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Humpback Whales Intervene to Help Save Gray Whale Calf

Humpback Whales Intervene to Help Save Gray Whale Calf

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.

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Photo Credit: NOAA

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138 comments

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9:02AM PDT on Jun 15, 2012

Even when their best efforts to save the calf failed, they remained near the body of calf. How very touching..Too bad most humans don't have that instinct to help others who not even related to them.

3:38AM PDT on May 21, 2012

thanks for sharing :) did see this video on planet earth live, in the UK :)

9:22AM PDT on May 16, 2012

More empathy than some humans.

11:45AM PDT on May 14, 2012

Kat K.--First of all, it was humpbacks that came to protect the gray whale calf. Secondly, they didn't succeed. The calf was killed.

It is sad that they didn't succeed, but it gives one food for thought. Just how smart these animals are! I wonder how many human beings would have tried to save a child in these circumstances.

4:54AM PDT on May 14, 2012

Great story thanks.

6:15AM PDT on May 12, 2012

well it is a pity the baby whale was not saved in the end.

5:44AM PDT on May 12, 2012

This is precious beyond measure. Thank goodness the grey whales came along. They are very intelligent animals, and the calf is lucky that they saw him and saved him~~I hope he lives a long and wonderful life. Wonderful story~~thanks for sharing.

4:38AM PDT on May 12, 2012

part two....

So based on previous up close experience with a baby humpback and the protective adults, it does not surprise me that they would come to the aid of another calf....even if not one of their own.

It is sad that the orcas preyed on the calf, but nature has its own ways of survival.

4:36AM PDT on May 12, 2012

I "met" some humpbacks after scuba diving many years ago. I was sitting on the rear dive platform of the dive boat as it pulled away from our dive location, with my flipper encased feet dangling in the water. At the time I was playing with a Nikonos V camera, adjusting and taking pictures of whales nearby, using up the remaining film in the camera, when I felt a nudge of my feet. Scratching his nose and head was a baby humpback whale! He'd rub against my feet and then stop and look at me. So I moved my feet in a scratching motion along his head. He continued to keep up with the dive boat for at least 5 minutes of scratching! And I was told later by others watching that two more adult humpbacks followed closely, one trumpeting as it surfaced, the other quietly swimming parallel to the baby.

When the baby had had enough, he raised his head and looked at me, sort of nodded and then slowed to let the boat pull away, before he dropped below the surface. He resurfaced in one of those maneuvers that humpbacks do, raising up and crashing down on the surface. He and his adult minders followed us for another 5 minutes before retreating.

I admit to being torn between reaching forward to scratch him with my hand or to continue taking pictures of him. It did occur to me that if while leaning forward to do so, I slipped and fell in, I might alarm the whales. With the motion of the boat it would've been easy to slip. So I chose to take the pictures which I treasure to

6:07PM PDT on May 11, 2012

I wasn't a witness, but don't underestimate mother nature!

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