Humpback Vigilantes

The Altruistic Motivation of Whales

Interspecies adoption has forever fascinated me. For example, why would a leopard adopt an orphaned baby monkey, or a lioness a small antelope? It’s easy for us to accept that our family dog has “feelings” yet science looks at any form of anthropomorphic thinking as misdirected scientific enquiry. There have been more than 100 reported cases of Humpback whales interfering with Orca hunting non-Humpback species including sunfish, porpoise, seals, sea lions, and other marine mammals. It appears we have some Humpback heroes on the horizon!

Extraordinary footage of a killer whale attack on a Gray whale calf, when humpback whales arrive and try to intervene.

In evolutionary biology, when an organism’s behaviour benefits other organisms, at a cost to itself, it is said to behave altruistically. Why would Humpback whales risk personal injury and expend so much energy to protect entirely different species?  This has been the center of marine ecologist Robert Pitman’s research at NOAA Fisheries. Pitman has analyzed 115 interactions between Humpbacks and Orca. An extraordinary incident occurred near the Antarctic peninsula, where Pitman observed a Humpback offer protection to a Weddell Seal by rolling onto it’s back and holding the seal on it’s belly above the waters surface, out of reach of a pod of marauding killer whales.

It has been documented that many of the Humpbacks interfering in Orca hunts bear the scars of being attacked by Orca early in their lives, but not all. Perhaps the Humpbacks are unaware that the species under attack aren’t Humpbacks and they are merely responding to the vocalizations of the hunting killers? Perhaps they are responding to the distress calls of the animals under attack? Humpbacks regularly see their calves preyed upon by Orca, but no one can say for certain why they are intervening… vengeance, a mix-up or altruism? Researchers have several hypotheses, but nothing is conclusive. It is not clear what the Humpbacks gain from this behavior, but one could easily say that this is the behavior of a creature with intelligence, capable of empathetic response.

Many cases of altruistic behavior have been noted in nature, including dolphins coming to the aid of whales, dogs, and even humans. Behavior that offers zero personal gain; behavior that we typically reserve for humans makes one question how sophisticated animals can be. Clearly, we know so little about the emotional processing and intelligence of non-human species. And clearly, there is so much more to species other than humans.

“We need another and a wiser and perhaps a more mystical concept of animals. Remote from universal nature and living by complicated artifice, man in civilization surveys the creature through the glass of his knowledge and sees thereby a feather magnified and the whole image in distortion. We patronize them for their incompleteness, for their tragic fate for having taken form so far below ourselves. And therein do we err. For the animal shall not be measured by man. In a world older and more complete than ours, they move finished and complete, gifted with the extension of the senses we have lost or never attained, living by voices we shall never hear. They are not brethren, they are not underlings: they are other nations, caught with ourselves in the net of life and time, fellow prisoners of the splendour and travail of the earth.” - Henry Beston 1928

Beyond Words, by Carl Safina, is a truly captivating and awe-inspiring read that shatters commonly held concepts that separate the human and animal worlds. You can find it in our bookshop at Ocean Outfitters. This astonishing read explores Orca Society here in the Paciific North West, tells the story of wolf families in Yellowstone, and gives us a glimpse of the secret lives of African elephants.

“We look at the world through our own eyes, naturally. But by looking from the inside out, we see an inside-out world. This book takes the perspective of the world outside us—a world in which humans are not the measure of all things, a human race among other races...In our estrangement from nature we have severed our sense of the community of life and lost touch with the experience of other animals...understanding the human animal becomes easier in context, seeing our human thread woven into the living web among the strands of so many others.” - Carl Safina

Humpbacks seem to have started a kind of war against Orca. Although we have not yet observed this behavior in our local waters there is a rise in our Humpback sightings. It would be incredible to witness Humpbacks coming to the rescue of other creature at sea. Our guides are always watching!

By: Ocean Simone Shine

Beyond Words - What Animals Think and Feel. By Carl Safina
Humpback Whale in Tofino BC mid tail-lop!