The humpback was first identified as baleine de la Nouvelle Angleterre by Mathurin Jacques Brisson in his Regnum Animale of 1756. In 1781, Georg Heinrich Borowski described the species, converting Brisson's name to its Latin equivalent, Balaena novaeangliae. In 1804, Bernard Germain de Lacépède shifted the humpback from the family Balaenidae, renaming it B. jubartes. In 1846, John Edward Gray created the genus Megaptera, classifying the humpback as Megaptera longipinna, but in 1932, Remington Kellogg reverted the species names to use Borowski's novaeangliae. The common name is derived from the curving of their backs when diving. The generic name Megaptera from the Ancient Greek mega- μεγα ("giant") and ptera/ πτερα ("wing") refer to their large front flippers. The specific name means "New Englander" and was probably given by Brisson due to regular sightings of humpbacks off the coast of New England.
In December 1883, a male humpback swam up the Firth of Tay in Scotland, past what was then the whaling port of Dundee. Harpooned during a failed hunt, it was found dead off Stonehaven a week later. Its carcass was exhibited to the public by a local entrepreneur, John Woods, both locally and then as a touring exhibition that traveled to Edinburgh and London. The whale was dissected by Professor John Struthers, who wrote seven papers on its anatomy and an 1889 monograph on the humpback.
Humpback whales were hunted as early as the late 16th century. They were often the first species to be harvested in an area due to this coastal distribution. North Pacific kills alone are estimated at 28,000 during the 20th century. In the same period, over 200,000 humpbacks were taken in the Southern Hemisphere. North Atlantic populations dropped to as low as 700 individuals. In 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) was founded to oversee the industry. They imposed hunting regulations and created hunting seasons. To prevent extinction, IWC banned commercial humpback whaling in 1966. By then, the global population had been reduced to around 5,000. The Soviet Union deliberately under-recorded its catches; the Soviets reported catching 2,820 between 1947 and 1972, but the true number was over 48,000.
Much of the growth of commercial whale watching was built on the humpback whale. The species' highly active surface behaviors and tendency to become accustomed to boats have made them easy to observe, particularly for photographers. In 1975, humpback whale tours were established in New England and Hawaii. This business brings in a revenue of $20 million per year for Hawaii's economy. While Hawaiian tours have tended to be commercial, New England and California whale watching tours have introduced educational components.
In 1985, Humphrey swam into San Francisco Bay and then up the Sacramento River towards Rio Vista. Five years later, Humphrey returned and became stuck on a mudflat in San Francisco Bay immediately north of Sierra Point below the view of onlookers from the upper floors of the Dakin Building. He was twice rescued by the Marine Mammal Center and other concerned groups in California. He was pulled off the mudflat with a large cargo net and the help of the US Coast Guard. Both times, he was successfully guided back to the Pacific Ocean using a "sound net" in which people in a flotilla of boats made unpleasant noises behind the whale by banging on steel pipes, a Japanese fishing technique known as oikami. At the same time, the attractive sounds of humpback whales preparing to feed were broadcast from a boat headed towards the open ocean.
An albino humpback whale that travels up and down the east coast of Australia became famous in local media because of its rare, all-white appearance. Migaloo is the only known Australian all-white specimen, and is a true albino. First sighted in 1991, the whale was named for an indigenous Australian word for "white fella". To prevent sightseers from approaching dangerously close, the Queensland government decreed a 500-m (1600-ft) exclusion zone around him.
As of 2004, hunting was restricted to a few animals each year off the Caribbean island of Bequia in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines. The take is not believed to threaten the local population. Japan had planned to kill 50 humpbacks in the 2007/08 season under its JARPA II research program. The announcement sparked global protests. After a visit to Tokyo by the IWC chair asking the Japanese for their co-operation in sorting out the differences between pro- and anti-whaling nations on the commission, the Japanese whaling fleet agreed to take no humpback whales during the two years it would take to reach a formal agreement. In 2010, the IWC authorized Greenland's native population to hunt a few humpback whales for the following three years.
Migaloo was last seen in June 2014 along the coast of Cape Byron in Australia. Migaloo has several physical characteristics that can be identified; his dorsal fin is somewhat hooked, and his tail flukes have a unique shape, with edges that are spiked along the lower trailing side. In July 2022, concerns arose after a white whale washed up on the shores of Mallacoota beach, however after genetic testing, and noting that the carcass was of a female whale while Migaloo is male, it was confirmed by experts to not be Migaloo.
Whale researchers along the Atlantic Coast report that there have been more stranded whales with signs of vessel strikes and fishing gear entanglement in recent years than ever before. The NOAA recorded 88 stranded humpback whales between January 2016 and February 2019. This is more than double the number of whales stranded between 2013 and 2016. Because of the increase in stranded whales, NOAA declared an unusual mortality event in April 2017. Virginia Beach Aquarium's stranding response coordinator, Alexander Costidis, stated the conclusion that the two causes of these unusual mortality events were vessel interactions and entanglements.
The great white shark is another confirmed predator of the humpback whale. In 2020, Marine biologists Dines and Gennari et al., published a documented incident of a group of great white sharks exhibiting pack-like behavior to attack and kill a live adult humpback whale. A second incident regarding great white sharks killing humpback whales was documented off the coast of South Africa. The shark recorded instigating the attack was a female nicknamed "Helen". Working alone, the shark attacked a 33 ft (10 m) emaciated and entangled humpback whale by attacking the whale's tail to cripple and bleed the whale before she managed to drown the whale by biting onto its head and pulling it underwater.