Humpback Whales: Why They May Not Be So ‘Humanitarian’ When Fighting Killer Whales

Humpback whales are generally thought of as the “humanitarians of the sea.” But a new study suggests that their seemingly selfless behavior, which may include chasing off groups of vicious killer whales, might not be as selfless as people think they are.

A report from the San Jose Mercury News explained why humpback whales have gotten their “humanitarian” designation from animal lovers and whale watchers. Like those television and film characters who tell bullies to pick on someone their own size, they have been known to charge at killer whales, seemingly defending their smaller prey and saving them from orca attacks. This was observed twice in the spring of 2015 by marine biologist Nancy Black, who told the Mercury News about her experience watching three separate groups of “humanitarian” humpbacks saving sea lions from the killer whales.

“The killer whales just gave up after that. There were so many humpbacks around, they were not going to get anything in that area.”

Humpback whales may come about as creatures who exist to save smaller sea animals from the bullies of the marine animal kingdom. But new research suggests that the humpbacks’ humanitarian tendencies may have been exaggerated, and that they may be mainly looking out for their own families, and not necessarily trying to save sea lions and smaller creatures from killer whales and other predators.

According to study lead author Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, Calif., humpbacks aren’t exactly “altruistic” animals or “gentle giants” who make “moral decisions.” Instead, they are animals that “don’t deliberately do bad things or good things,” contrary to what many people believe.

Pitman, Black, and their co-researchers analyzed a number of earlier studies on humpback whales to understand why the animals tend to believe in a humanitarian or altruistic fashion by fending off killer whales. They also reviewed accounts from whale watchers, and combined with the observations on the papers, that made for 115 interactions over more than six decades, with the accounts grouped based on the orcas’ targets and which animal had made the first move.

According to Pitman, humpbacks tend to respond any time they hear orcas letting out war whoops and signaling an attack, regardless of what animal the whales are attacking. And, on some occasions, the killer whales are targeting baby humpback whales, meaning that adult humpbacks may be more concerned about their siblings or offspring than anything else.

“They don’t even think it out (as to whether) a sea lion is worth their time (or not). It’s the net effect that counts. Sometimes they save a calf.”

The researchers’ observations were also noticed by another marine biologist, Doris Welch, who had told the Mercury News that she had seen humpbacks chasing after orcas, once when they were targeting a young gray whale, once when they were picking on sea lions. Either way, the humpbacks “seemed agitated” as they “assertively” went after the killer whales.

“It’s like your own National Geographic experience out there to observe orcas on the prowl and actively hunting. (Seeing) a large whale coming in and interacting with the orcas — it’s phenomenal.”

Personal history may be another reason why humpback whales may go after orcas so frequently. A National Geographic report from August cited another Pitman study, where his co-author Alisa Schulman-Janiger, a California Killer Whale Project researcher, said that many humpbacks have orca scars from earlier points in their lives.

Pitman and colleagues believe more research may be needed to determine whether humpback whales are really as altruistic as they’re claimed to be. But University of Colorado ecologist Michael Breed, who wasn’t involved in the study, believes that the humpbacks’ behavior may be similar to birds’ “mobbing” behaviors, where small birds attack crows and other larger birds of prey to protect their eggs.

“I don’t know that they’re thinking ‘We’re all going to help each other,’ ” said Breed, comparing the humpback whale observations with the birds’ behavior. “Because the crows are such a big threat, they’ll mob the crow even if it’s not directly after their nest.”

[Featured Image by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images]