Subject: Humphrey: The Humpback Whale

Michael Williamson (
Fri, 28 May 1999 15:37:53 -0400

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                   See the WhaleNet CD-ROM
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                      J. Michael Williamson
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                   Associate Professor-Science
  Wheelock College, 200 The Riverway, Boston, MA 02215
             voice: 617.734.5200, ext. 2256
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The Marine Mammal Center

Humphrey - Humpback Whale


Humphrey was the world's largest patient and possibly its most famous whale. In 1990 a call came in about a whale trapped deep in the mud of San Francisco Bay. As we feared, it was Humphrey, a wayward, endangered humpback whale (Megaptera novaeangliae) we had rescued in 1985 when he stranded for the first time. As the world watched, our rescue team and medical experts worked around the clock to save him. With the tide going out twice a day and his huge bulk (80,000 pounds, or the weight of 36 average- cars) slowly crushing him, we had to work fast. After three exhausting days, we freed him...and he was off to the open sea.

Humpbacks are large whales with long pectoral flippers and a "humped" dorsal fin. Each whale has uniquely marked tail flukes, allowing us to identify them individually, as we would a person by their fingerprints. They are best known for their haunting vocalizations, or "singing," which cover many octaves and include frequencies beyond the threshold of human hearing. These songs, apparently sung by males, last as long as 20 minutes, after which they are repeated, often with slight changes. When a whale sings, it floats suspended in the water, head down and relatively motionless. Behaviors such as dominance, aggression and mate attraction may be related to singing.

Among the most endangered whales, fewer than 10% of the historic humpback population remain.

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