Spring is a dynamic time for whale watching in Monterey Bay, California - gray whales are migrating north with calves in tow, blue whales move into the area to feed, and humpback whales return from their winter migration. Transient orcas (killer whales) are also present, as this eco-type of orca
utilizes other marine mammals as a primary food source. Skilled at killing even large whales, they regularly take the calves of gray whales - hard as it is to witness, this is a normal predator/prey relationship. But what occurred on May 3rd, 2012 in full view of whale watchers was nothing short of remarkable.
Through the hazy overcast skies, the Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat captain John Mayer on the SeaWolf ll, spotted the whales in the distance and knew something unusual was going on. As the boat drew closer to the scene, whale watchers were stunned by what they saw. A pod of approximately nine transient orcas was in the process of trying to separate a new calf from its mother, but what amazed even the seasoned captain and crew was the presence of two large humpback whales which may have been trying to intervene.
The mother gray whale struggled valiantly to save her calf, lifting it out of the water to breathe, but she was no match for the coordinated attack as the orcas repeatedly grabbed the fatigued calf and flipped it upside down to prevent it from breathing. During the half hour that the first group of whale watchers observed the contest for survival, the two humpbacks splashed, 'trumpeted', and moved in as close as a body length from the grey whale mother and her calf.
At this point, whale researchers Alisa Schulman-Janiger and Nancy Black arrived on the scene in Monterey Bay Whale Watch boat Pt. Sur Clipper, and continued to observe the unusual encounter for nearly seven hours. Shortly after their arrival the baby whale was killed, and the mother took temporary refuge by their boat before heading towards shore.
Schulman-Janiger told Digital Journal that first two, then three more humpbacks joined the original pair, and the seven humpbacks "repeatedly followed the orcas, trumpet blowing, tail slashing, rolling, and head raising. They kept returning to the area of the carcass where the orcas were ripping into the blubber of the dead calf".
Researcher Nancy Black speculated that these humpback whales may have been protecting the carcass, making it more difficult for the orcas to feed, but without underwater cameras it is difficult to be certain.
"What we do know", said Schulman-Janiger, "is that these humpback whales seemed EXTREMELY distressed: nearly every surfacing over the entire observation period was accompanied by trumpet blows. They even put themselves into potential harm's way by diving right next to the gray whale mom - where her calf was under attack". She noted that humpback whales were documented to have rescued a seal from orcas in the Antarctic, and underscored the importance of continuing to protect these whales while we gain more understanding.
Dr. Lori Marino, senior lecturer in neuroscience at Emory University in Atlanta, is a renowned expert in the cognitive ability of whales and dolphins and she shared her opinion of this remarkable event:
This is apparently a case of humpback whales trying to help a member of another cetacean species. This shows that they are capable of tremendous behavioral flexibility, giving even more credence to reports of cetaceans coming to the aid of human beings. They seem to have the capacity to generalize from one situation to another and from one kind of being to another. Moreover, they seem to sympathize with members of other species and have the motivation to help.
One reason may be that humpback whales, and many other cetaceans, have specialized cells in their brains called Von Economo neurons (“spindle cells”) and these are shared with humans, great apes, and elephants. The exact function of these elongated neurons is still unknown but they are found in exactly the same locations in all mammal brains for the species that have them.
What is intriguing is that these parts of the mammal brain are thought to be responsible for social organization, empathy, speech, intuition about the feelings of others, and rapid "gut" reactions. So the presence of these cells is neurological support for the idea that cetaceans are capable of empathy and higher-order thinking and feeling.
In either case these whales are apparently demonstrating a high level of sensitivity and concern (morality, if you will) that is laudable in any species.