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Reflection – what this remarkable whale teaches us about humpbacks and their fascinating lives

Reflection, like all humpback whales, was born with a unique black and white pattern on the underside of her tail which will remain unchanged throughout her life. Her name was inspired by her tail’s symmetry – both the outline and pigment pattern on the left and right sides are similar, rather like giant butterfly wings. This identifying feature makes it possible for us to follow Reflection and learn about her life. We’ve watched with admiration as she has nurtured five babies; we’ve learnt about humpback culture from her and held our breath as she’s faced life-threatening challenges.

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Adopt Reflection for yourself or as a gift and help us protect her.

Reflection splits her time between two very different ocean homes.  For much of the year, she lives in the cool, fish-filled waters of the North Atlantic on the east coast of the US and Canada. During the winter she can be found 1,500 miles (2,400km) away in tropical Caribbean breeding grounds. The warm water and lack of abundant predators makes this the perfect environment for newborn humpbacks.

During the breeding season, the Caribbean seas are alive with the sound of whale song. Reflection will hear the males singing. One theory is that they are serenading the girls and trying to woo them.

We’ve known Reflection for 28 years and she’s a devoted mother, nurturing her babies with super-fatty milk, touching them affectionately with her flippers, doing everything she can to avoid unwanted attention from predators and defending each one with her life until he or she is weaned at around a year old.

Reflection's tail is on the left, her 2017 calf is on the right
Reflection's tail is on the left, her 2017 calf is on the right

Daunting journey

Reflection’s growing family is a credit to her parenting skills - Buzzard, Spiral, Crisscross, Hydrophone and her youngest, who hasn’t been given a name yet, are thriving.

Every year, Reflection migrates between her two homes. Details of her migration are still a mystery and we have no idea how she knows where to go and when to set off. It must be daunting to make such a long journey with the additional responsibility of caring for a baby. Reflection has shown determination and courage in successfully achieving this each time.  Keeping her baby safely at her side, allowing him or her to eat, sleep and rest, requires constant vigilance, bravery at times and phenomenal extra physical effort on her part.

Every spring we wait anxiously for Reflection to safely return to her favourite feeding spots on Stellwagen Bank off the New England coast, near to our North America office. Thankfully she’s routinely one of the first whales to come back. She must feel a sense of relief to swim again in seas brimming with marine-life – especially the sand lance fish shoals she favours – at last she can once again satisfy her enormous appetite. She eats over a tonne of fish each day and soon replenishes her blubber stores.

Reflection feeding
Reflection feeding

Culture club

Reflection has mastered the art of kickfeeding. She kicks the water with her tail which frightens the fish and causes them to bunch together.  Then, she encircles them with bubbles from her blowholes, making it easier for her to gulp them in her mouth. Reflection learned to kickfeed from her friends; it’s a cultural thing rather than something her mother taught her.  Kickfeeding seems to be unique to this humpback population as it hasn’t yet been observed elsewhere.

Reflection bringing her chin and head out of the water before she kickfeeds
Reflection bringing her chin and head out of the water before she kickfeeds

Entanglement danger

Humpbacks are not the only fishers in this area.  Commercial fishers use nets and pots, anchored by ropes to the seabed to catch fish, crabs and lobsters.  Sadly whales get entangled in ropes and buoys from time to time. This has happened to Reflection five times, and twice she was completely stuck and unable to free herself. Thankfully she was discovered both times and her life saved by the efforts of the disentanglement team at the Center for Coastal Studies, who have special permits to approach the whales and cut them free. It’s a risky but crucial rescue service.

Thank you to all our humpback adopters – with your support, we’ll keep working to protect Reflection and learn even more about this remarkable whale.

Reflection's family tree

Reflection family tree

Did you know?

  • The humpback’s scientific name megaptera novaeangliae  means ‘big-winged New Englander’, and refers to their long flippers and the fact that the New England humpbacks were the first written about in the 18th Century.
  • Humpback whales slap the water's surface with their flippers. Scientists believe this is used for communicating with other whales over a distance.
Reflection flipper slapping
In this picture, Reflection is 'flipper slapping'.

Humpback facts

  • It’s thought that humpbacks may have a lifespan similar to humans.
  • Humpbacks have lumpy, bumpy heads – these tubercles are golf-ball sized hair follicles.
  • A humpback’s mouth is about a third of the size of their body. The opening at the back of the throat is about the size of a football.
  • Humpbacks make a variety of noises to communicate with each other.
  • A humpback’s tail fluke doesn’t have any bones; however their flippers contain the same bones that you have in your hands.
  • A baby humpback will drink 40-60 gallons of milk each day

Adopt Reflection for yourself or as a gift.

Through your adoption you will follow Reflection's fascinating life and help keep her safe.

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