Dolphins may get plenty of deserved credit for saving drowning sailors, even getting called “our brothers in the sea” in mythology. However, this account of two humpback whales working together to protect a 63 year old marine biologist from a tiger shark might be the first record of such protective behavior towards humans from these awesome giants.
Nan Hauser was diving off the coast of the Cook Islands, in warm water, when she was approached by a 22 ton humpback whale that proceeded to usher her to the surface using its mouth and head. The animal was being gentle when doing this, but when faced with a beast the size of a bus, one can’t help but feel at least a little scared. Not to mention the fact that the immense strength of the whale is apt to lead to some bruising when interacting with a human, no matter how gentle the giant.
When Hauser didn’t seem to be willing to get out of the water once and for all, the whale then started to try and tuck her in, behind its pectoral fin, while another humpback was beating the water with its gargantuan tail. All of these actions turned out to be the whales’ attempts at protecting the diver from a tiger shark that was swimming around in the same area. Once Nan saw the shark, she understood that the whales weren’t trying to harm her by pushing her around in the water, but rather, they were trying to get her to safety, or keep her safe themselves.
Apparently, whales exhibit protective behavior towards smaller species. There are accounts of whales forming a defensive circle around seals, to keep groups of orcas away. But this may be the first time they’ve protected a human from a shark. We still have very limited understanding of whales’ behavioral patterns, and what evolutionary advantage such apparently altruistic behavior might have. Certainly it hasn’t seemed to bring them any respite from the abuse perpetrated upon the oceans by humanity as a whole. Still, it’s difficult not to personify these animals after such incidents. And it’s difficult not to feel awe at their majesty.