The humpback whale is a baleen whale. Adults range in length from 12–16 metres (39–52 ft) and weigh approximately 36,000 kilograms (79,000 lb). The humpback has a distinctive body shape, with unusually long pectoral fins and a knobbly head. Males produce a complex whale song, which lasts for 10 to 20 minutes and is repeated for hours at a time.
The Humpback whale is best known for the spectacular images of its tail, taken as it dives underwater after surfacing to breathe. There are at least 80,000 humpbacks worldwide and they are popular with whale watchers. They are most likely to be seen in Canterbury in the winter, during their migration from the cold waters of Antarctica to tropical seas further north.
Humpbacks are slow-moving and prefer shallow, coastal waters, making them easy to catch. Between 1900 and 1940, whaling ships decimated the population of Humpback Whales in the Southern Hemisphere, killing 95% of the whales. Humpback Whales are now fully protected by the International Whaling Commission. While the population is increasing, it is still far lower than it was before whaling.
The Southern Right Whale is also a baleen whale and about 12,000 of them are found throughout the Southern Hemisphere. These were most sought after by whalers as they swam in shallower water and were easy to hunt. Numbers diminished with extensive whaling and a ban was placed on hunting right whales in 1937, leading to the eventual reappearance in waters off New Zealand in the 1960s. They are still listed as an endangered species.
In April 2010, one of our Black Cat Cruises spotted something truly rare: a Blue Whale. The sighting was thrilling partially because these whale are so rare and also because they are so impressively big. These whales are the largest animal to have ever lived, even bigger than dinosaurs!
Like many other whale species, the Blue Whale was hunted to near-extinction during the first half of the 20th Century. They have since been protected by law, but scientists have not concluded that the world’s Blue Whale population is increasing.
Technically not a whale, the Orca is actually the world’s biggest dolphin. They are often called ‘Killer Whales’, however, due to their ferocious hunting habits. Orca will attack any whale, even large ones (they’ve even been known to go after massive Blue Whales) for food. Orca hunt in packs, earning them the nickname ‘wolves of the sea’.
Orca were not specifically hunted during the early years of the whaling industry’s boom, as they were difficult to catch and did not yield much oil. However, as other whale populations dwindled in the mid-20th Century, Orca were targeted. Today, Orca are considered ‘endangered’ and are not substantially hunted by any countries.
Sometimes we are lucky enough to see pods of Orca during our Akaroa Harbour Cruises.