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A Humpback Whale Saved My Life

posted by Jason Kottke   Nov 18, 2021

In this video, whale scientist Nan Hauser tells the story about how a humpback whale she was swimming with saved her from what she calls “the largest tiger shark I’ve ever seen”. It turns out this is not atypical behavior for humpbacks — they’re one of the nicest animals in the sea or on land and have been known to rescue animals from other species from predators.

First-person accounts of animals saving other animals are rare. Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, describes a pivotal encounter he witnessed in Antarctica in 2009. A group of killer whales washed a Weddell seal they were attacking off an ice floe. The seal swam frantically toward a pair of humpbacks that had inserted themselves into the action. One of the huge humpbacks rolled over on its back and the 180-kilogram seal was swept up onto its chest between the whale’s massive flippers. When the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water. And when the seal started slipping off, the humpback, according to Pitman, “gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest. Moments later, the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.”

Is this behavior in humpbacks altruistic or even compassionate? Or is it “just” instinct?

So are humpbacks compassionate? Scientists, Sharpe tells me, shy away from using the same descriptors we use for humans. “What is exciting about humpbacks is that they are directing their behavior for the benefit of other species,” he says. “But there’s no doubt there are important differences between human compassion and animal compassion.” When I pose the same question to Pitman he concurs. “No editor is going to let me use the word compassion. When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”