“These attributes are those of a species with a highly developed degree of general intelligence capable of empathic responses.”
In the chilly seas of the Antarctic Peninsula seven years ago, marine biologist Robert Pitman was witness to the strangest of spectacles. He was watching a pod of killer whales hunting down a Weddell seal trapped on a sheet of pack ice. Before long, they’d got the poor creature where they wanted it – in the water. Suddenly, a colossal figure surfaced from right under the seal and moved between it and its attackers. Then to Pitman’s astonishment, this giant of the deep turned over to float on its back, with the seal positioned safely on its chest. A humpback whale had saved the defenceless seal from certain death, and the guys in the snazzy black and white suits took their begging bowls elsewhere. You couldn’t make it up.
But maybe it’s not so strange after all, since it seems that humpbacks have been observed all over the world protecting seals, sea lions and whales of other species from the predations of the orca. In this the humpback is unique, the only species of whale known to take up the cause of protecting other marine mammals.
Now, seven years on, Pitman has co-authored a study analysing 115 reported cases of this kind, spanning sixty years. His results? Out of those 115, only about one in ten involved humpbacks protecting other humpbacks from orcas. In the vast majority of cases, these ocean giants were saving other sea mammal species.
Why? Why would they put themselves in danger for animals not their kin? All the killer whale tooth marks on humpbacks (more than on any other species of whale) is proof that they are in some danger from orcas.
For orcas, humpback calves are a tasty meal, and since the female only gives birth to one calf every 2 years, mothers have a lot invested in their babies’ protection. The humpbacks can hear hunting orcas from over a mile away, so there is usually time to evade an attack. They move their calves to shallow water, or to the shelter of a reef, but if they can’t do that, they stand and fight. They often have male escorts who help to protect the calves, even those not their own, by placing themselves between the attackers and the calf, trumpeting and blowing, raising their heads, and slashing and slapping their tails and flippers. The trumpeting is something to be heard (see video).
So maybe other sea mammals happen to be unintended beneficiaries of humpbacks just protecting their own calves? Perhaps, but Pitman has another theory. Maybe humpbacks have since the dawn of time known killer whales as The Enemy. Maybe there is an eons-old, never-ending war between the two species, and it’s simply innate in humpbacks to rush in to defend whoever it is under orca attack, their own species or no.
There is another possibility though. According to Pitman’s study, “Interspecific altruism … could not be ruled out.” In other words, it could really be true that humpback whales actually care about the survival of other species.
Watch the video below to see humpbacks rushing to help a gray whale mum and her calf who are under orca attack.
“Although this behavior is very interesting, I don’t find it completely surprising that a cetacean would intervene to help a member of another species,” said Dr Lori Marino, an expert in cetacean intelligence and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. Humpbacks have sophisticated mental processes, can make decisions, solve problems, and of course, as we all know, communicate with one another.
“So taken altogether, these attributes are those of a species with a highly developed degree of general intelligence capable of empathic responses.”
Honestly, why are we surprised? Even humans have been known to put themselves in harm’s way to protect other animals now and then! And whatever we have discovered about the intelligence and behaviour of humpbacks, I’m pretty darn sure that it’s a smidge compared with the true complexities of this wondrous beast.
More on the amazing vegan that is Dr Lori Marino coming soon.
Petitions to sign for whales
Orcas and whales seen in fight to the death – BBC earth