Episode 29 – Humpback Whale: Krill or be Krilled


The ocean is a vast world filled with perils, including an array of large, voracious predators looking to make a meal out of anything they can get their jaws around. But there’s one aquatic avenger that seems to answer the call to protect and surf. The Humpback Whale is a creature with sophisticated intelligence but could it be advanced enough to feel empathy? A trait that’s truly rare in Life, Death, and Taxonomy.

Measure Up

Length 12–16 m (39–52 ft) – 46 ft – How many wales go into Hyperion, a redwood so large it has a name? Eight whales

How many Quasimodos, the Dog with Short Spine Syndrome go into a humpback whale? – About 23???

Weight – 25–30 metric tons (28–33 US tons) – 31 US tons – How many standard aluminum scuba tanks go into a humpback whale? 1771 tanks

Inter-species Altruism

Humpbacks seem to display strange altruistic behavior. Altruism is taking actions to help somethings else without any clear benefit to yourself. The Ethiopian wolf displays same species altruism. Humpbacks seem to help members of their own species and others.

Humpbacks are large enough not to be bothered by most ocean predators like Orcas and sharks. Vulnerable when they are calves. Have adapted to rush to the aid of calves in distress. They swipe at predators with powerful flukes and pectoral fins or ram. They will also hide calves under their pectoral fins or lift them out of the water on their heads.

They have also been observed doing this with calves of other species, seals, sunfish, and maybe even people.

Two examples:

In May 2012, a pod of Killer whales were preying upon a grey whale and her calf, near Monterey Bay, CA.

Two humpackes arrived on the scene but the orca pod was overwhelming. The calf died and things escalated. The two humpbacks were joined by 14 more whales who were bound and determine to prevent the Orcas from eating the calf. The battle raged for more than six hours. During that time a huge swarm of krill entered the area but the whales were not distracted. They wasted time and energy and a meal opportunity to protect this mother and avenge the calf.

Second example. Off the coast of the Cook Islands, Biologist Nan Hauser was swimming into the encounter of a lifetime. A 25-ton humpback swam up to her and seemed to persistently bump into her. He tried to tuck her under his pectoral fin, lift her out of the water on his head and belly. In heat of the moment, Hauser was sure she was done for. All it would take is one foul swipe of his huge barnacle covered fin or ram from his nose and he bones would be broken, organs ruptured, or drowned. The encounter lasted 10 minutes, before she made it back to her boat, where she found out that a 15 foot tiger shark was just on the other side of the whale. She’s convinced the whale saved her life.

And one must wonder…why?

Possible Explanations

Calf protecting instinct

They are adapted to protect the calves and that instinct kicks with other species too. Maybe practice? They have sophisticated whale songs of their own and can recognize and some say they respond specifically to Orca attack calls. They come to the aid of the attacked creature before knowing what it is just in case.

Deter predators from areas. Stop Orcas and sharks from feeding in a given area to drive them off. Potentially protecting their own young.

Personal vendetta

Many whales have scars from predatory attacks from their youths. Some guess that the whales respond to sounds of distress or attack and save other creatures just to stick it to these predators.


Some, including Hauser, believe this is an example of true altruism and empathy. Whales are capable of fairly complex emotions. Perhaps they empathize with the plight of smaller prey species. However, many researchers find this hard to accept.

Truth is we may never know. Animal motivation is easy to anthropomorphize and involves a lot of guesswork.


Hey, listeners! Thanks for listening! While you’re here why not practice your humpback whale impression by practicing a little altruism. Project Life, Death, and Taxonomy from the Orcas of obscurity by living us a review. Not only does it tickle our baleen self esteems, it will help us grow up big and strong. Plus, if you want to send us your best whale songs, or suggest a topic for our next episode talk to us on Twitter, Facebook, or Gmail where we are LDtaxonomy. So go ahead, let us hear from you! It’s not gonna krill ya!

Art by Xnamaru

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