What Humpback Whales Teach About Compassion

Humpbacks act to improve the welfare of others; the classic definition of altruism.

Humpbacks, it turns out, deliberately interfere with attacking killer whales to help others in distress. They don’t just defend their own babies or close relatives.  They intervene on behalf of other species—a gray whale calf with its mother, a seal hauled out on an ice floe, even an ocean sunfish.

First-person accounts of animals saving other animals are rare. Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, describes a pivotal encounter he witnessed in Antarctica in 2009. A group of killer whales washed a Weddell seal they were attacking off an ice floe. The seal swam frantically toward a pair of humpbacks that had inserted themselves into the action. One of the huge humpbacks rolled over on its back and the 180-kilogram seal was swept up onto its chest between the whale’s massive flippers. When the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water. And when the seal started slipping off, the humpback, according to Pitman, “gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest. Moments later, the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.”

 But knowing that something is happening and understanding why are two different things.

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