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The Guardians of the Galaxseas

Zainab Vawda investigates the potentially altruistic nature of humpback whales and their courageous behaviours exhibited when saving the defenceless victims of orca hunts.

Breaching humpback whale. Image Credit: Brigitte Werner on Pixabay

Picture this: a lone seal, vulnerable and tired. From the depths of the ocean, orcas appear. Surrounded by the sleek, swift, and ruthless apex predators of the sea, it appears as though the seal has lost all hope. Then, like a duo of valiant superheroes, two humpback whales suddenly burst on the scene. The lone seal swims towards them as though they are a mirage, and while one whale nestles the seal with its flipper, the other thrashes at the orcas to keep them at bay. The seal triumphantly lives to see another day, while the unsuccessful orcas eventually withdraw and sink back into the dark depths from which they emerged.

This unlikely rescue is not a feel-good tale from a children’s storybook. Fascinatingly, it is a real incident reported in 2009. And it is not an isolated incident either. Rather, since 1951, there have been over 115 reports of humpback whales heroically defending helpless victims of orca hunts. While whales defending individuals of their own species raises a few eyebrows, it is even more puzzling to ecologists why 89% of these rescues actually involve species other than fellow humpback whales. It has been found that the biggest beneficiaries of humpbacks’ interventions are pinnipeds (such as seals and sea lions) and cetaceans (such as dolphins and other whales).

A humpback clash is usually a ‘crazy scene’ (Schulman-Janiger, a researcher with the non-profit California Killer Whale Project), involving whales thrashing with their tails and fins and displaying threatening behaviour to orcas to drive them away. These altercations can continue for hours on end, and amazingly, they can sometimes involve a single fearless whale fighting a pod of 10 or more orcas.

An orca in an attempt to catch a Weddell seal near Rothera Station along the Antarctic Peninsula. Image Credit: Robert Pittman on Wikimedia Commons.

A word that is frequently brought up by awed onlookers to describe this behaviour is ‘altruism’. Altruism is defined by the Merriam Webster Dictionary as the ‘unselfish regard for, or devotion to the welfare of others’, even if it disadvantages the altruistic individual. It would appear then, that the behaviour of the whales, which often leads to them becoming extremely tired or even injured on their rescue missions, as altruistic and a pure act of compassion.

The selflessness of the act despite the costliness of it is precisely what bemused researchers are investigating. The whales must abandon whatever they are doing; be that feeding or resting or migrating. Upon detecting the killer whales’ hunting calls, humpbacks must expend huge amounts of energy in travelling long distances, as well as during the direct battle with the orcas which ultimately puts their survival at risk. Many ethologists refuse to explain the behaviour by altruism and selfless compassion alone, as it would be a form of anthropomorphism (attributing human emotions and behaviours to animals). Thus, numerous theories have been proposed to provide an explanation for the behaviour, predominantly by proposing a selfish motive.

One such theory is Dawkin’s famous ‘selfish gene theory’, which proposes that whales rescue other whales because there is a chance that the victim may be a relative of the rescuer, meaning that they both share a number of genes. When the surviving relative reproduces, then the cost of intervening is balanced by the benefit of the altruistic individual’s genes still being passed on. Another theory proposes that whales rescue other whales to increase the chances that the favour will be reciprocated in the future, creating a metaphorical safety net if they are the victims of future orca attacks.

Though these theories could explain whales rescuing other whales, they fail to account for the fact that most rescues actually include other species, such as seals or dolphins. To explain this, it is necessary to consider the true capability for emotion that these creatures may possess. If we do not, then 'we risk missing something fundamental' about animal behaviour, according to ethologist Frans de Waal. It has been found that spindle neurons involved in processing complex emotions such as empathy and love were found in humpback whales, when it previously was thought that this neuron was only possessed by humans and primates, indicating that whales have far surpassed our expectations for emotional intelligence.

An intriguing hypothesis that is more based on potential emotion suggests that whales preventing orcas from feeding is due to personal hatred for orcas from past trauma. Orcas are likely to target whale calves instead of adults, as they are weaker and more vulnerable. Consequently, adults with calves that were victims of orca hunts may hold a deep resentment that drives them to break up orca attacks indiscriminately, despite all the costs of doing so.

Humpback whale with an orca bite on its dorsal fin. Image Credit: Nilfanion on Wikimedia Commons.

If humpbacks have the potential to experience and act on spiteful ‘grudges’, it raises the possibility of humpbacks also experiencing and acting on true selfless compassion and empathy.

The mere fact that there is no concrete explanation for this bizarre yet beautiful behaviour indicates the huge scope for further research into discovering the true extent of emotion and altruism possessed by these creatures, the ultimate guardians of the galaxseas!

About the author: Zainab is a Biology student with a love for animals, photography, and cooking.

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