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Humpback whales like Godbout often impress us with their exuberant behaviours, including full breaches and fin slapping.

Humpbacks get their name from the hump just in front of their dorsal fin, though these whales also have several bumps on their heads and on their extremely long fins.

Having never been photographed prior to the discovery of her carcass, Godbout was unknown to researchers. To identify individual humpbacks, scientists mainly rely on the colour pattern of the underside of the tail, which the whales reveal when they dive.

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Photo of the underside of a humpback whale tail. The pattern is black in the centre and around the edges. The outer parts of the lobes are mostly white with a few black marks.

Tic Tac Toe (H509)

Photo of the underside of a humpback whale tail. The pattern is almost entirely white, notwithstanding the black band in the centre and the upper contour.


On May 3, 2017, the carcass of a young female humpback whale washes ashore in the village of Godbout in Quebec’s Côte-Nord region. In an attempt to discover the cause of death, a necropsy is performed.

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A humpback whale carcass is stranded on a thin strip of beach amidst a few chunks of ice.

Godbout had large barnacles still attached to her skin, which suggests that she had arrived in the St. Lawrence only recently. These crustaceans attach themselves to the skin of humpbacks during their winter stays in the warm waters of the Caribbean.

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Close-up view of the humpback’s skin, attached to which are large white shells. They’re bigger than the $2 coin that lies in proximity.

In winter, when humpbacks congregate in temperate waters for the breeding season, the males all sing the same refrain. But they don’t just perform, they also compose...

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Underwater view of a humpback whale from its head to its pectoral fins.

The largest appendages in the entire animal kingdom, the pectoral fins of humpbacks are particularly impressive. Amongst other things, they are believed to help the animal regulate its body temperature.

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A humpback whale pokes its long pectoral fins out of the water.

Regardless of where it is on the planet, a whale must maintain its body temperature at 37°C.

It must therefore be well adapted to retain its heat, even in 4°C waters such as those of the St. Lawrence.

In water, the body loses heat much more easily than in the air. To limit such heat losses, whales have a thick layer of blubber.

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A cut is made in the skin and blubber of a humpback whale. The blubber layer is about 10 cm thick.

How do whales retain their heat?

When a whale needs to conserve heat, the arteries that run through its blubber layer constrict. Only a small volume of blood – just enough to keep the cells alive – can then reach the skin surface.

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Diagram of an artery and vein lying under the dermis (blubber layer) of a humpback whale. Blood in the artery and the vein flows in opposite directions. A blood vessel bridges the artery to the vein, allowing blood to flow from the former to the latter. A small portion of the blood flows to the capillaries near the skin surface and then returns to the vein.

How is heat retained in the extremities, where there is very little blubber?

The circulatory system of whales has evolved into a perfect heat exchange system. The arteries that bring warm blood to the extremities are surrounded by a network of veins that carry blood back toward the body’s insides.

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Diagram of the heat exchange system in a humpback whale’s fin. Blood in an artery travels to the capillaries near the skin surface and then returns through a vein that surrounds the artery. Arterial blood warms venous blood, whereas venous blood cools arterial blood.

Can a whale ever get too hot?

Even in 4°C water, a whale can get hot if it is active. The animal therefore needs some way to release excess heat. Fortunately, there is a solution in the heat exchange system!

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Diagram of the heat exchange system in a humpback whale’s fin. Blood in an artery flows to the capillaries near the skin surface. The artery swells, crushing the vein around it. The blood cannot circulate back through the crushed vein and therefore passes through another vein that has not been warmed by arterial blood.

Are whales prone to hypothermia?

Humpback whales are generally quite well adapted to retain their body heat in cold water, but this is not the case for all species. A striped dolphin was once discovered in Tadoussac.

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Carcass of a striped dolphin washed ashore.

The thick layer of blubber that helps whales stay warm has long been prized by humans...

Humans once hunted whales in great numbers in order to harvest this blubber. So much so that several populations of cetaceans, including humpbacks, have been decimated by whaling.

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Men standing around and on top of a carcass of a large rorqual lying near a building pose for this photo.

Commercial whaling probably decimated 90-95% of the world’s humpback whale population. Today, humpbacks are no longer harvested.

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In a misty sea, a humpback whale lifts its tail as it prepares to take a dive.

Efforts have been made to help humpbacks. The population to which Godbout belonged is now growing. Since 2003, the new status of the population is “Not at Risk”.

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Photo of a group of four humpback whales. The backs and dorsal fins are partially visible for three of them. The bulging blowhole of the fourth humpback can be seen behind the individual in the foreground.

What can be done to help other species recover?

Diagram of a target

Carefully focus on the specific issues affecting the species in question.

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A humpback whale surfaces on its side, holding its left pectoral fin straight up into the air.

Pay attention to past success stories.

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Spread the good news! Even if many whale species are endangered, now is not the time to give up, as we have the power to take action and spark positive change!

A humpback whale performs a full breach.

Now that you’ve heard Godbout’s story, let’s go meet the other whales!

See the skeleton in 3D
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