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Whale heroes

Researchers have recorded a number of cases where humpback whales seem to be intentionally rescuing other species. The motivation behind these actions are unknown, but it begs the questions whether these rescues are driven by the whales’ empathy. In the first of our guests blogs as part of #whaleweek, Kathryn Leckie from WDC partner ‘My Green World’ explores some of these fascinating cases.

Scientists are noticing a fascinating pattern in humpback whale behavior around the world; a seemingly intentional effort to rescue animals that are being hunted by orcas (killer whales) or experiencing distress in the ocean. This inexplicable heroism displayed by whales illustrates the keen intelligence and complex communication abilities of these wonderful giants of the sea.

<h3Heroes of the Ocean

A recent article from National Geographic explored the protective nature of whales, shining a light on some of the bizarre events that have witnessed whales defy logical biological explanation in order to save other species of the seas. The article reports an incident that occurred in 2012, when a pod of killer whales attacked a gray whale and its calf in Monterey Bay, California. After a struggle, the calf was killed. Researchers at the scene reported that two humpback whales were already on the scene as the orcas, attacked the grays. But after the calf had been killed, around 14 more humpbacks arrived—seemingly to prevent the orcas from eating the calf carcass. This wasn’t a brief confrontation, but an epic confrontation that lasted for six and a half hours as the humpback whales slashed at the killer whales with their flippers and tails. And despite thick swarms of krill spotted nearby—a favorite food for humpbacks—the giants did not abandon their vigil.”

In 2009, Robert Pitman and John Durban witnessed a pod of humpback whales saving seals from orcas. They reported that a pair of humpback whales smacked their tails against the water and bellowed, whilst a Weddell seal sought shelter between them from nearby orcas. A week later, a group of killer whales were cornering a crabeater seal on a piece of ice, when a different pair of humpback whales approached. When the seal fell into the water it rushed to the humpback whales for protection. Whether the seal knew what the barricade was or not, it did not matter, as one whale rolled over—belly up— the seal swept onto the whale’s chest. Amazingly, the whale arched itself and the seal sat above the water, out of reach from the orcas. The whale even helped the seal stay put with its flipper and successfully saved its life.

A Daily Mail article described the moment when a 26 year old diver’s leg cramped up.

Yang Yun, 26, was taking part in a free diving contest without breathing equipment among the whales in a tank of water more than 20ft deep and chilled to Arctic temperatures. She was faced with what she thought was her premature death due to her lack of breathing equipment, combined with her inability to move. Mila the beluga whale sensed her distress and clamped her mouth onto the diver’s leg, pushing her to the surface and ultimately saving her life. 

Whale Heroism Theories

There are numerous reports and eye-witness accounts of whales going out of their way to intervene and foil orca hunts, or to save other species in the sea. These reports have mystified scientists and researchers, who are unsure where this seemingly altruistic behavior stems from, particularly given that this ‘heroism’ does not seem to offer any particular benefit to the whales themselves. A number of theories have been posited to explain this oddly heroic behavior.

The most logical biological explanation for the humpbacks’ vigilante-like behavior is that the whales receive some sort of benefit from interfering with orca hunts.

Science Mag describes ‘mobbing’, the action that involves prey grouping together and pestering predators. However, orcas—or sharks—are rarely considered as ‘predators’ to humpback whales, unless the humpbacks are calves, sick or injured. The article highlights that, although humpback whales helping other whales could be because of self-interest and overlapping bloodlines, perhaps helping other species is due to their natural reaction to preventing attacks from orcas, and maybe nothing to do at all with species.

Another theory posited by MNN suggests that the humpback whales are making a point, as if to say, ‘we are stronger than you,’ and to prevent future attacks.

After his 2009 experience with humpback whales intervening in an orca hunt, Robert Pitman began collecting accounts of humpback whales interacting with orcas. Pitman found over 115 documented interactions, reported by 54 different observers between 1951 and 2012. In 89 percent of the recorded incidents, humpback whales seemed to intervene only as the killer whales began their hunt, or when they were already engaged in a hunt. The data suggests that humpback whales are choosing to interact with the orcas specifically to interrupt their hunts. Among the animals that have been observed being rescued by humpback whales were California sea lions, ocean sunfish, harbor seals, and gray whales. The details of this survey can be found in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

This behavior continues to baffle the scientific community, but it does illustrate that these animals are capable of sophisticated thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and highly complex systems of communication.

Threats to Whales

Although whales can be heroes, they are also threatened by captivity, whaling, pollution, collisions with ships, net entanglement, noise pollution, oil and gas development, and climate change.

Share this article across social media with the hashtag #WhaleWeek tagging @mygreenworldau and @WHALES_org

WDC is grateful to our guest bloggers and value their contributions to whale conservation. The views and opinions expressed by our guest bloggers are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent those of, and should not be attributed to, WDC.