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Everything You Need to Know About Humpback Whale Migration

a whale jumping out of the water

Humpback whales are a natural and cultural treasure. San Diego residents and visitors are fortunate to see humpbacks the entire year. Before you go whale-watching, it’s worth learning about these fascinating creatures. Our brief guide explores humpback whale migration, habitats, and characteristics. 


Humpback whales live in oceans throughout the globe. Their migratory journeys are extensive, taking them from one end of the world to another. Some groups travel up to 5,000 miles: They swim from tropical areas where they breed to cooler regions with plentiful food sources. 

Scientists have plotted whale migration “superhighways” worldwide. The World Wildlife Fund released a humpback whale migration map in February 2022. It shows where many whale species feed, mate, give birth, and rear their young. Several whale superhighways exist around Antarctica, Australia, New Zealand, southern Africa, and South America. Others route through the North Atlantic and parts of the northern Pacific Ocean. The United States West Coast features migration corridors used by several species, including humpbacks. 

Whales in the Southern Hemisphere feed around Antarctica from November to March, then journey north to reproduce in tropical waters from July and October. Northern Hemisphere humpbacks feed in colder waters around North America and Europe from June to October, then swim to warmer waters in the Caribbean, Atlantic, and Pacific between December and April. 


Humpbacks are a baleen whale species. Their mouths contain whalebone plates that help them strain their food from the water. They eat plankton, microscopic life forms that drift on ocean currents. Plankton includes algae, tiny crustaceans, fungi, and bacteria. Humpbacks also dine on krill and small fish. They can consume up to 1.5 tons of food daily during the feeding season but live off their fat stores while breeding and nursing their young.

The humpback whale isn’t the largest whale on Earth. That honor goes to the Antarctic blue whale, which can grow up to 98 feet long and weigh around 400,000 pounds. Adult humpbacks are much smaller, growing up to 60 feet long and weighing nearly 80,000 pounds. Humpbacks have rigid bodies and long pectoral fins that help them move effectively in shallow and deep waters. 

a bird flying over the water

Why Are They Special & Important?

The United States lists humpback whales as an endangered species. The U.S. outlawed whaling in 1971, and the International Whaling Commission ended commercial whaling in 1985. These developments helped humpback populations recover. Public awareness and conservation efforts have also contributed significantly, pulling the humpback from the brink of extinction. However, this noble species still faces several critical threats:

  • Commercial fishing operations 
  • Pollution, including plastic ocean waste
  • Collisions with watercraft
  • Climate change
  • Loss of habitat

Whaling is illegal, but commercial fishing boats can still pose risks to humpback whales. Many fishing nets can entrap whales if left behind in the ocean. Due to their rigid bodies and pectoral fins, humpbacks have more difficulty escaping these nets. While feeding, they may ingest plastic waste that remains in their stomach and could eventually kill them. Whale and boat collisions occur because migration routes may overlap with shipping and fishing vessel traffic. Climate change affects colder waters where humpbacks typically feed: With warming waters and melting polar ice, food in these regions may be less plentiful. All these factors reduce available habitats for humpbacks worldwide. 

Best Season To See Them in San Diego 

Traditional whale-watching season lasts from December until March. Gray walls are migrating through the area during that time. Humpback whale migration occurs near the same time as Northern Hemisphere populations travel to the Pacific. However, you can find humpbacks in San Diego’s waters all year. You can enjoy watching these magnificent creatures during a whale-watching cruise with Next Level Sailing.