With a barrel-shaped body and pectoral fins protruding like oversized wings, the humpback whale is not designed for speed. Yet the marine mammal, which can reach lengths of 50 feet, is known for its impressively long travels between warm-water breeding grounds in the winter and cold-water feeding grounds during the summer.

“Humpbacks arguably make the longest documented migration of any mammal,” says marine mammal research biologist John Calambokidis, who has studied the whales since 1986.

While some humpback whales have been known to migrate from the Antarctic Peninsula all the way to the tropical waters off Costa Rica, the marine mammals are not exactly known for their ability to swim fast.

“The speeds that a lot of these whales that make long migrations travel at is often not that impressive,” Calambokidis says. “In other words, they can be just as slow as three to five miles an hour. But the impressive part is they are doing that 24 hours a day. That means they can be covering 100 miles in a day. They can cover these rather long distances . . . in a month or two.”

Although humpbacks were once hunted to near extinction, since achieving federal endangered species status their population has rebounded. They are found in oceans all over the world. The Northern Hemisphere populations reside in the North Atlantic Ocean and the North Pacific Ocean. The southern group spends its time feeding off the coast of Antarctica. During the winter, both groups head to warmer waters for breeding and raising their young.

According to Calambokidis, there is some scientific debate about why humpback whales migrate so far. It might be because the giant creatures, and their vulnerable newborn calves, need warmer waters to reduce energy loss during the winter.

There’s also the possibility that humpback whales migrate as a strategy to escape predation by killer whales. Calambokidis says that humpback whales are able to defend themselves against killer whale attacks easier if they are in shallow, warm waters rather than deeper cold-water ocean regions.

During their three-week to two-month migrations, humpback whales seldom eat. They live off body fat accumulated before embarking on their journey. Calambokidis says that it’s hard to tell if humpbacks fatten up as a way of preparing for their travels or because they somehow know that prey will be less abundant in the near future. Humpback whales mostly eat tiny shrimp called krill, which are found in the icy waters of the Arctic and Antarctic.

“You could say they are fattening up for the long migration,” he says. “If they do the long migration because of prey that aren’t as abundant in the winter, it’s kind of a chicken and egg thing. It’s preparing to migrate by feeding heavily, but the reverse is also true: the long migration is driven by the fact that [the whale] can only feed heavily during part of the season.”

How the humpback whales know where to travel during their migrations still has scientists stumped. “I am not sure anyone has a clear answer to this other than speculation,” Calambokidis says.

Incredible Journey
In order to fully breach the surface, this 30-ton animal must swim upwards at about 29 kilometers per hour.

Spot the Humpback
Humpback whales are known for more than just their wandering ways. The marine mammals songsa series of moans, howls and crieshave long fascinated scientists, while humpbacks have also been called one of the most acrobatic whale species due to their frequent displays of breaching and flipper slapping. In addition, the animal is easily identifiable by its pronounced ventral pleats, or grooves that run along its belly like ridges on a potato chip.

abundant
Adjective

in large amounts.

accumulate
Verb

to gather or collect.

acrobatic
Adjective

having good balance, flexibility, and the ability to perform athletic jumps and other activities.

Antarctic
Noun

region at Earth's extreme south, encompassed by the Antarctic Circle.

Noun

region at Earth's extreme north, encompassed by the Arctic Circle.

arguably
Adverb

in a questionable or easily challenged manner.

biologist
Noun

scientist who studies living organisms.

breach
Verb

behavior exhibited by whales, when they jump above the surface of the water.

breeding ground
Noun

place where animals mate, give birth, and sometimes raise young.

Noun

edge of land along the sea or other large body of water.

couple
Noun

two of something, or a pair.

debate
Verb

to argue or disagree in a formal setting.

document
Verb

to keep track of.

embark
Verb

to leave or set off on a journey.

endanger
Verb

to put at risk.

fascinate
Verb

to cause an interest in.

fat
Noun

material found in organisms that is colorless and odorless and may be solid or liquid at room temperature.

feeding ground
Noun

region where organisms go to eat.

flipper slap
Noun

behavior exhibited when a whale raises a pectoral fin above the surface of the water and then slams it down with great force.

identifiable
Adjective

able to be recognized.

killer whale
Noun

carnivorous whale, actually the world's largest species of dolphin. Also called an orca.

krill
Noun

small marine crustacean, similar to shrimp.

mammal
Noun

animal with hair that gives birth to live offspring. Female mammals produce milk to feed their offspring.

Noun

movement of a group of people or animals from one place to another.

pectoral fin
Noun

limblike structures located on the side of the body of some fish.

population
Noun

total number of people or organisms in a particular area.

possibility
Noun

chance or likelihood.

predation
Noun

behavior of one animal feeding on another.

prey
Noun

animal that is hunted and eaten by other animals.

protrude
Verb

to stick out or swell.

reduce
Verb

to lower or lessen.

reside
Verb

to live in a place.

seldom
Adverb

not very often.

shrimp
Noun

animal that lives near the bottom of oceans and lakes.

strategy
Noun

plan or method of achieving a goal.

stump
Verb

to confuse.

ventral pleat
Noun

long grooves in the skin under a whale's mouth that expand when the whale takes in water.

whale
Noun

largest marine mammal species.