2016-01-07 / Nature

Humpback Whales Make Splash

By Jack Kelly


Two humpback whales "gulp" prey during migration to the Gulf of Maine. This pod of whales was sighted off of Cape Cod. 
(Photo by Bob Weaver) Two humpback whales "gulp" prey during migration to the Gulf of Maine. This pod of whales was sighted off of Cape Cod. (Photo by Bob Weaver) On a recent December afternoon, stunned onlookers watched a humpback whale swimming and breaching in the waters of Narragansett Bay, off the coast of North Kingstown. The whale was estimated to be approximately 50 feet in length, and may have been an adult on migration south to the species' wintering grounds. It is unknown as to what brought the leviathan up the bay, but it may have been chasing schools of menhaden, which are prominent in local waters at this time of year. The whale appeared healthy and robust, and it most likely left the bay within hours of being sighted, as no further observations have been reported.

According to URI marine biologist and researcher Dr. Robert Kenney, “Humpback whales occur in all of the world’s oceans, making some of the longest migrations known for any mammal, between high latitude feeding grounds and low latitude calving and breeding grounds. Humpbacks may be found in the regional waters of Rhode Island during all four seasons.”


Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. Jack Kelly, a native Newporter, is a wildlife photographer and nature enthusiast who enjoys sharing his experiences with others. During the winter, humpbacks migrate south from the North Atlantic to the shallow banks of the West Indies and Caribbean region, with the first whales arriving in December. The peak times for calving and breeding occur January through late March. It is during this time that mature males will broadcast a complex song lasting 10-20 minutes. It is unknown what role this plays, but biologists believe it may be part of the mating ritual.

After a gestation period of nearly a year, calves measuring 12- 15 feet in length are born in the warm tropical waters and begin nursing immediately. They will be fully weaned by one year, reaching a length of 24-27 feet, but begin to feed independently at five-six months. The average length of a mature humpback is 39-52 feet, and adults can weigh as much as 79,000 pounds!

In late March and early April, the humpbacks spread out to begin their migration north, passing close to Rhode Island waters. The feeding grounds range from New England and the British Isles, north to Davis Strait, Greenland, Iceland, Svalbard, and Norway. Calves learn the route from their mothers and continue to return to the same feeding region on into maturity. Humpbacks are known as “gulpers” and feed on large amounts of schooling prey, including fish and krill.

A number of New England coastal towns and cities offer whale watching cruises which travel close to feeding grounds and offer an up-close look at these massive marine creatures and their intricate social hierarchy.

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