Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by National Marine Fisheries Service

Baleen Whales

Baleen whales

Baleen whales don't have teeth, but have hundreds of rows of fingernail-like plates of baleen. The baleen in a whale's mouth hangs down like teeth of a comb from the roof of the whale's mouth. These plates act as filters for catching food. Most baleen whales feed by taking a large mouthful of food and water, and then use their tongues to swish the water out through their baleen plates. The food gets trapped behind the baleen. Most baleen whales eat krill, shrimp like animals or small fish. All baleen whales eat by filtering or straining tiny plants and animals from seawater. Although baleen whales eat very small things on the food chain, they are very large and are generally larger than toothed whales. The blue whale is the largest animal on earth and can be 100 feet long and weigh 150 tons. A blue whale can weigh as much as 32 elephants. Baleen whales also have two blowholes unlike toothed whales which only have one.

Baleen whales reported near Hawai'i include: Minke whale, Bryde's whale, Fin whale, Humpback whale, and Right whale.

Harry the Humpback Whale


The humpback is a baleen whale, and is the fifth largest of the great whales and the fourth most endangered whale. It is named for the way its back arches out of the water when it starts a deep dive. It's scientific name Megaptera, means large winged, and refers to it's long wing-like flippers.

A feature unique to humpbacks are wart-like round bumps (tubercles), that occur on the head. Each tubercle has a single hair which is believe to enhance sensory ability.

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by Stan Butler


Individual humpback whales can be identified by unique markings on the underside of their tails or flukes. Each humpback whale fluke is as distinctive to the individual as our fingerprints are to us.

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by Joseph Mobley

Whale's fluke

Humpbacks are found in all oceans and they follow definite migration paths from summer feeding grounds to warmer waters in the winter. There are three distinct isolated populations of humpbacks: The North Pacific, North Atlantic and Southern Hemisphere. Through the middle of the 20th century, more than 100,000 humpbacks were killed by whalers throughout the modern whaling era for their oil, meat and baleen (also known as whalebone).

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by Center for Coastal Studies

Whale breaching

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by Stan Butler

Whale breaching to the side

An acrobatic whale, humpbacks regularly breach (jump out of the water), stroke each other and slap the water with their flippers and flukes. They swim in groups or pods of up to a dozen at calving grounds and in smaller groups of three to four during migration. They often can be seen feeding together. Humpbacks use an interesting feeding technique where they blow bubbles through their blowholes which is used to confuse fish and krill. The little animals tighten their groups and the whale swims through the school for a concentrated mouthful of food. Whales work together in feeding by making a bubble net, where one whale dives and begins swimming up in a spiral while releasing air from its blowhole. The bubbles form a curtain and the small fish and krill bunch up in the middle of the bubble net. The whale then swims quickly through the center with its mouth open wide.

Humpbacks are noted for the long (up to 30 minutes) and highly complex vocalizations/songs that can be heard throughout the wintering areas. The singers are usually lone males. A song generally lasts between six and eighteen minutes and may be repeated many times. Small changes may occur in the same song as the season progresses. Humpbacks breeding off the coast of Mexico and Japan sing virtually the same songs as Hawaii's humpbacks. This year's song will start off where last year's song ended. Songs could be used to attract females or to send a message to other males. The humpback is the only great whale known to sing long and complex songs.

Harry singing


  • Marine debris.

  • Entanglement in big nets, fishing nets, ropes, fishing gear, when they are caught they are unable to free themselves and drown.

  • Collision with ships.

  • Disturbance or displacement caused by noise and other factors associated with shipping, recreational boating, high speed boats, whale watching, seismic exploration, nearshore construction, or air traffic.

  • Degradation or loss of habitat associated with coastal development and competition with fisheries.

  • Pollutants from waste disposal and nearshore development.


North Pacific Humpback

The humpbacks found in Hawai'i are the North Pacific humpbacks who feed in near shore regions around Southeast Alaska. Every fall approximately two-thirds of the North Pacific population (between 4,000 to 5,000) migrate to Hawai'i while the remaining one-third migrate to Japan and Mexico. Between 1905 and 1965, the North Pacific humpback whale population was subject to intense whaling. Their numbers were reduced from approximately 15,000 to 1,000. They are now protected by law and their populations are thought to be slowing increasing.

Humpbacks are indigenous to Hawai'i, meaning they are native (arriving by natural conditions) but are found in other regions. They are also the State of Hawai'i's official marine mammal and is an endangered species. Hawai'i is the only state in the U.S. where Humpbacks come to reproduce. Born in Hawai'i they come home to breed and nurse in winter, and then travel 3,500 miles through the Northern Pacific to Southeast Alaska to feed from May to October.

Courtesy of the Hawaiian Islands Humpback Whale National Marine Sanctuary
Photo by Dave Matilla

Mother with calf

We can help by giving them space. As more whales are being observed each year in Hawai'i, increased care must be taken to avoid disturbing them.

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