A Whale of Altruism

For the longest time I have always considered Killer Whales, or Orcas, to be the apex predator of our seas and oceans. No other aquatic mammals possess a higher level of sophistication in social and hunting behavior as these fierce, cunning, team-working killers. They are the ocean’s top predator because there are no other seafaring animals that prey on them. No other creature in the sea has the group intelligence, the complex vocal communication, or eusociality to compete with the mighty Orcas and their pods. All aquatic animals fear Killer Whales, even the Great White Sharks run from the first hints of approaching Killer Whales. They are indeed the Dexter’s or Jack the Rippers of the water-world.

Orca v sealsI’m sure many of you have watched Nature documentaries on these animals and how they are able to hunt seals right off the beach swimming up onto the sand, out of the water to chomp on surprised, unsuspecting pups then dragged back into the sea with their floundering meal in their teeth.

As a remarkably fast pod they search out dolphins, chase them long distances and exhaust the weaker dolphins. This separates the stragglers from the main pod. Once this is achieved the lone selected dolphin is pounded by the veteran Orcas’ strong tails and kept from surfacing to breath. It soon drowns and is eaten, shared by the Orca pod. Depending on the geographical habitat Killer Whales feed on over 30 species of fish, cephlopods like squid or octopus, mammals (even deer swimming island to island), sea birds and sea turtles. Personally, I have the highest respect and fear of Orcas simply for their astute intelligence and ability to hunt as a pack—strength in numbers with highly evolved brains and 56 razor sharp teeth per Killer Whale. Seriously, what isn’t to fear about this animal!? When I learned that even Great White sharks will not stay around if any Killer Whale pod is in the vicinity, I concluded that this creature was today’s T-Rex of the seas; the unequivocal Champ/King of the food chain with no contenders.

Then I learned about one of the most fantastic natural events in animal behavior. They are knights in shining armor, the Sir Lancelots of the Brutal Seas. I was stunned! I could not believe my eyes and ears and what I was reading and watching on PBS.

The One Ocean Mammal that Will Stand-up to Killer Whales

They are not the largest mammals on Earth, but despite the hunted species in distress fearing for its life Humpbacks are seemingly compassionate heroes and fearless defenders when it comes to lethal, attacking Killer Whales.

Increasingly more and more oceanic documentations and studies from around the world seem to show a pattern of extraordinary altruistic behavior among Humpback whales when Killer Whales attack prey. From the August 2016 LiveScience.com article:

The study found that large and powerful humpback whales, the only whales known to attack orcas, will band together and sometimes travel great distances to interrupt and terminate a killer whale attack, regardless of what type of animal the orca is attacking.

Yes, as if the weak and defenseless had little to no hope of surviving the hungry pod’s trap and guaranteed feast starting with little ones, the proverbial cavalry swoops in and swims to the rescue. Is it possible that highly evolved aquatic mammals like whales, dolphins, and octopuses that we’ve only just begun studying intimately the last few decades have an intricate social-system connected with levels of empathy and compassion? We know they protect offspring, of course, as most mammals have done for many centuries and millenia. However, just how expansive is interspecies relationships, friendships, or compassion for animals not their own?

Humback v Orca

Humpback hits and flips a Killer whale

One account in the study described a killer whale attacking a gray whale mother and calf, when “out of nowhere, a humpback whale came trumpeting in.” Four more humpbacks shortly followed, which the observer found odd because no humpbacks had been sighted in the area before then. Their timely arrival allowed both calf and mother to flee to safety, the researchers said.
Saved by the Whale! Humpbacks Play Hero When Orcas Attack, https://www.livescience.com/55639-humpbacks-protect-when-killer-whales-attack.html, LiveScience.com accessed Jan. 8, 2020

Are these events and reports just random, freak occurrences that do not portray such a learned, high-level of caring, compassion, and empathy of which we assume is only a behavioral manifestation by “God-created” or socially evolved humans?

Humpback whales (Megaptera novaeangliae) are known to interfere with attacking killer whales (Orcinus orca). To investigate why, we reviewed accounts of 115 interactions between them. Humpbacks initiated the majority of interactions (57% vs. 43%; n = 72), although the killer whales were almost exclusively mammal‐eating forms (MEKWs, 95%) vs. fish‐eaters (5%; n = 108). When MEKWs approached humpbacks (n = 27), they attacked 85% of the time and targeted only calves. When humpbacks approached killer whales (n = 41), 93% were MEKWs, and ≥87% of them were attacking or feeding on prey at the time. When humpbacks interacted with attacking MEKWs, 11% of the prey were humpbacks and 89% comprised 10 other species, including three cetaceans, six pinnipeds, and one teleost fish. Approaching humpbacks often harassed attacking MEKWs (≥55% of 56 interactions), regardless of the prey species, which we argue was mobbing behavior. Humpback mobbing sometimes allowed MEKW prey, including nonhumpbacks, to escape. We suggest that humpbacks initially responded to vocalizations of attacking MEKWs without knowing the prey species targeted. Although reciprocity or kin selection might explain communal defense of conspecific calves, there was no apparent benefit to humpbacks continuing to interfere when other species were being attacked. Interspecific altruism, even if unintentional, could not be ruled out.
— Pitman, R.L., Deecke, V.B., Gabriele, C.M., Srinivasan, M., Black, N., Denkinger, J., Durban, J.W., Mathews, E.A., Matkin, D.R., Neilson, J.L., Schulman‐Janiger, A., Shearwater, D., Stap, P. and Ternullo, R. (2017), Humpback whales interfering when mammal‐eating killer whales attack other species: Mobbing behavior and interspecific altruism?. Mar Mam Sci, 33: 7-58. doi: 10.1111/mms.12343

It is quite rare for scientists to film a united Orca attack, but it is even more rare for them to catch and film Humpback whales intervening to stop the attack. More and more footage is showing that if Humpback whales are able to arrive soon enough during the Killer Whale hunt, the Humpback whale(s) will put themselves between the Orcas and the prey.  They will defend and deter the Killers however they are able until the Orcas swim away defeated. It is truly astonishing.

As I watched the PBS Nature show The Whale Detective, I was pleasantly blown away by this heroic behavior from adult Humpbacks. I had never known ANY modern oceanic species that was capable of stopping, let alone scare away Killer Whales from an almost successful, team/pod hunting attack. Seriously, how often do Orca pod attacks end in failure? They are phenomenal pack-hunters with cunning skills in various conditions and places when they set out together to kill an animal, in the water or on the beach! Finally, they have an opponent that will not back down to them and do what they can to protect other vulnerable sea mammals.

Is it not a wonderful moment when knowing full well we humans are by no means at the top of the food-chain—when NOT in our own controlled environments, especially—and  you witness or learn that what once was thought to be an unstoppable, unmatched predator (e.g. grizzly bears, Burmese pythons), a given… in and on this planet’s carnivorous flesh-ripping arena, the hierarchy is turned upside down. Suddenly the top dog, the apex predator actually DOES have a serious threat or contender, a weakness? I do! I love when big slices of humble pie are served up. I thoroughly enjoy watching hyper-arrogant bullies, in dismay, meet their match and fall embarrassingly to the next champ, the next better killer, or more advanced, more evolved highly skilled species, and “the fall,” perhaps extinction, suddenly becomes a serious F*CKING reality. 😆 Nature seems to have a way of rebalancing things, of realigning or reorganizing equality, huh?

Ahh, Natural Selection and advanced, progressive intelligence:  a wonderful bitchin’ combination ain’t it? Three cheers for the Humpback whales!


Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always — Know the Food Chain

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31 thoughts on “A Whale of Altruism

    • Hey Ark, quick question for you. This is completely off topic with my post here, but I am very curious to hear your take and thoughts on a discussion/debate I was having the other evening with a typical American-born sports fan. He had gotten increasingly excited over football/soccer (as a fan only) over the last decade. He has never played the game himself at any highly competitive level—only on his university intramural team and as a boy growing up in domestic leagues and for his high school team—however, because he has some aunts, uncles, and cousins abroad in Europe and Asia, thru them he has gotten ‘more informed’ so he said. So, here’s my question to you and what we discussed with some intense disagreements every once in awhile. 😛

      What football/soccer leagues are the best, Top 5 and Top 10 HIGH QUALITY leagues in the world, top to bottom, with these 8 factors:

      • Quality, competitiveness of all matches; parity.
      • Number of goals scored.
      • Number of shutouts accumulated.
      • Talent produced from lower leagues and youth.
      • Game atmosphere, fan excitement and turnout.
      • Quality of full rosters, players, coaches and stadiums.
      • Championship format and structure.
      • Then of course, which players from which clubs/leagues make-up the most talented, exciting FIFA World Cup tournaments, perhaps including the UEFA Champions League and UEFA Nations Tournament, but other continental tournaments considered as well.

      Here are MY Top 10+ Elite Football Leagues in the world based upon the above 8 factors:

      #1 – English Premiere League

      #2 – La Liga

      #3 – Serie A

      #4 – German Bundesliga

      #5 – Campeonato Brasileiro Série A (Brasil)

      #6 – Ligue 1 (France) but ONLY because the next three below fluctuate and PSG ridiculously dominates every single season.

      #7 & #8 – Primeira Liga (Portugal) and Süper Lig (Turkey)

      #9 – Russian Premier League

      #10 & #11 – Eredivisie (Holland) and First Division A Pro League (Belgium)

      #12 – Liga MX (Mexico)

      Now here’s the part where he and I disagreed immensely. He had our American MLS at #6 in the world. 🤣 I LAUGHED so hard it truly baffled him and caught him off guard! He was shocked I didn’t rank our MLS anywhere in my Top 10-12. I think perhaps he thought I should at least be patriotic enough (nationalistic?) to (lie?) include “American Made” in my list. Not that you’d have to know anything Ark about our football league here, but I am very interested in knowing your opinions about world footballing leagues and where the elite, highest quality exists right now if you have some free time. Thank you Sir. 🙂

      P.S. Sorry, I realized I forgot to insert my beloved Brasilian league in my list, making it Top 12. Apologies. Also, with several of the leagues I put in parenthesis their nation played for my readers unfamiliar with world leagues, certainly not for your benefit. I know you know all of these leagues’ nations. 😉

      Liked by 1 person

      • Hello Professor. I am sorry to jump into your discussion I am not a part of but…

        Really is that the point? Get the boy undressed and treat him to some home action making him forget the entire world wide football network, team, and players.

        I am sure with some well tied rope and frame setups you can get him to see a home goal or two. I have faith in you Professor.

        Oh wait, Uhm … Sorry I think I misunderstood the comment/question. Never mind. ( can I borrow the rope goal set up, never know when I will meet a hunky fit footballer ) Hugs


        • Hahahaha! I was just in the process of responding to your other previous comment Scottie. But this one made me stop, eyes bulging, and laughing. 😉 😛

          I’m pretty sure the man I was debating did NOT feel as if I “undressed him” with my responses and rebuttals. In fact, he had no idea what Alt-lifestyles I am a part of… good for him I’m sure cuz his wife was a looker for sure. 😈 Nonetheless, you gave me a good chuckle Scottie. Now, off to finish my response to you. 🙂

          Liked by 1 person

  1. Remarkable behavior, thanks for posting.

    Whales do have very complex brains suggesting high intelligence and, perhaps a capacity for empathy, though we know very little about their minds. Humans frequently try to protect animals of other species, and apes have occasionally been known to do so — why wouldn’t some whales be capable of the same kind of feelings and behavior?

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Hello Dwain. Thank you for a grand post. I love the creatures of the planet and especially the strange and wonderful creatures of the oceans deep. But I wonder, has man’s attempt to drive some of these creatures into extinction tip the balance from what was once normal. Did once the larger number of Whales keep the Orcas population in check limiting their predation? Have we altered the balance so much we have doomed the rise of potential intelligent species on our planet to be equal to us or share knowledge with us? I have heard that if humans were not here that Octopi could rise to be the most intelligent life on the planet eventually rivaling what humans have done? I am not sure how that could happen, but I like the idea that we would be a planet of multiple intelligent aware species co-existing. From what I understand in the deep past there were multiple humanoid species co-existing. I wish they have survived also, it would help us answer so many questions. Can you imagine if we could talk coherently with whales, or octopi and learn what they know about the oceans and how they see life? Hugs

    Liked by 3 people

    • You’ve made a (sad 😦 ) very good point Scottie about how human development, intrusion, and irresponsibility for our planet and the world’s ecosystems—they are ALL connected and influential in other ecosystems, whether immediate or the eventual future of the whole. Yes, I mean the ENTIRE planet!

      We humans, more than ever in our brief history on Earth, have impacted most all of Earth’s species to some degree, many tragically and extinct as well as endangered, particularly since the Industrial Revolution. During one segment of the PBS special, they covered how many large whales are now HIT by massive ocean freighters—one 9-year old female Humpback washed ashore near San Francisco Bay had her backbone snapped by a enormous freighter leaving or coming. The marine scientists investigating the corpse were stunned how her spine was pushed into her ribs with such force. 😢

      More and more whales are being discovered with propeller slashes across their bodies and fins lacerated by fishing-nets and lines cutting deeply into and through fins or their tails. One such whale had no tail fin whatsoever. And even large pods of great Orcas are now endangered. One specific pod (A1, A2, A4, something like that?) is expected to be completely extinct very soon, if not already, due to an ExxonMobil oil-spill from many years ago that eliminated the Orcas foods sources.

      What appalls me Scottie is just how disrespectful, uneducated, apathetic, and irresponsible we humans are (as a whole) in taking exceptional care of this planet’s health/ability to feed us and our own descendants, let alone other children yet born! Isn’t it ironic that we are SUPPOSEDLY the most intelligent species on this planet and yet we will likely destroy irreparably “the hand(s) that feed us and our children.” Doesn’t sound like an intelligent species to me. 😔

      Liked by 2 people

      • Hello Professor. Ironic that we are described as intelligent … tragic also. Your post pointed out a different species of Whales came to the rescue of ocean life being attacked by a predator. Yet we humans can not come together to save or provide support to our own species being attack due to our weird obsession over skin color. Think of it, many creatures have different patterns of colors and get along fine. But humans, the elite animal on the planet can not?

        Just for a minute descend back to my teen years in the SDA church where we were taught we were the stewards of the planet, a commandment given to humans from god.

        Where are all those people now? Why are they not demanding the government change its polices? Oh right, pro life ideologue religious judges trumps the environment and species the bible commands them to protect. Weird in my view. Hugs

        Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating behavior, indeed. It reminds me of an incident filmed several years ago capturing an orca pod attack upon a group of blue whales (the largest animals to have ever existed on Earth). When the blue whales realized they were in trouble, one of the large males went in a different direction to lure the orcas away from his group. All the orcas followed him; and, well, his end wasn’t very pleasant. But, his sacrifice save his group.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hello Robert. Thank you for mentioning this. Are we humans so sure the rest of the inhabitants of the planet do not have the same emotions and intelligence we do. There are many species that can out survive us in a disaster. The professor has reminded me several times of the efficiency and ability to work together of ants. Here in Florida after a flood we have to be careful of fire ants floating clusters as they have learned how to avoid drowning and if they hit you, your toast.
      But the actions of the ocean creatures I admit I am not yet up on. I love the first Planet Blue Earth series and guess I need to look into the second one. Hugs

      Liked by 2 people

        • Hello Professor. I will look up and put into my watch list Blue Planet 2. The World is so interesting and there is so much to learn / get to, I wonder how I will ever finish them all. Then I realize that as soon as I think I have learned them all, another new set will come out teaching me new things I never dreamed of. Hugs

          Liked by 2 people

          • When I was teaching years back one of my Principals shared with me a most profound truth Scottie:

            The most exceptional teachers, the ones that best prepare you for most everything in life, are the ones who are always students.

            Hence, you are on your way to becoming an exceptional teacher my friend. 😉

            Liked by 2 people

        • Hello Professor. Dang every attempt I make even using a vpn I can not watch Blue planet 2. It appears I have to buy it. I will talk to Ron but that is really a low priority for us right now. I would have liked to learn about the ocean creatures, yet it seems their need for money out weights educating people. Hugs

          Liked by 2 people

          • Which is why I will always first support our non-profit organizations and institutions. History has shown, and it seems to hold true today, that most often too much profit or exorbitant amounts of money involved almost ALWAYS skew and corrupt the process of pure learning and pure science. The recent series (in 2017 – 2018?) on National Geographic Channel called Mars did a fantastic job on portraying the never-ending conflict (and moral dilemma) between human development, industrialization, and profits (sometimes disguised as “progress”) versus scientific careful exploration, preservation, education, and environmental responsibility/accountability.

            Now that we are about 260 years into non-stop industrial revolution, development, and exploitation for the sake of human wants for “civilization’s progress,” our planet and ecosystems are on the verge of catastrophic rebellion upon us and all living species here. Well, except for upon roaches and various rodents. 😄

            Liked by 2 people

    • Wow Robert! 😲 What an incredible story and video documentation, huh!? You remind me of the same Superorganism and Eusociality behavior among ants or honey bees. They do the same thing for the hive and future generations! ❤

      Liked by 2 people

  4. Great post! Incredible stuff. I guess we know who the sheriff of the sea is.

    It strikes me as a rare, what we’d think of as a human trait, that is selflessly stepping into a situation to save someone or something we have no vested interest in.

    A fucking hero. Just incredible.

    It’s a shame we can’t get the interview with the whale. That’s a story I’d love to hear.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Sheriff indeed. I just wonder once the Humpbacks hear the distress calls, if their distance is great, how hard and fast do they TRY to get there to rescue and stop? If they are 300-500 miles away or further, do they arrive in time? It seems there may not be enough Humpbacks around! Lol


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