The blue and humpback whales may preside over a marine environment today, but they evolved from a land-dwelling creature known as the Pakicetus.
This shared ancestry could account for some of their similarities and explain why people occasionally confuse the two species.
Are blue whales humpback whales? No. While there are similarities, these are two distinct species of whale.
This comparison aims to establish exactly what those differences are and why the two species have evolved different feeding, mating, and migratory behaviors over time.
Blue Whale Compared to Humpback Whale
In size and appearance, the blue whale and humpback differ considerably. Although they have a similar diet and use many of the same feeding techniques, these also diverge occasionally.
Reproductively speaking, the two are much alike as they are in terms of distribution, lifespan, and gestation period.
One of the most obvious distinctions between the blue and humpback whales is size.
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The blue whale, Balaenoptera musculus, is the largest animal on earth, reaching lengths of around 98 feet and weighing approximately 330,000 lb, or 150 tonnes.
The longest blue whale ever recorded measured just over 110 feet long. The heaviest blue whale was hunted in 1947 and weighed 190 tonnes (418,878 lb).
The humpback whale, by comparison, is much smaller. At around 52 feet long, it’s just over half the length of a blue whale. Weighing around 25,000 to 30,000 lb, it’s only about a quarter of the size of a blue whale.
What are the Main Differences Between the Blue Whale vs Humpback Whale?
We’ve already established a significant difference in size between these two species, but that’s only the beginning.
Aside from the blue whale being much larger than the humpback, other visible differences enable you to distinguish between the two.
As its name suggests, the humpback has a distinctive body shape and long pectoral fins that help it to accelerate and maneuver in shallow waters.
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Unlike the streamlined blue whale, with its smooth, slender body, the humpback has a knobbly head and various lumps and bumps all over its body.
Known as tubercles, the bumps on the humpback’s u-shaped head contain hairs similar to a cat’s whiskers. These are believed to help the whale “feel different vibrations in the water column” and create a more detailed picture of their surroundings.
Although the bumps on the pectoral fins have the same name, they have a very different purpose. By reducing drag, they enable the whale to move through the water more closely, working similarly to the indentations on a golf ball.
The blue whale has a triangular small dorsal fin, whereas the humpback is “low and knubby” in appearance.
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In addition to its natural bumps and lumps, the humpback often has clusters of acorn barnacles along its upper jaws, lips, throats, flippers, and tails.
The faster, sleeker blue whale doesn’t attract barnacles in this way and has smooth skin virtually free of external parasites.
As much as they differ in appearance, humpback and blue whales have a similar life expectancy. Both these whale species live for around 80 to 90 years.
Scientists have been able to estimate the age of whales using their ear wax.
Whales produce ear wax in much the same way as humans, but as they don’t have access to cotton buds, theirs accumulates throughout their lives.
A little like the rings of a tree, the whale’s ear wax changes color as it moves from its summer feeding grounds to its winter breeding areas. By counting these bands of color, scientists can estimate a whale’s life span.
Both these fascinating creatures reach sexual maturity at about the same age, which shouldn’t be that surprising as their life expectancies are so similar.
The humpback whale matures slightly earlier, at around 5 to 10 years, whereas a blue whale only becomes sexually active once it reaches 5 to 15 years of age.
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While most whales with baleen plates travel in small groups, the blue whale is primarily solitary. Then, in the late summer, they begin to form pairs, something researcher Richard Sears believes is “sort of like dating.”
Whale research suggests that blue whales engage in a mating ritual some refer to as a “rumba.”
The female whale swims out in front while two males pursue her. These dances can last for several hours, ending only when one of the males drops out and admits defeat.
Humpbacks have a somewhat more boisterous way of finding their mates. Rather than the male doggedly following a single female, humpback whales fight and cavort, hoping to win over the female with their aerial displays.
In other words, the humpback fights to impress the females, while the blue whale sashays its way into the female’s favors!
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Female humpback whales return to the same places to breed every year. Those in the north Pacific Ocean these are situated around the main Hawaiian Islands.
Blue whales, on the other hand, “don’t appear to have a set breeding ground.”
Both species are placental mammals so once the egg has been fertilized, the whale calf grows inside the female whale.
Although both species have a gestation period of around 10 to 12 months, the blue whale grows much faster.
At birth, a blue whale calf measures around 25 feet long, while the humpback is just 13 to 16 feet long. Once out of the womb, the blue whale continues its rapid growth, adding around 200 lbs a day.
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Food and Feeding
As baleen whales, both the blue and humpback whales feed on tiny sea creatures known as krill or plankton, as well as small fishes. They use different techniques when hunting, however.
Unlike other whales, blue whales focus on lunging rather than skimming. This means they lunge into the swarms of tiny krill, gulping in vast amounts of water while filtering out their prey.
Although humpback whales also use this approach, they are one of the few whale species to engage in a practice known as bubble-net feeding.
This is a collaborative effort that’s carefully orchestrated. Using vocalizations, the humpbacks communicate to one another while exhaling out of their blowholes. This creates a “net of bubbles” that captures and disorients small fish.
This advanced feeding method is learned rather than instinctive, and not all humpbacks engage in its practice.
Humpback and blue whales exist in every ocean on earth except the Arctic. In the North Atlantic Ocean, the blue whale’s range extends from the subtropics to the Greenland Sea.
In the North Pacific, blue whales spend their winters close to Mexico before moving towards the Gulf of California after breeding.
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There is also a resident population of blue whales in the Indian Ocean.
Humpback whales prefer coastal waters, particularly around the continental shelf. These marine mammals traverse over 8,000km between their summer feeding grounds and winter hangouts.
The blue whale also migrates huge distances, although not quite as far as the humpback.
In the North Pacific, blue whales spend their summers in the Pacific Northwest before heading to the warmer waters of California and Costa Rica in winter.
Although both these animals migrate, they navigate their underwater world using different techniques.
The blue whale relies on memory to find its favorite food. Scientists studying blue whale migration patterns expected to see blue whales “the timing of their prey, as it becomes available.”
Instead, they found the blue whale’s “movements were strongly correlated with 10-year historical averages of chlorophyll.”
In other words, blue whales seek their food in places they’ve been before rather than where it currently is.
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Humpback whales appear to use social information as well as memory when hunting. Researchers believe they use “sound-based communication” to share information about the best hunting grounds.
They produce a “diverse variety of non song sounds… which may be used in intergroup communication to convey location.”
Both of these baleen whales produce low-frequency sounds that can travel thousands of kilometers. The blue whale is one of the loudest animals on earth, producing vocalizations of up to 188 decibels.
They’re not the only ones, either. Other endangered whales, including both fin whales and gray whales, make similar grunts, moans, clicks, and whistles.
The songs of the humpback whales are the more elaborate, however, and only the male humpback learns them. Although the female humpback whale vocalizes, she never learns the “complex, repeating sequences” of the males.
According to National Geographic, “all the males from the same ocean basin sing the same tune.”
These tunes change from year to year as individual whales begin to modify their patterns and sequences.
You wouldn’t expect the world’s largest mammal to travel at high speeds, but blue whales are no sloths.
They don’t travel as fast as the fin whale, which reaches around 37 kph and normally coasts through the water at a sedate pace of around 8 kph.
Humpback whales are a little faster, usually traveling at around 4.8 to 14 kph. They can also accelerate up to around 26.5 kph for short periods.
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Despite being faster, blue whales are less inclined to dive to the same depths as the humpback, which often descends as far as 500 to 700 feet.
Blue whales rarely dive deep, staying around 300 feet below the surface where their prey is.
Breaching and Aerial Displays
The humpback whale is famous for its spectacular aerial displays, but the blue whale less so. If you see a whale’s tail above the surface of the water, chances are, it belongs to a humpback.
Researchers believe that whales breach and leap from the water for similar reasons as sharks. These include removing pesky parasites, like barnacles and showing off to attract a mate.
To fully launch itself from the water, the humpback whale must be traveling at its maximum speed of 28km/h.
This requires a huge amount of energy, and, as blue whales suffer less irritation from external parasites, it could explain why they’re less willing to perform such aerial maneuvers.
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Given the enormity of the largest whale, it’s hardly surprising that the blue whale has few natural predators.
Aside from humans, the only species tenacious enough to take on the biggest whale are killer whales.
Also known as the Orcinus orca, killer whales hunt in family groups known as pods.
For many years, people were documenting killer whales feeding on “nearly every other species of large whale,” aside from the blue whale. Most of these attacks involved juveniles and calves rather than fully grown adults.
In 2019, however, scientists watched in wonder as a group of 12 to 14 orcas attacked an adult blue whale, tearing off chunks of flesh and even eating its tongue.
Orcas will also attack humpback whales, but they’re more likely to retaliate.
Earlier this year, environmentalist Olivia Esqueda, witnessed a humpback whale “stalking then ambushing” a pod of orcas.
According to marine ecologist Dr. Robert Pitman, this makes the humpback “the only cetacean that deliberately approaches attacking mammal-eating killer whales.”
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The other threats facing these marine mammals are all manmade. For blue whales, the primary threats are “vessel strikes and entanglements in fishing gear.”
For humpbacks, these are compounded by problems associated with “vessel-based harassment, and underwater noise.”
Before legal protections were introduced in the Sixties, the world population of humpback whales had almost disappeared. By the Fifties, there were just “440 western South Atlantic humpbacks left.”
By 2019, however, studies were suggesting a healthy rebounding population of around 25,000 whales. From those figures, researchers “estimate the humpbacks are at about 93% of their pre-whaling population.”
The blue whale population hasn’t recovered as effectively, although numbers are starting to rise.
There are currently around 10,000 to 25,000 of these endangered whales left in the world, despite the efforts of various international conservation groups.
Some fear that climate change could negatively impact these recovering populations, increasing water temperatures at the coast and reducing the whale’s natural habitat.
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When we make a blue whale vs humpback whale comparison, it needs to go a lot deeper than which whale is the largest. Although there are physical similarities between the two, their behaviors are quite distinct.
Humpbacks appear to be one of the more boisterous and aggressive cetaceans, whereas the largest animal in the world is, arguably one of the most peaceful.
Humpback whales appear to rely more heavily on social communication than the more solitary blue whale and, like the gray whale, make very long seasonal migrations.
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Both utilize all the world’s oceans, moving from the southern ocean to the polar regions in their quest for food and somewhere suitable to breed and calve.
Although the humpback whale has largely recovered from the effects of whaling, like many other whale species, the blue whale remains endangered.
Let’s hope the conversation efforts and legal protections that are currently in place protect these fascinating creatures for generations to come.
Nicky is a British adventurer and animal lover who spends her time exploring the natural world and writing about her experiences. Whether on horseback, underwater, running, hiking or just standing with a fishing rod in hand, she embraces everything her adopted home of South Africa has to offer.