Biologist Nan Hauser from Brunswick, Maine, has dedicated her life to whales.
She is the president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation and has spent 28 years diving with researching whales— everything from population status to feeding behavior. With all of her experience, Nan is pretty much an expert when it comes to the topic of whales, but this past January, she had an encounter that completely blew her mind.
Nan and her team were filming a nature film in the Cook Islands of the South Pacific.
At one point, Nan decided to go on a dive where she ran into a giant humpback whale. At first, the biologist didn’t think anything of the encounter. But then, the whale started displaying some odd behaviors.
Out of nowhere, the whale approached Nan and started nudging her with its nose and closed mouth.
The whale tucked the woman under its pectoral fin and, at one point, even tried to lift her out of the water.
With 28 years of experience, Nan had never experienced this kind of interaction and was scared the creature was going to hurt her.
“I was prepared to lose my life,” she told National Geographic.
“I thought he was going to hit me and break my bones.”
The whale didn’t end up hurting Nan— and later when the woman got back on the boat, she finally realized what had been going on.
Turns out that, unbeknownst to Nan, she was being eyed up as a tasty treat by a hungry shark. She hadn’t seen it following her, but when she was back on the boat she could see its fin protruding from the water.
“I knew that it was a tiger shark,” she said.
When the humpback whale realized what was going on, for some reason, it decided to protect her.
“Maybe the shark wasn’t going to attack me,” she said, “but [the whale] was trying to save my life.”
In science, selfless concern for the well-being of either is known as ‘altruism’— and Nan believes that’s exactly what this whale was displaying. There was no benefit for the animal in protecting her, but still, it did it all the same.
Other scientists are apprehensive about Nan’s interpretation of the whale’s behavior as “altruism”, but Martin Biuw, from the Institute of Marine Research in Norway, admits there are certain things that can invoke these protective behaviors in the species. For example, if the whale was female, “it is possible that she may show protective behavior towards a human (or other animals, for that matter) if she has, for instance, recently lost her calf,” he told National Geographic.
In response to the skeptics, Nan has said:
“I’m a scientist, and if anyone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it.”
Having lived through the experience, however, she is now convinced.
Interestingly, scientists have reported cases of humpback whales helping other animals too.
In 2016, scientists were observing marine behavior in the waters of Sook, off the southern tip of Vancouver Island, Canada. While there, they observed a group of humpback whales protecting a sea lion from a group of killer whales trying to attack. Michael Harris, head of the Pacific Whale Watch Association, told CBC News: “As the hunt was going on, two humpbacks decided to intervene and actually go between the sea lion and the killer whales.”
“Then, two more humpbacks joined the fray, literally putting their bodies between the orcas and the sea lion, flapping their flukes on the water, trumpeting very, very loudly at these transient orcas and ultimately saving this sea lion and escorting it in the other direction of these killer whales.”
Harris admitted he, too, used to doubt the idea of whale altruism.
“But now,” he said, “we have seen it first-hand, and I am a believer.”
To read more about the whales protecting the sea lion, click here.
See Nan’s incredible footage below!
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