Humpback Whales Versus Killer Whales: Why Are Humpbacks Saving Seals?

It’s a Humpback whales versus Killer Whales scuffle. But why are these otherwise gentle whales risking their lives to save seals and other prey from killer whales?

A Killer Whale Hunting A Seal In Antarctica; humpback whales versus killer whales

A Killer Whale Hunting A Seal In Antarctica

A marine ecologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) named Robert Pitman was working with an expedition in Antarctica back in 2009 when he noticed something strange in the water.

According to him, a pack of killer whales (orcas) were hunting a Weddell seal and had succeeded in washing it off an ice floe into the water. As usual, the next thing was to go in for the kill. But suddenly, a pair of  Humpback whales swam to the scene.

As he watched in surprise, one of the massive mammals flipped onto its back and carried the seal on its enormous belly. Even when the killer whales came closer to claim their prey, the humpback just arched itself upwards and created an “artificial island” for the seal. Whenever the seal slipped close to the waters edge, the humpback would just nudge it gently back onto its chest.

“I was shocked. It looked like they were trying to protect the seal.” – Pitman in an interview with Science Magazine.

Rather than just orcas hunting the seal, it turned to a humpback whale versus killer whale scene. Luckily, after a while, the orcas gave up and swam off and the seal was safe at least for the time being.

How Common Is It For Humpbacks To Rescue Seals And Other Creatures?

Pitman was so perplexed that he immediately called some of his colleagues to find out if anyone else had observed similar behavior. Turns out, the scene he just witnessed was not so unique after all.

Dozens of other scientists admitted witnessing the same kind of events.

Thereafter, Pitman and his co-authors went on to record 115 such incidents where humpbacks interacted with killer whales. And out of that number, 38 incidents saw killer whales being chased down and interrupted in their hunting efforts.

In the humpback whales versus killer whales battle, the humpbacks typically closed in on the orcas in groups. Almost like what you’d see when birds band together to chase off would-be predators. Also, in about 9 out of 10 cases the killer whales were not hunting the humpback whales per se.

In fact, these scuffles between humpbacks and orcas were mainly to save other creatures.

The results of this astounding survey were just recently published in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Research shows that apart from just defending their calves, humpbacks also seek out and harass killer whales. They do this to save helpless prey like seals, porpoises, and sea lions.

Humpbacks To The Rescue: Empathy Or Something Else?

The researchers are now wondering why an animal as gentle as a humpback would risk serious injury and maybe death to save another animal. Especially another species not even related to it. What could be going on in the whales’ minds to push them into action when they see a seal hunted by a pod of killer whales?

If it were a case of a mother whale saving its calf, or a whale defending another member of its group that would be understandable.

For one thing, Pitman suggests it may be a case where the whales have adopted a simple rule; when you hear an orca attack, go break it up. Others are of the opinion that it’s a case of empathy. Actually, the idea of animals exhibiting empathy is not a strange one and has been gaining popularity for a while now.

Esteban Rivas, director of the Institute for Animals in Philosophy and Science described this behavior as “targeted helping.”

 Researchers believe the whales are acting not out of aggressiveness towards the orcas but because they sense the distress and needs of the seal in that particular moment.

Humpback Whales Versus Killer Whales: Do The Whales Stand A Chance?

An adult humpback whale is a formidable creature. Though they lack sharp teeth to defend themselves, they can more than make up for it with their sheer intimidating size. Also, these whales are probably the most agile and acrobatic ones in the Earth’s waters.

With some quick body slams and flipper slaps, it should be able to fight off an attack from an orca.

On the other hand, the killer whale too is no pushover. It’s the largest dolphin species and also the most ferocious and determined hunter in our waters today. And worst of all, they hunt in packs. They regularly attack whales but especially whale calves not the adult whales.

So, what could be driving these whales to take such great risks? Because the fact is, the orcas could just as well abandon their intended prey and attack the intervening whales instead.

Are the whales actually displaying a some strong sense of empathy for another species?

It’s a fierce battle to say the least and it could turn out any way; in favor of the orcas or in favor of the whales.






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