Image: Sylke Rohrlach
It’s official: Humpback whales are the superheroes of the sea.
Scientists have recorded 115 separate cases of humpback whales intervening in orca hunts to save various marine animals.
Robert Pitman from the US National Marine Fisheries Service wrote in one published paper, “Anecdotes have been passed down for centuries about dolphins at sea coming to the aid of distressed conspecifics, as well as other species, including humans. However, more recent observations, including popular accounts and videos posted on the internet suggest that a baleen whale—the humpback whale—also approaches marine vertebrates in distress, most notably, when they are being attacked by killer whales.”
He notes that this behavior is unusual in that it puts the humpbacks in a position to be injured, or even killed, by the orcas. So why would they put themselves in that situation?
When orcas attack, they generally go after the calves or juveniles of large whale species which results in high calf mortality rates. Pitman continues, “even just the threat of a [mammal-eating orca] attack could significantly influence behavioral decisions made by large whales.”
They want to protect their babies and other helpless animals.
In 2012, a pod of killer whales was observed attacking a gray whale mother and calf pair in California, ending in the calf’s death. A total of 16 humpbacks arrived at the scene to prevent the orcas from eating the calf. They remained there for six and a half hours, ignoring nearby food to keep the orcas at bay.
“One specific humpback whale appeared to station itself next to that calf carcass, head pointed toward it, staying within a body length away, loudly vocalizing and tail slashing every time a killer whale came over to feed,” according to California Killer Whale Project researcher Alisa Schulman-Janiger.
The humpbacks don’t just protect their own species and other large whales, though. There have been reports of the animals protecting seals, sea lions, porpoises, and even sunfish.
Perhaps they are simply responding to hunting calls of orcas, not knowing what the whales are actually attacking until they get there.
Or, maybe, this is completely altruistic behavior. Humpbacks are highly social sophisticated, sentient beings with problem-solving skills. Have we underestimated other mammals all along?