On May 3rd, in a remarkable, rarely witnessed event, a total of seven humpback whales were seen apparently trying to save a gray whale calf from a coordinated orca attack in Monterey Bay, California. Onlookers from the Monterey Bay Whale Watch noticed a group of nine orcas, one gray whale calf and mother and two humpback whales splashing and making a great deal of commotion.
Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a whale researcher, said that the group of humpbacks “repeatedly followed the orcas, trumpet blowing, tail slashing, rolling, and head raising.” Schulman-Janiger goes on to say that, “these humpback whales seemed extremely distressed: nearly every surfacing over the entire observation period was accompanied by trumpet blows. They even put themselves into potential harm’s way by diving right next to the gray whale mom – where her calf was under attack.”
Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Emory University, shared Schulman-Janiger’s sentiments. Dr. Marino mentioned that cetaceans demonstrate empathetic behavior due to “specialized cells in their brains called Von Economo neurons (“spindle cells”), [which] are shared with humans, great apes, and elephants.” Humpback whales, a member of the cetacean species, are a social, complex and curious animal that spans many behavioral boundaries, often displaying higher-levels of thinking, including empathy, even outside of their own species.
Orcas, like humpbacks, demonstrate great intelligence and social behavior, but unlike the gentle giant are a highly skilled predator. In the end, the pod killed the gray whale calf in a natural, but brutal, act of basic survival. What’s remarkable is the fact that these seven humpback whales remained even after the death of the calf, repeatedly returning to the area where the carcass remained.
While it’s unclear what exactly transpired underwater during this particular whale watch, what can be concluded from above sea level is remarkable: the humpback whales attempted to intervene on an orca attack. Whether this was in an attempt to save the gray whale calf, or discourage the pod of orcas from the general area is hard to tell. What’s clear is the astounding and touching level of emotion and disturbance displayed at the scene that day by the brave group of humpbacks.
Photo Credit: NOAA