Did a Humpback Whale Protect a Marine Biologist From a Shark Attack?

Humpback whales are known to be altruistic – they’ve been observed protecting other marine animals like gray whales, seals and dolphins from predators – but would they do the same thing for humans?

While diving near the Cook Islands in the South Pacific last October, marine biologist Nan Hauser had a rare, up-close encounter with a humpback whale, who she believes saved her from a tiger shark attack.

“If someone told me the story, I wouldn’t believe it,” Hauser, who lives in Brunswick, Maine and is president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, told the Portland Press Herald.

Hauser never makes contact with the whales she studies unless they’re sick or stranded. But in this case, the 25-ton humpback approached her. The whale began nudging her and shielding her with its pectoral fin as a cameraman accompanying her recorded their encounter.

“His eye was so wide, I was just waiting to get whacked,” Hauser told the Press Herald. “But it was clear it was trying to communicate something.”

For 10 minutes that felt more like three hours to her, Hauser was pushed through the water by the humpback. Although she feared the whale might kill her, she tried to remain calm. When she got close enough to her boat, she was able to swim away. As she climbed aboard the boat, the whale surfaced about 20 feet away, as if, she said, it was checking on her.

It was then that Hauser noticed a 15-foot-long tiger shark in the water.

Did the humpback whale really save Hauser’s life?

“I’ll admit, I’ve been studying whales for 28 years and I’ve published 56 papers, I think. I’ve never heard of that,” Hauser told the Press Herald.

Humpbacks are capable of sophisticated thinking, decision-making, problem-solving and communication, according to Lori Marino, an expert in cetacean intelligence and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project. “So, taken altogether, these attributes are those of a species with a highly developed degree of general intelligence capable of empathic responses,” she told National Geographic.

Experts agree that Hauser’s encounter with the humpback was amazing, but aren’t sure if the whale was truly attempting to protect her.

“The shark could have just been hanging around,” James Sulikowski, a marine biologist and University of New England professor who’s studied tiger sharks, told the Press Herald. “There’s really no way of knowing the whale’s motivation.”

Hauser, who’s been featured in programs on Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel and the National Geographic Channel, is also the principal investigator for the Cook Islands Whale Research Project. According to her website, her research includes “population identity, photo ID, acoustics, genetics, surface and underwater behavior, navigation and migration of cetaceans.”

She hopes the amazing footage of her encounter with the whale, which quickly went viral after she posted it on YouTube this month, will help lead to more research and awareness about the altruism of humpbacks.

“I’ve spent 28 years underwater with whales, and have never had a whale so tactile and so insistent on putting me on his head, or belly or back, or, most of all, trying to tuck me under his huge pectoral fin,” Hauser said.

Photo credit: CC0 Creative Commons

91 comments

Marie W
Marie W3 months ago

thank you for sharing

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