I recently read a very interesting story in All Creatures: The Animals Who Share Our Lives, (July/Aug 2019) about an encounter with a humpback whale. What intrigued me was the intelligence and compassion that the whale showed to a research diver.
Nan Hauser a whale biologist who is the president of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, was snorkeling by the Cook Islands in the Pacific Ocean when this incident took place in 2017.
A humpback whale swam right toward her and started to push her in such a way that she wound up on the whale’s head. Then the whale tried to put her under his pectoral fin. When the whale realized that she could not breathe under his fin, he lifted her up out of the water. While out of the water Ms. Hauser saw a female humpback whale aggressively slapping the water with her fin, which whales do to frighten away a predator.
Ms. Hauser then noticed another very large shape in the water. It turned out that it was a 15-foot tiger shark coming directly for her. The whales saved her life that day. But the story doesn’t end there. A little over a year later Ms. Hauser was out with another research team in a boat. The same male humpback whale swam next to the boat, put his head out of the water and looked at Ms. Hauser. He did not pay attention to anyone else.
This is not an isolated incident since it is not unusual for whales to protect members of other species. What does this tell us about whales? It shows many aspects of an animal’s mind and feelings. If you think of all the implications that acts of kindness such as these imply, it is truly amazing. The whale had to recognize that there was danger to another species. Then it had to gently protect the species at risk. In the case of Ms. Hauser, the whale had to have an understanding that humans cannot breathe underwater even though they may have seen them in scuba gear, breathing underwater. It shows a form of caring, compassion, and the fact that the whale remembered her a year later, shows that the whale specifically remembered Ms. Hauser. There is so much we do not know about animals and so much to learn.