The ocean can be a strange and scary place. Just imagining an unexpected encounter with a monster of the deep fills many people with terror. Small wonder, then, that even experienced marine biologist Nan Hauser feared for her life when a giant humpback whale began to push her around. But as Hauser discovered, the whale was actually trying to protect her from a far graver threat.
Despite being terrified of the ocean while she was a kid, Hauser already knew that the open seas were where her future lay. She hoped to one day work with whales and dolphins – learning all that she could about the extraordinary creatures. And aside from career detours into art and nursing, that’s exactly the path that Hauser has followed.
Hauser isn’t simply a whale expert, though; she’s actually one of the world’s leading whale experts. The 63-year-old lives in Rarotonga, on the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, where she heads up the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation. She’s also the principal investigator for the area’s Whale Research Project.
And when she isn’t researching the cetaceans’ behavior, biology, genetics and migration, Hauser makes films to educate the world about her favorite subject. She has also helped turn the whole of the Cook Islands’ territorial waters – that’s a whopping 772,200 square miles – into a whale sanctuary, and in addition she’s a Cook Islands Marine Park trustee.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the Cook Islands are the perfect spot for an oceanic researcher in which to be based. The marine sanctuary there, called Marae Moana, is a wonderland of biodiversity. It is home to 21 species of dolphins and whales, more than 600 types of fish, 16 shark species and several endangered turtles. It also hosts a vast number of birds and plants and more than a hundred varieties of coral.
But let’s return to the dramatic events that unfolded that day in September 2017. For Hauser, it was seemingly just another day on the job, diving in the waters off Rarotonga, when the scientist had a whale experience that even she couldn’t have predicted. To wit, she was approached by a humpback. “[But] instead of [the animal] just swimming past me, he came right towards me,” Hauser told NPR in January 2018. “And he didn’t stop coming towards me until I was on his head.”
Weighing around 25 tons and spanning nearly 50 feet, the huge sea mammal began rolling Hauser around its enormous frame. The marine biologist believes the whale was trying to lodge her beneath its pectoral fin. And while Hauser says she’s not normally scared of whales, in this instance she understandably feared for her life.
What’s more, the entire incident was recorded by Hauser and her colleagues on video. The whale can be seen swimming up out of the deep in the direction of the diving biologist. After surfacing for air, it moves towards her, repeatedly pushing her with its tail and head. At one point in the dramatic footage, the animal even appears to hoist Hauser up out of the water.
“I’ve been underwater with whales for 28 years, and this is just really unusual behavior. It’s crazy,” Hauser told NPR. For more than ten minutes the ocean giant continued shoving the researcher around. In fact, Hauser says it would have taken only a single blow from its mighty tail or fin to kill her. As it was, though, she was left with just bruises.
Meanwhile, the struggling scientist tried not to panic, with the thinking that the whale would sense her alarm. “I stayed calm to a point but was sure that it was most likely going to be a deadly encounter,” she said. With Hauser completely focused on escaping, though, it was only when she managed to move slightly away from the whale that she noticed the other, even graver threat present.
As she approached her boat, Hauser caught sight of a second whale some way off. The marine mammal appeared to be thrashing with its tail at what she assumed was yet another whale. Then the third animal began swimming towards her. “But… the tail fin was going side to side instead of up and down,” Hauser told NPR. “So, my mind quickly went, ‘Oh, my gosh. That is a shark.’”
It was only then, with the shark approaching, that Hauser realized what the whale had been doing. Incredibly, it had been keeping her away from the advancing predator. The scientist had previously heard of the giant creatures protecting other animals from similar threats, but this was the first time that she’d become aware of one protecting a human – and what a way to gain this knowledge.
It seemed as though the whale was living up to its reputation as the “gentle giant” of the sea. And giant is certainly the word: the humpback can reach 60 feet from end to end and tip the scales at 40 tons; yet it achieves this massive bulk on a diet of tiny sea creatures and plankton. Meanwhile, regarding its chances of survival, although the species was once highly endangered, conservation efforts have meant that its numbers have since increased greatly.
Now, as suggested, and as Hauser was aware, there are many stories of humpbacks having saved other animals from predators – usually killer whales. In fact, over the past 62 years at least 115 such interactions have been recorded. In one instance, Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist, reported seeing a humpback deliberately heft a seal from the water to save it from a pack of killer whales.
What motivates whales into such altruistic acts is debated. As Fred Sharpe, who researches humpbacks with the Alaska Whale Foundation, told Hakai magazine in August 2017, “[Humpbacks] are directing their behavior for the benefit of other species. But there’s no doubt there are important differences between human compassion and animal compassion.”
“When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion,” Pitman – who works for the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration – said in the same article. “If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”
Tiger sharks, such as the one spotted by Hauser, certainly aren’t known for their altruism. These ruthless predators can each grow to be 25 feet long and weigh almost a ton. They have a deservedly fearsome reputation, too; indeed, only great white sharks attack more people. And yet while a great white will often abandon its human victim after a quick bite, tiger sharks tend to keep on eating.
Tiger sharks are also a common sight around the warm waters of the Pacific Islands, where their main diet consists of seals, birds, turtles, fish and dolphins. And although members of the species are normally loners, they have been known to attack humpback whales, albeit when hunting as part of groups. Sadly, though, the tiger shark’s existence is in jeopardy: thanks to fishing and a high demand for its fins, the species is categorized as being near-threatened.
Meanwhile, although certain that the humpback she encountered that day wanted to save her from the tiger shark, Hauser understands why others are skeptical. “If it hadn’t been me, if it hadn’t been filmed in three different angles, I wouldn’t believe it,” she told NPR. “I try a lot not to anthropomorphize any of the behavior that I see. It’s easy to do, but it’s not a good practice in science.”
And as for other people who might want to get up close to humpbacks, Hauser doesn’t recommend it. “I never touch the whales that I study unless they are sick or stranded on the beach,” she said. “In my head, I was a bit amused since I write rules and regulations about whale harassment – and here I was being harassed by a whale.”