, whisker-like hair connected to a dense network of nerves. The exact purpose of the vibrissae is unknown but they are believed to aid in efficient swimming, feeding and social behaviors.
In addition to their distinctive physical attributes, they are famous for the enigmatic and haunting song of the humpback whale, the most sophisticated song in the animal kingdom. The song is so loud that under ideal conditions it can travel thousands of miles. Even after decades of study no one is sure what the song is communicating but it is believed to be associated with socialization, perhaps as a way to attract a mate, demonstrate fitness or establish territory.