Species Profile and Threats Database

For information to assist proponents in referral, environmental assessments and compliance issues, refer to the Policy Statements and Guidelines (where available), the Conservation Advice (where available) or the Listing Advice (where available).
In addition, proponents and land managers should refer to the Recovery Plan (where available) or the Conservation Advice (where available) for recovery, mitigation and conservation information.

EPBC Act Listing Status Listed as Vulnerable
Listed migratory - Bonn
Recovery Plan Decision Recovery Plan required, this species had a recovery plan in force at the time the legislation provided for the Minister to decide whether or not to have a recovery plan (19/2/2007).
Adopted/Made Recovery Plans Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Policy Statements and Guidelines Marine bioregional plan for the Temperate East Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012aa) [Admin Guideline].
Marine bioregional plan for the North-west Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012y) [Admin Guideline].
Marine bioregional plan for the South-west Marine Region (Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (DSEWPaC), 2012z) [Admin Guideline].
Industry Guidelines on the Interaction between offshore seismic exploration and whales (Department of the Environment and Water Resources (DEW), 2007h) [Admin Guideline].
Information Sheets The Humpback Whales of Eastern Australia (Department of Environment and Water Resources (DEWR), 2007) [Information Sheet].
Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of the Environment and Heritage, 2005e) [Information Sheet].
Information Sheet - Harmful marine Debris (Environment Australia, 2003ac) [Information Sheet].
Federal Register of
    Legislative Instruments
Declaration under s178, s181, and s183 of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 - List of threatened species, List of threatened ecological communities and List of threatening processes (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000) [Legislative Instrument].
List of Migratory Species (13/07/2000) (Commonwealth of Australia, 2000b) [Legislative Instrument].
State Government
    Documents and Websites
NSW:Death or injury to marine species following capture in shark control programs on ocean beaches - factsheet (NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW), 2003b) [Information Sheet].
NSW:Humpback Whale - profile (NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW), 2005hl) [Internet].
NSW:Humpback Whale Information Page (NSW Department of Environment, Climate Change and Water (NSW DECCW), 2008f) [Information Sheet].
NT:Threatened Species of the Northern Territory-Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae (Woinarski, J., R. Chatto & S. Ward, 2012) [Information Sheet].
TAS:Megaptera novaeangliae (Humpback Whale): Species Management Profile for Tasmania's Threatened Species Link (Threatened Species Section (TSS), 2014tn) [State Action Plan].
VIC:Flora and Fauna Guarantee Action Statement 247-Humpback Whale Megaptera novaeangliae (Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment (Vic. DSE), 2009a) [State Action Plan].
State Listing Status
NSW: Listed as Vulnerable (Threatened Species Conservation Act 1995 (New South Wales): December 2013 list)
QLD: Listed as Vulnerable (Nature Conservation Act 1992 (Queensland): May 2014 list)
SA: Listed as Vulnerable (National Parks and Wildlife Act 1972 (South Australia): June 2011 list)
TAS: Listed as Endangered (Threatened Species Protection Act 1995 (Tasmania): September 2012 list)
VIC: Listed as Threatened (Flora and Fauna Guarantee Act 1988 (Victoria): February 2014 list)
WA: Listed as Vulnerable (Wildlife Conservation Act 1950 (Western Australia): September 2013 list)
Non-statutory Listing Status
IUCN: Listed as Endangered (Global Status: IUCN Red List of Threatened Species: 2013.1 list)
VIC: Listed as Vulnerable (Advisory List of Threatened Vertebrate Fauna in Victoria: 2013 list)
Scientific name Megaptera novaeangliae [38]
Family Balaenopteridae:Cetacea:Mammalia:Chordata:Animalia
Species author (Borowski, 1781)
Infraspecies author  
Distribution map Species Distribution Map

This is an indicative distribution map of the present distribution of the species based on best available knowledge. See map caveat for more information.

Illustrations Google Images

The Humpback Whale is a moderately large baleen whale. The maximum recorded length is 17.4 m, and females are generally 1.0–1.5 m longer than males (Chittleborough 1965). Southern Hemisphere Humpback Whales generally have a greater degree of white colouration on their ventral surface compared to the darker Northern Hemisphere Humpback Whales but there is no genetic evidence to support the need for subspecies status (Baker et al. 1990). Humpback Whales have distinctive markings on the ventral side and trailing edge of their flukes as well as on their dorsal fins and flanks that are used for individual identification (Katona et al. 1979). Their dorsal fin is distinctive from other balaenopterid whales as they have a hump on the leading edge of their dorsal fin.

Humpback Whales produce a variety of sounds throughout their habitat range. These sounds can be used for foraging, when in distress and in non-mating, social circumstances (Clapham 2000). The most studied vocalisations are songs produced by solitary males. The song frequency ranges from less than 20 Hz to 8 kHz (Payne & McVay 1971; Tyack 1981). A whale can sing for a period of minutes to hours and the song can vary over a range of frequencies with more powerful parts of the song audible over several kilometres underwater (Cato 1991). The exact function of male Humpback Whale song has yet to be determined but it is believed to be an integral part of male Humpback Whales' behaviour as a form of sexual display (Tyack 1981).

The distribution, indicative migratory pathways and recognised aggregation areas for Humpback Whales utilising Australian waters are illustrated in Figure 1 (DEH 2005b). The times of peak migration through Australian waters are indicated. Cow and calf migration can occur from up to four weeks after the southern peak migration period. It should be noted that the boundaries on the map are indicative only and there is inherent variability in the movements of the species.

Information below on calving, migration and resting is reproduced from the Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005–2010 (DEH 2005b):


Currently known calving areas (based on observations of mothers with very young calves) for Australian Humpback Whales include:

  • Western Australia - Southern Kimberley between Broome and the northern end of Camden Sound
  • Queensland - Great Barrier Reef complex between approximately 14° S and 27° S
  • less frequently, along the migratory pathways.

The North-west Marine Region is particularly important for the Western Australian population of Humpback Whales whose known breeding and calving grounds are between Broome and the Northern end of Camden Sound. There is a migration path between Point Cloates and North West Cape and high concentrations of humpbacks are observed in Camden Sound and Pender bay between June and September each year (DEWHA 2008b). Humpback Whales migrate north from their Antarctic feeding grounds around May each year, reaching the waters of the North-west Marine Region in early June. Immature individuals and lactating females arrive first, followed by non-pregnant females arriving last. Breeding and calving takes place between mid-August and early September when the southern migration starts. Females with calves are the last to leave the breeding grounds stopping to rest in Exmouth Gulf and Shark Bay. The western Australian population of Humpback Whales are genetically distinct from the eastern Australian population, with very little exchange between the two, even in their Antarctic feeding grounds (DEWHA 2008b).


Along parts of the migratory route there are narrow corridors and bottlenecks resulting from physical and other barriers where the majority of the population passes close to shore (within 30 km of the coastline). These habitat areas are important during the time of migration and include:

  • Western Australia - Geraldton/Abrolhos Islands, and Point Cloats to North West Cape
  • Queensland - east of Stradbroke Island, and east of Moreton Island
  • NSW - Cape Byron.


Resting areas are used by cow-calf pairs and attendant males during the southern migration. These whales appear to use sheltered bays to opportunistically rest during migration to the feeding grounds and include:

  • Western Australia - Exmouth Gulf, Shark Bay, Geographe Bay, and waters adjacent to the Houtman Abrolhos Islands (DEWHA 2008a).
  • Queensland - the Whitsundays, Hervey Bay, Moreton Bay, the Swain Reefs complex, Bell Cay, and the Palm Island Group
  • NSW - Twofold Bay.

The current extent of occurrence for the Humpback Whale in Australian waters is: most of the Southern Ocean during summer; a large area of State and Commonwealth waters during migration; and unknown areas of the Great Barrier Reef complex, Queensland, and the Kimberley region, Western Australia, during breeding in winter and spring (Jenner et al. 2001). It is difficult to estimate how the population recovery of the Humpback Whale will affect the Australian distribution of this species.

The distribution of Humpback Whale populations throughout the world is severely fragmented. Due to temporal influences on their migration patterns, the Northern and Southern Hemisphere populations never meet. Within hemispheres sharing oceanic waters, Humpback Whales' strong matrilineal site fidelity means there is limited genetic exchange between populations (Baker et al. 1990; Palsboll et al. 1995). Baker and colleagues (1998) advocate that Australia's west and east coast Humpback Whale populations are currently considered genetically distinct with long-term gene flow estimated at only a few females per generation, however, analysis of song has shown links between the west and east coast populations (Noad et al. 2000) and has confirmed links between east Australia, New Zealand, New Caledonia and the Pacific Islands populations (Gill & Burton 1995; Helweg et al. 1998).

During winter months, Humpback Whales migrate from their polar summer feeding grounds to their sub-tropical winter breeding grounds (Clapham 2000; Clapham & Mead 1999; Dawbin 1966), an annual migration of up to 10 000 km (DEWR 2007). This migration takes several months to complete and individuals travel alone or in temporary aggregations of generally non-related individuals (cow-calf pairs being the exception) (Valsecchi et al. 2002). These well-defined migratory movements are learned by calves as they migrate with their mothers for the first 12–18 months of their lives. This results in strong matrilineal site fidelity by many whales, although there is evidence of interchange by some individuals (Baker et al. 1990; Clapham 2000).

Humpback Whales are found in a number of areas outside Australia including (Rice 1998):

  1. North Atlantic Ocean: summer range from western Greenland to the north-east United States and Ireland and migrating in winter to the West Indies and Cape Verde.
  2. North Indian Ocean: ranging from the Gulf of Aden, the Persian Gulf, the Gulf of Oman and the Arabian Sea to India, Sri Lanka and the Bay of Bengal where they are seen year-round.
  3. North Pacific Ocean: summer range from the southern Chukchi Sea to Honshu, the Sub-Arctic boundary and southern California and migrating in winter to the Bonin Islands (Southern China), Taiwan, the Philippines, Ogasawara, the Mariana Islands, the Marshall Islands, the Hawaiian islands and along the coast of Mexico from Baja California to Jalisco.
  4. Southern Hemisphere: ranging the entire Antarctic Zone divided into several migratory populations from the Antarctic summer feeding grounds to wintering grounds:

    • Mozambique to Madagascar
    • western and central South Pacific including New Caledonia, Vanuatu, Tonga, Niue, Cook Islands, American Samoa, French Polynesia (the interchange between these populations is poorly understood although ongoing research by the South Pacific Whale Research Consortium may resolve some of these issues (Garrigue et al. 2002)). A recent study suggests that at least the New Caledonian wintering ground represents an autonomous population unit that is relatively closed to demographic and reproductive interchange (Garrigue et al. 2004)
    • Ecuador, from Golfo de Panama to Golfo de Guayaquil and the Galapagos Islands
    • Brazil, from Costinha in Paraíba to Cabo Frio including the Abrolhos Archipelago and islands of Fernando de Noronha and Trinidad
    • Gabon from the Gulf of Guinea from eastern Nigeria to Lobito, Angola, Sao Tome, Fernando Po and Saint Helena.

Population estimates exist for only a few populations of Humpback Whales outside Australian waters but there is estimated to be 5900–16 800 in the Southern Hemisphere (1988 estimate (IWC website 2007)); 11 570 in the western North Atlantic (1992–1993 estimate (IWC Website 2007)) with a population growth of 6.5% for the Gulf of Maine (Barlow & Clapham 1997); 5540–8000 in the North Pacific Basin (Calambokidis et al. 1997); an increase from 569–837 from 1991–1997 along the west coast USA/Mexico migratory path (Calambokidis & Barlow 2004); approximately 1813 along coastal Mexico and approximately 914 at the Revillagigedo Islands (Urban et al. 1999).

The west coast population of the Humpback Whale in Australia involves whales feeding in Antarctic waters and migrating to breeding grounds along the west coast of Australia. The east coast population comprises whales feeding in Antarctic waters further east and a portion of this population migrates to breeding grounds along the east coast of Australia. The remainder are thought to disperse into the South Pacific (Paterson et al. 2001).

Surveys of Humpback Whale in Australian waters have been conducted by Bannister and Hedley (2001), Bryden and colleagues (1990), Chaloupka and Osmond (1999), Dawbin (1997), Jenner and colleagues (2001), Jenner and Jenner (1994), Noad and Cato (2001), Paterson and Paterson (1989) and Paterson and colleagues (2001, 2004). Numerous sighting surveys have been conducted in Australian Antarctic waters under the Southern Ocean Cetacean Ecosystem Program (SOCEP) (Thiele et al. 2000). In October 2007, Whale and Dolphin Sighting Reports conducted by the National Cetacean Sightings Programme (2007) observed 53 Humpback Whales along the west coast (30°–20° S and ~114° E) of Western Australia.

The population estimate for the Humpback Whale on the east coast of Australia was around 8000 in 2006 (DEWR 2007). Estimates for the Australian west coast Humpback Whale population were 1319–14 108 whales in 1991–1992 using photo-identification for the abundance estimate (Jenner & Jenner 1994), and 8207–13 640 in 1999 using aerial surveys (Bannister & Hedley 2001). Prior estimates for the Australian east coast population ranged from 3160–4040 in 1999 using land-based surveys (Paterson et al. 2001) to 6543 (Noad et al. 2005).

There have been wide point estimate variations in growth rates of these two populations but it is generally recognised that the Australian west coast and east coast populations appear to be growing consistently at approximately 10% per annum (Bannister & Hedley 2001; Bryden et al. 1990; Chaloupka & Osmond 1999; Paterson et al. 2001, 2004). There is no evidence that the Australian populations of Humpback Whales have declined in recent years. This estimate is consistent with the most recent findings from a 2004 survey off Stradbroke Island, Queensland (M. Noad 2006, pers. comm.). Even though both populations appear to be recovering at an encouraging level, the west coast population is still at less than 60% and the east coast population at less than 40% of their estimated abundance before the whaling era (Bannister & Hedley 2001).

There do not appear to be natural fluctuations in population numbers. There are extreme fluctuations in the extent of occurrence and areas of occupancy depending on whether they are on their summer Antarctic feeding grounds, tropical winter breeding grounds or on their migration path between the two (D. Burns 2006, pers. comm.).

Humpback Whales become sexually mature at four to eight years of age (average five years) and the average adult length is 13.0 m for males and 13.9 m for females although maximum recorded lengths are 16.2 m for a female and 17.4 m for a male (Chittleborough 1965; Clapham 1992). Gestation length is 11–12 months and the calving interval averages 2.4 years, although it ranges between one to more than five years (Barlow & Clapham 1997). Life expectancy is estimated to be more than 48 years, but this is considered an underestimate given the longevity of other baleen whales (Clapham 2000).

All populations of Humpback Whales are important for the species' survival and recovery.

Known feeding areas in Australian waters lie within the Australian Whale Sanctuary. Antarctic feeding waters lie within the Southern Ocean Whale Sanctuary.

Sightings of Humpback Whales in Australian coastal waters overlap with a number of State Marine Parks and the World Heritage listed Great Barrier Reef, all of which are principally managed for the conservation of their benthic habitat.

The Great Barrier Reef complex and the Kimberley Region are important breeding and calving grounds for Humpback Whales. Hervey Bay and the Whitsundays appear to be important resting grounds for mothers and calves of the east coast population on their southward migration. On the west coast, Humpback Whales use Exmouth Gulf and Shark Bay as resting areas. The narrow coastal corridors formed along their migration path are important as whales are concentrated in these areas. Along the west coast, important areas are the Abrolhos Islands, Geraldton and Carnarvon to Point Cloates (Jenner et al. 2001). An aerial survey off Carnarvon, Western Australia, in 1999, found the majority of whales travelling within 20 to 30 km of the coastal islands bordering Shark Bay (Bannister & Hedley 2001).

On the east coast, aerial surveys conducted off North Stradbroke Island suggested that most whales remained within 10 km of the coastline in that area during the northward migration (Bryden 1985). The eastern most points of Australia, such as Cape Byron and southern Queensland, result in narrow corridors where whales are concentrated (D. Burns 2006, pers. comm; Dawbin 1966).

Australian Antarctic Territory waters are important feeding grounds for both Australian populations of Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whales are widely distributed along the ice-edge in their Antarctic feeding grounds, typically south of about 55° S (Chittleborough 1965). This distribution seems to be related to prey distribution rather than topographic features (Murase et al. 2002). Humpback Whales migrate to warm waters in winter and give birth to their calves near islands and atolls. The importance of birthing near islands and atolls is not clear; but given the migratory effort undertaken (one of the longest journeys undertaken), such areas must be of benefit (D. Burns 2006, pers. comm.).

The exact extent of the Humpback Whale feeding grounds is unknown; the width of the migratory corridor (which differs for the northward and southward migrations) is unknown and the exact area of the breeding grounds is unknown, especially for the east coast migratory population (D. Burns 2006, pers. comm.).

Sexual maturity is reached at four to eight years (average five years). Life expectancy is recorded as at least 48 years but is likely to be significantly longer as shown in other balaenopterids. Rates of natural mortality are unknown but Humpback Whale calves are particularly vulnerable to predation by killer whales and may die from natural parasitic or disease events (Corkeron & Connor 1999; Naessig & Lanyon 2004).

For Humpback Whales, breeding peaks in the winter and the gestation period is 11 to 12 months. Lactation extends over 10 to 12 months although calves have been seen independently feeding at six months of age (Clapham 2000). The mean calving interval is 2.4 years (Barlow & Clapham 1997) although it ranges from one year to more than five years. This low rate of reproduction has implications for the ability of a population to recovery (Clapham 2000; Vang 2002).

There is a temporal separation of individuals on their migration route related to sex and reproductive status (Brown et al. 1995; Chittleborough 1965; Dawbin 1966, 1997; Vang 2002). On the northern migration, lactating females accompanied by weaning yearlings are first to migrate, followed by immature males and females, followed by mature males together with resting females and then pregnant females. On the southern migration, mixed females (including those in early pregnancy) and immature males and females are first to migrate, followed by mature males and then females with calves in early lactation (D. Paton 2006, pers. comm.).

There are no reports of hybridisation of Humpback Whales.

Humpback Whale feeding primarily occurs in summer in Antarctic waters south of about 55° S with krill (in particular Euphausia superba) forming the major part of their diet (Chittleborough 1965). In general, most feeding occurs between 70° E and 130° E for the west coast population, and 130° E and 170° W for the east coast population (Bannister & Hedley 2001; Paterson et al. 2001). Feeding appears to be related to euphausiid density rather than particular bathymetric features (Murase et al. 2002). Euphausiid density is higher where topographic and physical features interact to entrap or entrain swarms. Where these features occur near an ice edge environment, euphausiid densities are likely to be even higher (Thiele et al. 2004). Feeding appears to be connected to the position of the Southern Boundary of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current relative to other major physical and biological events (i.e. seasonal ice extent) (Thiele et al. 2000). Research has shown the peak feeding season is mid-January to February with dispersal as the season progresses (Kasamatsu et al. 1996). However, there is a great deal of temporal variability in the maximum seasonal abundance of Humpback Whales on feeding grounds which is directly related to circumpolar, regional and local scale processes (Sirović et al. 2004, Thiele et al. 2004).

Some feeding has been observed in Australia's coastal waters but this is thought to primarily be opportunistic and forms only a small portion of their nutritional requirements (Thiele et al. 2004). Feeding has been observed close to shore off Eden, NSW, from late September until late November. Feeding behaviour has also been reported off Fraser Island, Queensland (Vang 2002). Chittleborough (1965) reported evidence of recent feeding in gut samples from a small portion of the harvested whales off Point Cloates, Western Australia (22.5° S). Feeding may also occur in northern waters of the Great Barrier Reef, as well as Victoria, as sightings of Humpback Whales have been reported in these areas in summer months (Chaloupka & Osmond 1999; Warnecke 1995).

Faecal matter (indicating whales had been feeding) has been collected off Cape Byron, NSW and at Hervey Bay in Queensland (D. Paton 2006, pers. comm.). Humpback Whales have been observed feeding on zooplankton, including neritic euphausiids (Nyctiphanes australis) off Tasmania's east coast (December 1995), in the Derwent River near Hobart (October 1996) and near Cape Bougainville (November 1996) (Gill et al. 1998). Feeding behaviour has been observed off Augusta, Western Australia during the northward migration. Recent developments in genetic identification of prey species from whale faeces will enable more detailed, non-lethal studies of whale diet in Australia's waters (Jarman et al. 2002).

Humpback Whales often forage alone and use a variety of feeding methods such as 'lunge feeding' and 'bubble feeding'. These both require taking in large volumes of water at the surface and filter feeding the small euphausiid prey through the whales' baleen plates. They forage alone and co-operatively but little is known about Humpback Whale feeding behaviour in Antarctic waters.

Humpback Whales annually migrate between their summer feeding grounds in Antarctica to their tropical breeding grounds in winter. In Australia, there are two migratory populations of Humpback Whales, a west coast population and an east coast population known as Group D and Group E respectively in international fora. During migration, individuals travel alone or in temporary aggregations of generally non-related individuals (cow-calf pairs being the exception) (Valsececchi et al. 2002). The whales aggregate on the breeding grounds where males compete for access to females in oestrous and females give birth.

The exact timing of the migration period can vary from year-to-year depending on water temperature, sea ice, predation risk, prey abundance and the location of the feeding ground (DEWR 2007). In general, Humpback Whales are sighted in southern Australian waters in May and migrate slowly up the east and west coasts. By October the majority of whales have started their southward migration and sightings are rare after November. In South Australia, there have been sightings from every month, with the possibility that these are whales from both the east and west coast populations (C. Kemper 2006, pers. comm.). In Victoria, there are reports of Humpback Whales in all months except February (Warneke 1995). Humpback Whales have been sighted in the northern waters of the Great Barrier Reef between October and January (Simmons & Marsh 1986; Chaloupka & Osmond 1999).

They range from their feeding grounds at about 55° S with most feeding occurring between 70° E and 130° E for the west coast population, and 130° E and 170° W for the east coast population (Bannister & Hedley 2001; Paterson et al. 2001). From these southern latitudes, they migrate to their breeding grounds at about 17–27° S around the Great Barrier Reef complex (although some of the east coast whales range further to New Caledonia (Garrigue et al. 2000)), and the west coast Humpback Whales are often sighted as far north as Ashmore Reef (12° S) on the west coast.

Humpback Whales are not territorial.

The dorsal fin of Humpback Whales is distinctive from other balaenopterid whales as they are the only species that has a 'hump' on the leading edge of their dorsal fin. Humpback Whales have distinctive markings on the ventral side and trailing edge of their flukes as well as on their dorsal fins and flanks that are used for individual identification. They frequently raise their flukes above the surface of the water allowing photographs to be taken of the underside for identification purposes. Humpback Whales frequently engage in aerial displays including breaches, pectoral slaps, spy-hopping and tail-slapping the surface of the water (DEWR 2007).

Whale surveys need to be designed to take into account several important factors including season, weather (e.g. sea state and light conditions), area to be covered (large or small), aim of surveys (abundance estimation or ecological studies), the activities of the whales themselves (e.g. travelling, resting, surface or deep feeding), funding availability and the type of survey platform used. Therefore, surveys need to be designed with specific questions in mind on a case-by-case basis (D. Thiele 2004, pers. comm.).

Humpback Whales were heavily exploited through commercial whaling in all areas where they are known to have been in abundance and exact figures of how many whales were killed are still uncertain (Baker & Clapham 2004; Yablokov 1994). It is thought that 95% of the population was eliminated (Johnson & Wolman 1985). Commercial whaling for Humpback Whales officially ceased in 1966, although, there are a few small aboriginal hunts that currently pose no threat to the species' recovery. In 1986, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) declared an international moratorium on commercial whaling in order to protect large whales. However, member states have the right to issue permits for the killing of whales for scientific purposes. Japan has issued permits for the take of Humpback Whales but has not hunted as yet (IWC website 2008). The illegal sale of products originating from protected whale species has been well documented in Japan and South Korea (Baker et al. 1996; Baker et al. 2000; Chan et al. 1995). Among products collected in Japanese markets from 1993–2002, six samples of Humpback Whale meat had Japanese origin and one sample had South Korean origin (Lavery et al. 2002).

The implementation of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994 ensured that catch limits for commercial whaling by member countries of the IWC were to remain at zero for a period of ten years. The Southern Ocean Sanctuary encompasses all waters surrounding Antarctica and protects three quarters of the world's whales in their feeding grounds. Japan registered an initial reservation to the decision and later withdrew it but is continuing to whale there under Scientific Permit. There is a distant but distinct possibility that commercial whaling could resume in the Southern Ocean under IWC protocol (Bannister et al. 1996).

This information is reproduced from the Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005–2010 (DEH 2005b).

Identified Threats

The resumption of commercial whaling and/or the expansion of scientific whaling

The impacts of commercial hunting on Humpback Whale populations have been well documented. While currently banned under the IWC moratorium on commercial whaling, the potential for commercial whaling to recommence exists and pressure may well increase as populations recover.

An additional area of concern is the potential expansion of de facto commercial whaling under the guise of scientific whaling. The IWC Convention allows member states to issue special permits to kill whales for research purposes and then process these animals for sale. Since 1986, Japan and Iceland have issued special permits for several whale species as part of their scientific whaling research programs. The recent expansion of these programs in the Northern Hemisphere involve the killing of various great whales including Minke, Bryde's, Fin, Sperm and Sei whales. In addition, since the implementation of the Southern Ocean Sanctuary in 1994, Japan has continued to harvest Minke whales there under special permits. It is quite possible that Humpback Whales will be included in future research programs. (Under the Japanese Whale Research Programme under Special Permit in the Antarctic II (JARPA II), Japan has the ability to take 50 Humpback whales per year in the Antarctic commencing in 2007–2008).

Although there has been a global moratorium on commercial whaling effective since 1986, populations of all species are still below pre-whaling estimates - most considerably so. Two populations of targeted species have been recovering - the Southern Right Whale and the west coast population of the Humpback Whale are increasing at rates close to their respective biological capacity. While not a current threat to most species, whaling is still listed as the most threatening anthropogenic activity in all five threatened cetacean recovery plans under the EPBC Act. Under the EPBC Act, all cetaceans are protected within the Australian Whale Sanctuary, and measures are in place to mitigate potential negative impacts of human actions on whale and dolphin species. However, interactions between cetaceans and humans do occur in Australian waters. Most of these interactions are accidental as they do not result from activities deliberately aiming to interact with cetaceans. Collecting information on feeding habits, migration routes and preferred habitats is important in preventing significant incidental interactions with cetaceans (DEWHA 2008a).

Habitat degradation

Humpback Whales use habitat seasonally and can typically be found along various parts of the Australian coastline for up to nine months of the year (April to December). Anthropogenic activities have the potential to degrade habitat important to the species. These activities may degrade habitat by operating at times that coincide with the presence of whales, or they may occur when whales are absent, but degrade habitat suitability on a permanent or semi-permanent basis. These activities may include:

  • acoustic pollution (e.g. commercial and recreational vessel noise, and seismic survey activity)
  • entanglement (e.g. in marine debris, fishing and aquaculture equipment)
  • physical injury and death from ship strike
  • built structures that impact upon habitat availability and/or use (e.g. marinas, wharves, aquaculture installations, mining or drilling infrastructure)
  • changing water quality and pollution (e.g. runoff from land based agriculture, oil spills, outputs from aquaculture)
  • changes to water flow regimes causing extensive sedimentation or erosion or altered currents in near shore habitat (e.g. canals and dredging).

The species' dependence on inshore areas means that individual animals may be subject to the impacts from any or all of these activities. Habitat degradation may result in reduced occupancy and/or exclusion of individual whales from suitable habitat, compromised reproductive success and mortality. It is possible that impacts on a sufficient number of individual whales could lead to broader impacts at the population level, e.g. by reducing recruitment to such an extent that species recovery is impeded. This would be more likely to arise where activities that cause habitat degradation occurred intensively and/or cumulatively, or over a large portion of their range.

In 2005, both migratory populations of Australian Humpback Whales were increasing at the optimum biological rate suggesting that to date habitat degradation has not had a negative impact on population or species recovery. Nevertheless, ongoing monitoring and management are required to ensure that habitat degradation does not become a significant issue.


Young calves face predation threats in the first 11–12 months, before becoming independent. The chief predators are Killer Whales (Orcinus orca) and sharks (DEWR 2007).

Potential threats

Climate and oceanographic change

Most of the world's leading scientists agree that global warming caused by human activity is occurring. The exact implications of these changes are unknown, but it is predicted that there will be reduced productivity of Southern Ocean ecosystems and unpredictable weather events caused by increasing ocean water temperatures, changing ocean currents, rising sea levels and reductions in sea ice.

The potential impacts of climate and oceanographic change on Humpback Whales are twofold:

  • Habitat availability

    Humpback Whale migration, feeding, resting, and calving site selection may be influenced by factors such as ocean currents and water temperature. Any changes in these factors could affect Humpback Whale population recovery by rendering currently used habitat areas unsuitable.

  • Food availability

    Changes to climate and oceanographic processes may also lead to decreased productivity and different patterns of prey distribution and availability. Such changes would certainly affect dependant predators such as Humpback Whales.

Prey depletion due to over harvesting

Humpback Whales rely on krill as the main food source and require adequate supplies to accumulate energy reserves essential for migration and breeding. Depletion of krill through over harvesting may be a potential future threat for Australian populations of Humpback Whales. However, it should be noted that:

  • the krill fishery is managed through the Convention on the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources (CCAMLR) on an ecosystem basis which takes into account the needs of predators such as whales; and
  • while the fishery is likely to grow, fishing currently occurs well within the current precautionary limits.

Other factors

When migrating through the East Marine Region, Humpback Whales may be affected by human interactions such as harassment, accidental collision, habitat loss or degradation, hunting, swimming programs, strandings and food stock reduction (DEW 2007a). Swimming, snorkelling or diving with whales has the potential to place both people and animals at risk (CRC Reef Research Center 2002 cited in DEW 2007a). Recreational and tourism activities have the potential to affect the behaviour of cetaceans. Because of their presence in shallower coastal waters in the South-west Marine Region, species such as Southern Right and Humpback Whales and some species of dolphin may be susceptible to disturbance from tourism operations. Potential disturbance centres around behavioural changes due to the proximity of vessels and/or aircraft (DEWHA 2008a).

High levels of boating traffic have been found to cause lactating female humpback whales and calves to leave traditional inshore resting areas in favour of offshore waters (DEW 2007a).

Shipping is a major activity in the South-west Marine Region's waters, transporting goods through the Region and to and from the ports in the Region. Ship strikes are likely to affect the larger whale species such as Blue, Humpback and the Southern Right Whales, and result in an unknown number of injuries and deaths within the Region. Overseas studies indicate that ship strikes may be a major cause of mortality for some cetacean species (DEWHA 2008a).

Humpback Whales have been known to become entangled in fishing gear during their annual migration. In the past 40 years more than 20 entanglements have been reported with the majority occurring in the Western Rock Lobster Fishery (Keys 2007 cited in DEWHA 2008a).

Biological characteristics

Low reproductive rate (one offspring on average every two years) means that population recovery takes a long time.

This information is reproduced from the Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005–2010 (DEH 2005b).

Implement a program to measure population abundance, trends and recovery for Australian populations of Humpback Whales.

  • Included within this activity is the need to:

    • gather information on population structures using methodologies including genetic analyses, comparisons of photo identification and telemetry studies
    • establish models for measuring recovery and species status, incorporating a range of indicators (e.g. current and pre-whaling population estimates, population structure, use of habitats etc)
    • continue to collect long-term data sets using standardised survey methodologies for Humpback Whales in a statistically robust manner.

Implement a program to better define the characteristics (spatial, temporal, and physical) of calving, resting, feeding, and migratory areas.

  • Included within this activity is the need to:

    • determine the values and characteristics of important migratory pathways and aggregation areas (calving, resting and feeding) particularly in areas where human use is likely to impact upon the species
    • gather information on movements, migrations and feeding grounds - e.g. through the use of satellite tracking and other survey methods
    • examine the historical and potential future use of Humpback Whale habitat with a view to defining these areas and assessing human use activities to ensure impacts are appropriately managed and regulated.

Prevent commercial whaling and move to ban scientific whaling.

  • Australia should maintain its position on promoting high levels of protection for Humpback Whales in all relevant international agreements including the IWC, CITES, CMS, fisheries-related agreements and Antarctic Treaty Consultative Meetings (ATCM).
  • Australia should continue to support a ban on directed take of Humpback Whales.

Protect habitat important to the survival of the species.

  • Ensure that in areas important to the survival of the species, environmental assessment processes and research activities are in place to determine the level of impact and threat of human activities, and implement management measures to ensure the ongoing recovery of the species. This should include, but not be limited to, the following actions:

    • assess and manage acoustic pollution - including the development and application of administrative guidelines under the EPBC Act such as the Guidelines on the application of the EPBC Act to interactions between offshore seismic operations and larger cetaceans (DEW 2007h)
    • encourage best practice approaches that will reduce the likelihood of Humpback Whales being entangled in marine debris, fishing and aquaculture equipment. If entanglements occur, manage the impact of individual entanglements through the application of national standards for disentangling large cetaceans
    • ensure that Humpback Whale habitat requirements are considered in the establishment and management of marine conservation areas and reserves
    • manage the potential impacts of tourism - e.g. through the application of consistent Commonwealth and State tourism and whale watching regulations
    • assess and manage physical disturbance and development activities (such as ship-strike, aquaculture, pollution, recreational boating, naval activities and exploration and extraction industries) - including the application of environmental impact assessment and approvals and the development of industry guidelines and State/Commonwealth government regulations.

  • Implement education programs to inform marine users (e.g. whale watchers, fishermen and shipping crews using important habitat) about best practice behaviours and regulations when interacting with whales (such as Department of Environment and Heritage 2005e).

Monitor and manage the potential impacts of prey depletion due to over harvesting

  • Improve knowledge of Humpback Whale feeding ecology in order to determine if or when prey depletion becomes a threat.
  • Australia should support regional ecosystem approaches to krill management through its involvement in CCAMLR and other fora.

Monitor climate and oceanographic change

  • Develop an understanding of the effects of climate and oceanographic change on Humpback Whale populations to determine if species survival and recovery are being, or are likely to be, affected.

Marine bioregional plans have been developed for four of Australia's marine regions - South-west, North-west, North and Temperate East. Marine Bioregional Plans will help improve the way decisions are made under the EPBC Act, particularly in relation to the protection of marine biodiversity and the sustainable use of our oceans and their resources by our marine-based industries. Marine Bioregional Plans improve our understanding of Australia's oceans by presenting a consolidated picture of the biophysical characteristics and diversity of marine life. They describe the marine environment and conservation values of each marine region, set out broad biodiversity objectives, identify regional priorities and outline strategies and actions to address these priorities. Click here for more information about marine bioregional plans.

The humpback whale has been identified as a conservation value in the South-west (DSEWPaC 2012z), North-west (DSEWPaC 2012y) and Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) marine regions. See Schedule 2 of the South-west Marine Bioregional Plan (DSEWPaC 2012z), the North-west Marine Bioregional Plan (DSEWPaC 2012y) and the Temperate East Marine Bioregional Plan (DSEWPaC 2012aa) for regional advice. Maps of Biologically Important Areas have been developed for humpback whale in the South-west (DSEWPaC 2012z), North-west (DSEWPaC 2012y) and Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) marine regions and may provide additional relevant information. Go to the conservation values atlas to view the locations of these Biologically Important Areas. The "species group report card - cetaceans" for the South-west (DSEWPaC 2012z), North-west (DSEWPaC 2012y) and Temperate East (DSEWPaC 2012aa) marine regions provide additional information.

There are several ongoing major studies of Humpback Whales in Australian waters:

  1. Ongoing land- and boat-based surveys on the east coast (Macquarie University (MU), NSW Department of Environment and Climate Change (NSW DECC), University of Queensland (UQ), Queensland Museum, David Paton, Southern Cross University (SCU) and Tasmanian Department of Primary Industries, Water and Environment)).
  2. Boat-based and aerial surveys on the west coast (Centre for Whale Research (CWR), Western Australia Department of Conservation and Land Management (CALM), Western Australian Museum and Western Whale Research (WWR))
  3. Ongoing ship-based surveys including biopsy, photo-identification, behaviour and acoustic surveys in Australian Antarctic waters (Southern Ocean Cetacean Ecosystem Monitoring Program (SOCEP)/Whale Ecology Group - Southern ocean (WEG-SO)/Deakin University (DU) ).
  4. Photo-identification of the west coast migratory stock (CWR, CALM, WAM) and east coast migratory stock (UQ, SCU, NSW DECC, David Paton). The development of a categorisation system to increase the efficiency of matching catalogues throughout Australia (SCU).
  5. Land-based and acoustic tracking, and tagging whales to determine their interaction with, and the influences on behaviour of, the acoustic environment (Humpback Acoustic Research Collaboration - University of Queensland (UQ), Defence, Science and Technology Organisation).
  6. Tagging whales to determine long-range movements along their migratory paths (Australian Antarctic Division (AAD), CWR, NSW DECC).
  7. Genetic analysis of east coast (SCU) and west coast (Edith Cowan University, CWR) samples and a comparison of these samples to determine the level of genetic interchange between the two migratory populations.
  8. Year-round acoustic monitoring of humpbacks (and all other baleen whales) for analysis with ecosystem processes in the Australian Antarctic Territory (off Mawson at present and to be expanded) (SOCEP/WEG-SO/DU).
  9. Analysis of scat to determine diet (AAD).

Documents relevant to the management and recovery of the Humpback Whale include Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005–2010 (DEH 2005b), Guidelines on the application of the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act to interactions between offshore seismic operations and larger cetaceans (DEW 2007h) and Australian National Guidelines for Whale and Dolphin Watching (Department of Environment and Heritage 2005e). In addition, The South-West Marine Bioregional Plan: Bioregional Profile: A Description of the Ecosystems, Conservation Values and Uses of the South-West Marine Region (DEWHA 2008a) and The North-West Marine Bioregional Plan: Bioregional Profile: A Description of the Ecosystems, Conservation Values and Uses of the North-West Marine Region (DEWHA 2008b) also inform management of this species.

The following table lists known and perceived threats to this species. Threats are based on the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) threat classification version 1.1.

Threat Class Threatening Species References
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Commercial harvest Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Commerical hunting of whales Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Biological Resource Use:Fishing and Harvesting Aquatic Resources:Mortality due to capture, entanglement/drowning in nets and fishing lines Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Biological Resource Use:Gathering Terrestrial Plants:Commercial harvest The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Climate Change and Severe Weather:Climate Change and Severe Weather:Climate change altering atmosphere/hydrosphere temperatures, rainfall patterns and/or frequency of severe weather events Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Energy Production and Mining:Mining and Quarrying:Habitat destruction, disturbance and/or modification due to mining activities The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Human Intrusions and Disturbance:Recreational Activities:Disturbance, especially from human recreational activities and development The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Pollution:Excess Energy:Seismic survey activities Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Excess Energy:noise Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Garbage and Solid Waste:Dumping of household and industrial waste The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Pollution:Garbage and Solid Waste:Ingestion and entanglement with marine debris Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Pollution:Deterioration of water and soil quality (contamination and pollution) Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Pollution:Pollution:spillage The Action Plan for Australian Cetaceans (Bannister, J.L., C.M. Kemper & R.M. Warneke, 1996) [Cwlth Action Plan].
Residential and Commercial Development:Tourism and Recreation Areas:Habitat modification, fragmentation and/or changed boat traffic caused by the construction and operation of marinas and wharves Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].
Transportation and Service Corridors:Shipping Lanes:Collision with shipping infrastructure Humpback Whale Recovery Plan 2005 - 2010 (Department of the Environment and Heritage (DEH), 2005b) [Recovery Plan].

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This database is designed to provide statutory, biological and ecological information on species and ecological communities, migratory species, marine species, and species and species products subject to international trade and commercial use protected under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act 1999 (the EPBC Act). It has been compiled from a range of sources including listing advice, recovery plans, published literature and individual experts. While reasonable efforts have been made to ensure the accuracy of the information, no guarantee is given, nor responsibility taken, by the Commonwealth for its accuracy, currency or completeness. The Commonwealth does not accept any responsibility for any loss or damage that may be occasioned directly or indirectly through the use of, or reliance on, the information contained in this database. The information contained in this database does not necessarily represent the views of the Commonwealth. This database is not intended to be a complete source of information on the matters it deals with. Individuals and organisations should consider all the available information, including that available from other sources, in deciding whether there is a need to make a referral or apply for a permit or exemption under the EPBC Act.

Citation: Department of the Environment (2014). Megaptera novaeangliae in Species Profile and Threats Database, Department of the Environment, Canberra. Available from: Accessed Fri, 29 Aug 2014 10:34:08 +1000.