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!

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

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Visiting Our Cusp, Limits, Fearlessly

Sometimes during unsettled times when so many around us are disconnected, cold, detached, uncaring, and avoiding simple social kindness to one another, or hyper-charged looking for drama and some type of controversy—perhaps because they’ve been living too long in begrudging routine mediocrity or luxury—we lose sight of what really matters in life as simple human beings. We forget that there is very little difference between all of us. In fact, genetically less than 0.1%. If we would embrace this commonality, this intimate reality, our very fragility and vulnerability with each other in this daunting, life-giving Universe… then we are never alone. Never unwanted or not needed. Never without friend or family. This primal, very basic organic condition we all share will never, EVER change; at least not in the next 100,000 years or more.

Be that as it may, we do sometimes need reminding, refreshers in how very minuscule each of us are in this vast, never-ending, beautifully inhumane Cosmos that completely dictates our quality of life and death. Our time here is but a flash in the bucket in the biggest picture, BUT remarkably impactful for the ‘millisecond’ of life and memories with other loved ones. With so many things uncertain yet ready to experience, its marrow ready to be sucked down to the last molecule of our 80, 70, 50, 20, or 10-years of life, whatever it is to be, makes it… pure gold! Every second, every ounce! How will you spend it? How will others experience you and remember you?

I posted this years ago from Oriah Mountain Dreamer. I want to post it again, as a reminder… that we usually have only one chance to make the most of this short, mortal, beautifully remarkable gift called life really count the most. Oriah knows exactly how to best live and die in it:

It doesn’t interest me what you do for a living.
I want to know what you ache for
and if you dare to dream of meeting your heart’s longing.

It doesn’t interest me how old you are.
I want to know if you will risk looking like a fool
for love
for your dream
for the adventure of being alive.

It doesn’t interest me what planets are squaring your moon…
I want to know if you have touched the centre of your own sorrow
if you have been opened by life’s betrayals
or have become shrivelled and closed
from fear of further pain.

I want to know if you can sit with pain
mine or your own
without moving to hide it
or fade it
or fix it.

For the rest of Oriah’s powerful, to the bone and straight to the heart realism, go here.

 

If we do not test ourselves when life is good, plush for ourselves, and push our abilities our kind empathy, understanding, and what we can manage and gladly give, then how can we ever truthfully know how much our proactive help matters? How much does our charitable action count? How much does our voice count to help make other’s lives easier, happier in a purely humane way? It takes so much more to join the disadvantaged… raw in person and heart than simply saying words or writing a check. Joining all of humanity, the worst, the most unfortunate is where the most profound, deepest fulfillment of live is discovered. The alternative is a planet of unfeeling, insensitive, self-absorbed, non-humanity, as the song aptly describes…

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Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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21st-Century Humans More Peaceful

With utter fascination last Wednesday night Nov. 20th, I watched one of my favorite PBS shows, NOVA. The title of the show was The Violence Paradox. The one hour show investigated how over the last 200,000 years Homo sapiens as a whole are living and dying less violently. In other words, comparatively speaking in the 21st century by the compiled numbers most human beings are living and dying more peacefully than in our past.

stevenpinkerIn his two published books The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined (2011) and its sequel Enlightenment Now: The Case for Reason, Science, Humanism, and Progress (2018), cognitive psychologist, linguist, and Harvard Professor Steven A. Pinker states on the show:

We’ve done something right. Let’s figure out what it is and keep doing it. The reality is that we may be living in one of the most peaceful eras in human existence. Violence has been in decline, but that just doesn’t count as news. You just never see a journalist saying, “I’m reporting live, from a country that’s at peace,” or “a school that hasn’t been shot up.” Once I stumbled upon this graph, I mentioned it in a blog post, and then I received correspondence from scholars in a variety of fields, telling me that I could’ve made an even stronger case. I saw data-set after data-set, all of which showed declines in violence, in different parts of the world, with different kinds of violence. And I realized there was a story that needed to be told.

Enlightenment Now_PinkerHowever, Pinker wants to be clear about the explicit and implicit meaning of his findings so as not to be painted as a deluded optimist.

To point out that things were worse in the past is not to say we should relax, our problems are all solved, quite the contrary. It’s by understanding how our predecessors were able to drive down rates of violence that we can be emboldened to try to drive them down even further.

And this is where I was personally intrigued! How. How has this downward trend of violence, on the global scale, been achieved? What various factors and events have contributed to humanity’s gradual increase to more peaceful existences with each other?

I found the entire 1-hour 53-minute documentary to be powerful and yes, hopeful with tangible solutions and methods offered and that are in fact tried and tested for success, offering more reasons to keep this peaceful trend rising. What I found especially intriguing from the scientific and statistical findings was of the many factors scientists have connected to violence or peace, seven modern societal conditions and their related sub-conditions which guided humans either toward, hate, prejudice, and violence, or on a path of peace, collaboration, and prosperity. They were:

  • Government or State — the rule of law kept better peace
  • The Civilizing Process — economic order went hand in hand with social norms and manners, etiquette, self-control, etc.
  • Equality — learning about others with the same experiences (with empathy below)
  • Literacy — not just reading, but how much could be read about from a diverse continent or around our diverse world (e.g. Uncle Tom’s Cabin)
  • Empathy — feeling deeply about someone else’s plight and/or prosperity (linked with equality)
  • Biggest World Powers — the top major powers/armies are not fighting, at the moment
  • Testosterone Levels — today violence is no longer an effective tool to get something done or achieve conquest as it was before. Non-violent movements are 2-3 times as successful as violent movements

However, without these seven conditions above or just two to four of them or one or more in fragile existence, the whole of a civilization could collapse, returning it/us right back to Medieval societal hardships when one ruler or small group of “Lords” could easily become sadistic tyrants willing, forcing their subordinates into heinous acts or genocide. From the show:

NARRATOR: At SWPS University, in Poland, Tomasz Grzyb and Dariusz Doliński are revisiting a famous experiment first conducted in the 1960s by the American psychologist Stanley Milgram. In the aftermath of the holocaust, Milgram wanted to understand how seemingly good people could follow terrible orders.

Just as Milgram did, the experiment starts by setting up a fake study.

TOMASZ GRZYB (SWPS University): There are two participants, and there is a guy who presents himself as a professor of psychology, and he says that, “Well, you are a participant in an experiment which is devoted to find out how memory’s working.”

NARRATOR: Grzyb is masquerading as a participant, the so-called “learner.” The other participant is the “teacher.” Grzyb pretends to memorize sets of letters, but his responses are scripted. The teacher is told that the student is hooked up to the machine, and they must administer a shock, if he answers incorrectly.

Because the experiment is highly stressful for the real subject, the so-called teacher, it’s controversial. So, it will be stopped at 150 volts, the 10th switch on the panel, which, if real, would be an extremely painful shock.

Will anyone go so high?

PBS NOVAThis experiment showed that with a powerful authority figure or figures ordering the “teacher” to commit this violence—by fear, coercion, or perhaps blackmail—of the 220 participants, about 90% of them obeyed the orders. Many of us think we would never commit such heinous crimes on another, a baby, child, or adult, but this test and others like it suggest otherwise. Similar to the soldiers of Genghis Khan or the Nazi SS of World War II, all of us have the capacity to commit heinous acts given our personal circumstances and surroundings. Peace and non-violence are not a forgone conclusion.

There were two other fascinating facts the show presented:  1) the Availability Heuristic, and 2) strong Gun Regulations, particularly on assault weapons, cut in half or more, crimes of homicide and mass killings.

Availability heuristic says that a diet of news stories will fool us into thinking that violence is much more prevalent than it really is. This is very much the case with social-media bombardments of a specific (viral?) topic. On the contrary, this very narrow propaganda or sensationalism (for revenues) does not factually represent the overall global or continental trends.

Gun regulations that are widespread and strong, e.g. in 1996 Australia, contribute to significant reductions in suicide, homicide, and mass-killing rates according to these studies, click here.

Cure Violence logoFinally, an international program called Cure Violence, ranked #9 in top 500 Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO’s) in the world, stops the spread of violence by using the methods associated with disease control. And cities around the world have turned to Cure Violence to prevent violence—from the United States to Latin America to the Middle East. One method utilized in Iraq (based upon Contact Theory) is through a football/soccer league where teams must have players of various ethnicities, religious beliefs, and/or social classes, even if historically opposed, in order to enroll and play the season. In football/soccer their are no national, ethnic or religious boundaries. Players and their families are also encouraged to socialize off the soccer pitch in restaurants and home-gatherings. The soccer league and additional off-field activities have been a huge success! How about that Ark! 😉

If you ever have the chance to watch this outstanding documentary, The Violence Paradox by PBS NOVA, I highly recommend you do it! It is well worth 2-hours of your time and undivided attention. Most of all, it shows us clearly how to understand our lesser nature for violence, but more importantly it gives us proven solutions and methods of stopping the spread of the violence disease and it becoming a repetitive epidemic.

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Live Well — Love Much — Laugh Often — Learn Always

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