Humpback whales in Greenland

By Verified Expert

One of Greenland’s biggest summer guests is the hump-back whale

It comes like a migratory bird in the month of May and swims in the larger fjords along the coast until October, when it swims back to more southern climes.

Humpback whale coming up for a breath, birds flying around near the surface of the water

Huge marine mammal of Greenland

This huge marine mammal is totally protected in the whole of Greenland and over recent decades, the number of humpback whales has steadily increased. Today there is a viable population of about 3,000 individuals in Greenland.

There is a small increase of a maximum of 30 individuals each year within this population, because a female typically gives birth to a calf every one to three years. Gestation takes between 11 and 12 months and the calf stays with its mother for up to a year, drinking 50 litres of its mother’s milk every day.

A whale waving

A sociable swimmer

People who travel by water therefore have a good chance of meeting a humpback whale. In addition, the humpback whale, compared to most other whales, is a really good »tourist whale«. It is relatively trusting and does not scare easily if a boat approaches at a moderate speed.

The humpback whale also has a habit of lifting its tail vertically out of the water before taking a deep dive. This is usually accompanied by sighs of satisfaction from tourists and the click of cameras if there is a boat nearby.

A jumping humpback whale

Humpback whale fish together

Another behaviour trait that makes the humpback whale so popular is that it often spends long periods at the surface, where it can lift its gigantic flippers and create enormous splashes. On rare occasions, a humpback whale may even jump right out of the water, but you have to be lucky to experience this. It happens when several whales join up to fish together.

They built a net by blowing a ring of bubbles at the bottom. The fish don’t swim through the bubbles so they are caught in the confines of the cylinder formed by the bubbles. The whales then take turns to swim up through the bubble tunnel and feed on the captured shoals of fish. They can travel up through the water so fast that they almost fly up out of the water.

A humpback whale diving down

A special kind

Humpback whales belong to the family of baleen whales, i.e. whales that feed using the ingenious baleen – a comb-like structure that filters tiny organisms from the seawater which is gulped into the mouth in huge quantities. Traditionally, krill counts as the most important food, but at certain times, shoals of fish are very important for humpback whales in Greenland.

This is true in June in particular, when the small fish of the salmon family, the capelin, come close to the coast to spawn. The humpback whales can chase the capelin into the shallow water, sucking the fish into their enormous mouths. Where other types of whales are known for beaching themselves in shallow waters, the humpback whale has a distinct ability to avoid beaching.

The beautiful tale of a humpback whale diving down

Characteristic of the humpback whale

One characteristic of the humpback whale is the unique black and white pattern that is found on its fluke. The patterns are used by researchers to identify individuals and this makes it possible to collect information about the migration of humpback whales and their preferences for certain areas.

In later years, Greenland Nature Institute has collected digital photos of whale flukes from, e.g. visiting tourists to supplement information about humpback whales in Greenland. Another characteristic is the enormous sound register of the humpback whale and its whale song is therefore world famous.

A group of humpback whales diving down


  • Latin name: Megaptera novaeangliae
  • Size: males 11-17.5 metres; females 11-19 metres; newborns, average about 4.3 metres
  • Weight: Adults up to 35 tons. A newborn humpback whale calf weights up to 2.5 tons
  • Length of flippers: 5 metres (largest flippers in the animal world.)
  • Food: Small shoal fish, krill and plankton.
  • Distribution: In winter in tropical waters and in the summer in the polar regions. 
  • Status: Endangered; has previously suffered intensive hunting
  • Source: and Greenland Nature Institute

Click here if you like to go on one of our whale watching tour to see the majestic marine mammal!

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