Altruism: the belief in or practice of selfless concern for the well-being of others. Compassion: sympathetic pity and concern for the sufferings or misfortunes of others. These two words are usually applied to humans and situations involving us. But one question stands: Could some animals like humpback whales have the ability to feel and express compassion and altruism? Scientists are still hesitant when it comes to using words like “compassion” with animals. Yet, growing evidence suggests humpback whales might be the nicest animals in the world. It seems they care for other species and do not hesitate to intervene in risky situations to save individuals from predation. So watch out, orcas; these ocean superheroes are here to defend prey against your attacks!
A long list of “altruistic” events
Humpback whales always protect their own calves. The ocean is a dangerous environment, and with killer whales always on the look for prey, humpback whales have developed an anti-predation behavior known as “mobbing“. Mobbing means the adult whales will harass the predators to protect their offspring. However, humpback whales have also protected or rescued individuals from other species for a long time and in different areas of the world. Here, we focus on a couple of events that convinced experts humpback whales are the seas’ true heroes.
Grey whale calf intervention
On May 3rd, 2012, in Monterey Bay, California, whale watchers witnessed a predation event involving nine transient (marine mammal feeding) killer whales and a mom/calf pair of grey whales. It is not rare for transient killer whales to go after mom/calf pairs. They usually try to separate them to go after the calf, drown it and then feast on its carcass. Needless to say: when you are facing nine hungry and skilled orcas, your chances of survival are very slim.
On this day, as whale watchers were observing the grey whale mom trying to protect her calf from the orcas, something happened. Two humpback whales who were witnessing the event started harassing the killer whale pod. To do so, they got close to the grey whale pair, then splashed, and trumpeted at the orca pod. Their intervention lasted a while, but the skilled killers managed to drown the grey whale calf. Still, the two humpback whales, joined by three other pod members kept mobbing the killer whale pod by trumpeting, splashing, and tail slashing at them. Nobody knows for sure why the humpback whales acted this way. However, this event is not uncommon.
Seal rescue in Antarctica
In 2009, researchers witnessed an incredible seal rescue event in Antarctica. As a pod of hungry killer whales was about to close in on a crabeater seal, a couple of humpback whales charged in and started to harass the orcas. The mobbing lasted for a bit, and the annoyed killer whale pod retreated, leaving the seal untouched … and probably crazy scared!
The next week, Robert L. Pitman and his team witnessed another rescue event involving a humpback whale, a Weddell seal, and a pod of orcas. After pushing the seal into the water, the killer whales were about to finish it. This is when the humpback whale rolled on its back and carried the seal to safety on its belly!
Events like these, involving humpback whales mobbing orcas, are no longer rare, and Pitman and his colleagues collected data from 115 similar encounters between humpbacks and killer whales over 62 years. Still, nobody really knows why humpback whales are so “altruistic“.
Can we call it compassion?
“Compassion” is strictly used in situations involving humans. So what word could we use to describe the humpback whales’ protective behavior? Pitman and his colleagues called it “instinct” or “altruism” in their 2017 paper. And while no actual reason for this altruism has been revealed yet, Pitman and his colleagues pointed out that humpbacks are extremely social creatures. We know they show strong fidelity towards their breeding sites, and they care for their calves for years. Therefore the authors hypothesized humpbacks could simply decide to mob killer whales as a protective measure. Indeed, some humpback whales can escort mom/calf pairs from their own species to protect them from predators. Maybe humpback whales’ instinct tells them to protect all animals from killer whales, including individuals outside of their species.
In the end, just like in every research, there is no real response to our question regarding altruism in humpback whales, but rather fantastic new opportunities to study these whales’ behavior. And who knows, we might get a solid answer soon!
Thank you for reading! Check out our other humpback whale posts:
- Pitman, Robert L., et al. “Humpback whales interfering when mammal‐eating killer whales attack other species: Mobbing behavior and interspecific altruism?.” Marine Mammal Science 33.1 (2017): 7-58.
- Whiting, C.C. “Humpback Whales Intervene in Orca Attack on Gray Whale Calf.” Humpback Whales Intervene in Orca Attack on Gray Whale Calf, 8 May 2012, www.digitaljournal.com/article/324348.
- Pitman, Robert L. “Save the Seal!” Save the Seal! | Natural History Magazine, Nov. 2009, www.naturalhistorymag.com/exploring-science-and-nature/131929/save-the-seal.