This Diver’s Unusual Encounter With A Humpback Whale Causes Massive Conversation In The Scientific Community
Aside from whales being the most interesting creatures, they are also the biggest in the world. These miraculous beings dwell deep below the surface of the vast ocean, meaning few get to witness their beauty (if they are lucky). Not only are the whale species some of the most common animals on our planet, but they also exist in oceans all over the world.
Nan Hauser, an American marine biologist, is one of the lucky few whose daily job is to interact with whales. While she was filming a newborn calf underwater one day, something remarkable happened. In quite a strange way, a gigantic humpback whale approached her. Since Nan’s experience, the scientific community has been stunned by what occurred next.
Meet Nan Hauser, The Marine Biologist Of This Story
An important figure in the marine biology community and conservation field. Nan has dedicated her life to studying dolphins, whales, porpoises, and ocean-dwelling creatures. Aside from studying their behavior, she keeps detailed track of their populations. Nan has also been an advocate for their rights (specifically whales), while protecting them from human interference.
Whales have been a big part of Nan’s life. She has devoted her life to studying, observing, and protecting these gentle giants. Considering she’s an expert in her field, it’s obvious to think that she is used to surprises.
It Was Just Another Day At The Office For Nan Hauser
Nan was on a diving trip close to the shore of Rarotonga, an island in the South Pacific, in September of 2017. There was a ship that went with her and it kept track of her movements via drone. Everything seemed normal, until some bizarre movements were noticed in the waters ahead of Nan and the ship that accompanied her.
Much to her surprise, there was a 50-foot male humpback whale that weighed 23 tons and Nan was in its direct path. Whales typically do not engage in this kind of behavior, since they try to avoid people most of the time. Nan braced herself with her camera at the ready.
This Humpback Whale Was Exhibiting Strange Behavior
Too consumed with getting an amazing shot of the unbelievable creature, she failed to recognize how quickly and closely it was approaching her. It was too late to move out of the whale’s path, so Nan had to stand her ground (or water, in that case). All she could do was stay in place and wait to see what would happen.
As unusual behavior goes, the humpback went straight for Nan. Ferociously, it knocked her over. While these creatures are known to show their backs as a defense mechanism, they usually get back on their own path. It was clear as day to Nan that the whale was acting out of the ordinary.
Why Was The Whale Acting So Strangely?
With all of Nan’s might and natural instincts, she attempted to swim back to her vessel. However, the whale would push her away every time she tried to move. It seemed as though Nan was stuck in this abnormal situation and didn’t even have a moment to figure out what this whale’s peculiar actions meant.
Nan knew that humpback whales usually try and avoid human beings as much as possible. Although, this particular whale was unique with its motives, and she couldn’t help but think if the whale had something wrong with it. No matter what, she was trapped.
There Was Nothing That Nan Could Do...She Was Stuck
With its mouth closed, the whale kept bumping Nan for minutes on end. At some point, the humpback whale carried her from the boat, covering her under its fin. The whale was simply too powerful and big, and Nan was helpless.
As a marine biologist who had witnessed a lot of interaction in the ocean, not once had she ever heard of a whale showing aggression. With one bad move, Nan could have sustained horrendous injury, despite the whale’s intentions.
The Damage Was Already Done
Nan repeatedly felt the whale thrusting itself against her. If the whale hit her hard enough with its brute strength, it could have possibly broken Nan’s bones, as well as rupturing her internal organs. Due to the immensely overpowering nature of this creature, she felt small and fragile and completely at its mercy.
The humpback whale kept pushing Nan further away from the boat, even though she made attempts to escape. Nothing. Nothing was all Nan could do.
Nan Remained As Still As Possible
Staying still seemed to be the most rational response to the situation. So, as Nan stayed put where she was, there could have been a possibility that the whale would stop its bumping, subsequently losing interest. Not making any quick movements, Nan essentially played dead.
Fighting her fear, Nan relaxed her body and stopped struggling. She just hoped that by letting her guard down, she wasn’t opening herself up to getting knocked unconscious, which would have been fatal so far under the waves. It was a critical moment.
She Remained Calmed
The whale did not relent, but the stillness gave Nan time to think. After gathering her wits, she tried to position herself nearer to the whale’s head. This was the place furthest from the most dangerous place—the whale’s tail and flippers.
A humpback whale doesn’t have teeth or jaws, so it can’t bite. It only has a soft, spongy material in its mouth called baleen. This acts as a filter for the whale, allowing them to pick up fish and krill as they swim.
A Terrifying Encounter
Nan used to joke that she was more afraid of creepy-crawlies and little things with wings over large, powerful creatures like whales. Here at the mercy of this colossal underwater creature, she was beginning to entertain a newfound fear.
Was she seeing a new side to these animals? Had all she’d known about them been wrong? Was her ignorance about to get her killed? The situation seemed hopeless.
As the whale continued to butt her further out into the ocean, she continued to hit the shutter on her camera. At least, she thought, I’ll get some good pictures out of this experience. Nan wasn’t completely alone under the waves. She was accompanied by another less experienced diver.
Unfortunately, partly due to his inexperience and partly because of how calm Nan had been acting, he had no idea she needed help. Even if Nan had managed to signal for backup, the power of the cetacean would have overwhelmed them both. She was alone in her struggle.
A View From The Deck
Meanwhile, back on the boat, the crew was becoming concerned. They could tell that something was wrong, but just like Nan, they were powerless to do anything about it.
They watched in confusion as the marine biologist was being dragged away from the safety of the boat by one of the very creatures she had known, loved, and studied all her life.
The suspense was unbearable. To make things worse, Hauser spotted another humpback whale approaching from a distance. Just like the first, it was coming in fast.
Although she knew well that whales were amiable animals and that they tended to travel in groups, the sight of the second massive whale caught her by surprise. Worse, it was displaying the same strange behavior. She readied herself for another knock.
The New Humpback Whale
The second whale broke off and headed to the surface, where it repeatedly smashed its tail against the waves. More odd behavior. She had never seen whales acting so aggressively and so spontaneously.
After slapping the surface, the second whale would drop back down and lash out at something behind its back. Between two agitated whales, Nan had no idea what to make of her predicament.
Humpback whales sometimes travel to the South Pacific during winter months to breed and rear their young. They live in groups, or pods, to help defend their calves from predators. But Nan didn’t see any calves around either of the whales.
However, from the corner of her eye, she registered a shadow moving around in the water. Could it have been their calf? How could she have missed it? It was moving too fast for her to get another look.
The Diver’s Bruises and Bumps
After only ten minutes of respite, the first whale rammed into her again. Its barnacles bounded her like knuckles, leaving her bruised and sore. Nan was running out of strength.
Again Nan tried to remain as calm as she could. Again the whale jabbed her, knocked her with its abdomen, and blocked her from the surface with its powerful pectoral fins. Nan was baffled.
The whale hadn’t been trying to push Nan away. It was trying to keep Nan close. Suddenly, it all made sense. She turned her fears away from the whale and onto the shadow on the other side of its body.
She spotted a third tail fin, but this one was moving side-to-side, not up and down. This was no whale calf. In fact, it was no whale at all.
It’s A Man-Eating Predator
Nan finally saw the cause of the two whales’ agitation—it was a tiger shark. The whales weren’t trying to hurt her. They were trying to protect her from a greater threat—and it was heading straight for her.
Tiger sharks are known to attack humans, and their ability to swim long distances makes them highly efficient predators. An adult tiger shark can grow from 6.5 to 8 feet long.
Swimming Rush to The Vessel
Many people believe that great white sharks are the most dangerous kind of shark. But this is not so. The chances of being bitten by a great white shark are probably smaller than you think.
Rather than taking a single chunk as a great white would, a tiger shark doggedly ravages its prey, striking with bite after bite. Knowing this, Nan realized that she and her assistant were one bad move away from being torn apart.
With the two whales’ combined effort, the shark was distracted enough for Nan and her companion to make it to the side of the boat. While she was climbing aboard, the marine biologist told her co-workers about the tiger shark close by.
Much later, while Nan was skimming through her footage, she realized that the whales had been moving defensively around her in order to keep the tiger shark at bay. The whales saved her life.
Altruistic Behavior of Whales
Even after the pair were safely aboard, the whale stuck around. It patrolled around the boat, presumably to make sure the shark was nowhere near. After a few moments, the humpback whales returned to the sea.
Before it left, it blew a farewell blast of water from its blowhole. Nan watched in amazement. It sounds like something out of a kid’s story with a happy ending, doesn’t it?
It’s Hard to Believe
To Nan, this was more than an experience. It was a discovery. She had learned something about the creatures. Not only that, but she had evidence to back her up.
In a 2018 interview with NPR, Nan Hauser said, “If someone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it. If it hadn’t been me, if it hadn’t been filmed from three different angles, I wouldn’t believe it,” she explained.
Defenders of The Sea
Humpback whales are omnivores. They don’t usually attack other sea creatures. On the contrary, whales are known for protecting other species of whales, dolphins, and seals. In fact, a scientific paper describing the phenomenon of humpback whales protecting other species of animals was recently published.
In 2016, researchers documented 115 cases from the past 60 years involving whales saving creatures, like dolphins and seals, from other predatory animals. They had never before been able to document a case with humans. Researchers are still looking for explanations for this altruistic behavior.
Others Can’t Believe Her Story
Other marine biologists were fascinated by Nan’s experience. They found her experience compelling. Most believed that her conclusion about the humpback’s selfless behavior was correct. While many scientists have long observed altruistic behavior from whales, many remain skeptical of Hauser’s experience.
They argue that it is impossible for us to know the humpback whales’ true intentions. They believe their behavior might not have had anything to do with the tiger shark’s presence. Whales have never been seen helping out humans before this.
Her Story Became Well-Known In The Community
Though some critics may disagree with her conclusions, Hauser is confident in her own research and trusts her own instincts. Her close encounter with the humpback whales and the tiger shark was rare. Fortunately, as three different cameras captured the incident, her story comes with a good deal of credibility.
This whale’s behavior is consistent with what scientists already know about humpback whales’ behavior toward other sea animals. Plus, the footage clearly shows that the humpback whale was moving the shark away from her.
Footage From Different Angle
All of Nan’s experiences were captured on film—from multiple viewpoints. There was footage from her own camera, footage captured by the drone, and footage taken by the diver in the water with her, in addition to various other angles caught from the research vessel.
The video footage from all the camera angles clearly shows that the humpback whale was moving her out of the way of the tiger shark. Although she didn’t see the shark right away, the footage says it all.
Compassion Vs. Altruism
While it may seem like the whale had saved Nan out of compassion, the use of the word “compassion” has specific connotations in the scientific world. Nan wanted to avoid a debate, so she chose her words carefully. Instead, she called the whales “altruistic”.
Why not “compassion”? Compassion is an emotional quality exclusive to humans, whereas altruism is believed to be present in some animals. It is hard to prove compassion between animals, so Nan described her savior humpback whales as “altruistic”. In addition, there are plenty of documented cases of whales proving that they are altruistic.
Is it Compassion or Instinct?
When asked by National Public Radio, Pitman stated that there are different factors in compassionate and altruistic behavior. “When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”
While it might seem that this whale was acting out of compassion, it was, in fact, trying to save Nan because it perhaps mistakenly thought that she was a baby whale that needed protection.
New Whale Encounter
After she almost lost her life, Nan Hauser returned to the water, confident, knowing that help was always around if she needed it. The sun was shining, boats were in the water, and she was once again diving off the shores of Rarotonga. Then suddenly, she saw a familiar figure approaching.
Almost immediately after entering the water, a female humpback started swimming toward her. However, this time it didn’t seem like she was in for a ramming. Instead, it seemed to be approaching her with giddy excitement.
Giving Her A Hug
The marine biologist cautiously observed, hoping for a clue as to what she was going to do next. It swam towards her, four feet away, and then did something that made her gasp. The whale opened her pectoral fins as if to hug her.
That day happened to be her birthday. Two different massive creatures had shown her love in a way she had not expected. No present in the world could have made her happier.
Giving Back The Love
The Cook Islands are now designated as an international whale sanctuary, partly thanks to the work of Nan Hauser. For many years Nan worked to restrict commercial whaling in the country’s 772,000 square miles territorial waters.
Hauser protects the territory from the negative effects of whalers by petitioning government officials. No one can say for sure if Nan has always been a hero, but the whale did get the chance to thank her directly in 2017.