Cetaceans are divided into two suborders: the Mysticeti (baleen whales) and the Odontoceti (toothed whales, dolphins and porpoises). The humpback whale (Novaengliae megaptera) belongs to the Mystocetes; humpbacks strain their small prey from the water using thick keratin plates called baleen. In the North, humpbacks are opportunistic feeders foraging on krill, herring, and other prey abundant in the nutrient rich waters off Maine, Newfoundland, Labrador, Greenland and Iceland. They consume massive amounts of food during the brief northern summer, accumulating the fat stores that will sustain them through the lean southern winter.
As autumn approaches, humpback whales from the western North Atlantic begin an approximately 1200 mile journey south, to the various calving and mating grounds located throughout the Antilles. Heavily pregnant female humpbacks will give birth on arrival (following a 10-11 month gestation), while males will start to seek out and compete for willing partners for mating. Female humpbacks do not tend to mate year after year, though they will come back into estrous shortly after giving birth; the drive to reproduce makes for a great deal of surface action as males struggle for proximity to estrous females. Males become extraordinarily vocal at this time too, and their plaintive songs fill the shallow seas.
Humpback whales are renowned “acrobats of the sea,” with most of their surface behaviors on full display year round, though they are especially frequent and energetic in the southern winter. Spinning head breaches, chin breaches, tail breaches, fin slapping, lob tailing, spy hopping and sleeping postures are commonly seen. During the mating and calving season, it is thought many of these actions are largely used as a form of solicitation and/or warning to competitors. Below water, humpbacks are just as dramatic in courtship and tender in mothering, and both displays are thrilling to witness. Combined with relentless high-energy rowdy group action an underwater chorus of whoops and whistles, humpback activity in the Antilles is frequent and exciting above and below water.