Why Humpback Whales Protect Other Animals From Killer Whales


It’s possible that humpbacks are rescuing seals, sunfish, and other species by mistake, but there’s a chance that they have benevolent motivations. In May 2012, researchers observed a pod of killer whales attacking a gray whale and its calf in Monterey Bay, California.

After a struggle, the calf was killed. What happened next defies easy explanation. Two humpback whales were already on the scene as the killer whales, or orcas, attacked the grays.

But after the calf had been killed, about 14 more humpbacks arrived—seemingly to prevent orcas from eating the calf. “One specific humpback whale appeared to station itself next to that calf carcass,” says Alisa Schulman-Janiger of the California Killer Whale Project. “Head pointed toward it, staying within a body length away.”

“Loudly vocalizing and tail slashing every time an orca came over to feed.” For six and a half hours, the humpbacks slashed at the killer whales with their flippers and tails. And despite thick swarms of krill spotted nearby–a favorite food for humpbacks–the giants did not abandon their vigil. It remains unclear why humpbacks would waste so much energy protecting an entirely different

What Is Going on Here?

The most logical biological explanation for the humpbacks’ vigilante-like behavior is that they are rewarded by interfering with orca hunts. For instance, orcas are known to attack humpbacks, and the whales are most vulnerable when they’re young.

Once fully grown, though, a single humpback is large enough to take on an entire pod of killer whales.

So perhaps the “rescuing” behavior has evolved as a way to help the species through its weakest life stage, given that humpbacks tend to charge in when a young whale is at risk. There’s also a good chance that the calf under attack is related to them coming to its rescue.


Humpbacks have been attacking killer whales, on occasion, since being too tough to be captured. Scientists are still working to understand why this happens and who is doing what. Learning more about these interactions could help avert future danger such as crazy-striping incidents.

All humpbacks tend to be related to their surroundings, but killer whales are better at finding the right individual than other hunter- gatherers. When these whales are roaming and hunting, they’re looking for marine mammals that are as close as possible to their current location – either hunted down or bred by another whale of the same species.

It’s hard to say for certain what humpbacks are doing, but experts are studying this behavior intensively. It may very well be that the whale “helped” Charlie. If so, then it would make sense that the whale wanted to help a member of its own species.

All for One, and One for All?

Although some humans view this as selfless, other experts say that the humpback whale may have ulterior motives. “I think it’s a fascinating case, but I don’t find it surprising that a cetacean would intervene,” said Lori Marino of the Whale Sanctuary Project.

“Whales are capable of sophisticated thinking, decision-making, problem-solving, and communication.” Furthermore, dolphins have been famously depicted as “helping” other animals and humans. Whether these events are truly altruistic or not, it’s clear that there is plenty to learn about the minds and motivations of animals around us.

Although it’s difficult to say for sure, there are some experts who believe that whales are helping dolphins because of more complex thoughts and feelings.

“These animals seem to be very sophisticated in their thinking, decision-making and problem-solving abilities. They do have an ability to communicate with each other,” Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project told Al Jazeera.

“So these animals have a high degree of general intelligence that would suggest they could respond empathetically.” Moreover, only humpbacks appear to care about another species, but it is still uncertain as to whether or not this is true altruism or just for their own best interest.