Marine biologist Nan Daeschler Hauser has worked with whales for nearly 30 years. She understands their behavior so well that she definitely knows when something’s amiss. And while we know that the humpback whale is usually a gentle giant, they will react when they sense trouble.
What were the whales up to?
Certainly, something seemed off when Hauser went diving near a small pod of humpback whales off the coast of Rarotonga, in the Cook Islands off the South Pacific on a September day in 2017, Everyday Koala reports.
Hauser set up her home base on this beautiful island, having accomplished something that’s pretty remarkable. Over the years, she’d successfully petitioned and succeeded in turning all 772,000 square miles of the nation’s territorial waters into a whale sanctuary.
On the day in question, Hauser was swimming off the coast of Rarotonga under the watchful eyes of a drone that was tracking her course. Her colleagues were also keeping watch on a nearby research vessel. She was documenting her interactions with the whales with a waterproof camera.
Then one of the whales began acting strangely
As she was filming, one very large male humpback (measuring at least 50 feet long and weighing more than 23 tons) started swimming towards her.
This was not typical humpback behavior. Hauser knew something was wrong.
Under normal circumstances, Hauser would approach a whale, seeking to study its behavior, but now this enormous male was speeding towards her, and as it loomed closer she realized she’d have no chance move out of the creature’s path.
Still, the intrepid biologist kept on photographing — keeping her camera on the whale at all times. She wasn’t concerned just yet. That was about to change, however.
Hauser has spent hundreds, if not thousands of hours with these giant creatures. As a conservationist and biologist, it’s part of her work. In general, when we swim with whales they tend to ignore us as best as they can. But in Daescher’s case, this whale definitely had an agenda.
Now it was barreling towards her
The great creature headed in a straight line right at the biologist, ramming her and pinning her with its massive head, effectively trapping her.
Hauser struggled frantically but the whale continued to ram her, pushing her away from the boat. She swam from one side to the other, but the giant pressed on, making it impossible for her to escape.
In all her years of experience of working with these majestic animals, she’d never seen or heard of anything like this happening. She was completely mystified. The whale seemed unaware of his own strength, and although there’s a good chance it wasn’t trying to hurt her — it could still injure her severely.
She worried things would get worse
She knew that one wrong move by the whale could have the potential to break bones and cause internal injuries — even if it merely continued to do what it was doing.
But that wasn’t all Hauser was worried about. Humpbacks are not aggressive but they are extremely powerful and one wrong move, one accidental smack from a paddle or its tail could knock her unconscious, leaving her to drown.
Because she understands whales quite well, Hauser realized there was still hope. So she developed a plan.
Staying close to the humpback’s head was her best option. Especially since they don’t have teeth, and instead have soft sheets of baleen in their capacious mouths. She tried to stay as calm as she could.
There was no time to think
Hauser was accompanied by a second diver, but one who knew almost nothing about whales. Meaning she was all by herself for all practical purposes. Even so, she continued filming the incident, all the while aware this may be the last thing she ever filmed.
And the whale continued to push her farther away from her research vessel. If this continued, she would soon be in the open ocean.
By this time Hauser sported several new bruises and scrapes. At that point, another whale arrived on the scene.
Humpback whales are social creatures, so this wasn’t unusual. However, that whale’s erratic behavior was. It kept smashing the water with its enormous tail and lunged every now and then at something behind it.
Hauser was now very scared
One whale was pushing her out to sea, while its companion was acting very upset.
Why were they doing this?
Soon the answer became frighteningly clear. The huge whale was possibly keeping her close because an enormous tiger shark that appeared out of the depths. If Hauser hoped to survive she’d have to break away soon. But the male humpback wasn’t having it.
Tiger sharks are known to kill humans on occasion, and at 15 feet long, this one was immense. Hauser now realized the whales were probably trying to help her, rather than cause harm. Even so, her life was still in danger. She and her diving partner were in trouble.
So she pushed away from the whale as hard as she could and made a rapid retreat to the boat. Both divers made it safely on board. And her fear soon turned to exhilaration. Now she had time to think about the situation, and she knew the whales were trying to help her.
Then she saw something truly amazing:
After she had a moment to compose herself, she peered out over the edge of the vessel. And what she saw surprised her. There was the male humpback, swimming alongside the boat as if to make certain she was okay.
Once the big mammal realized she was safe, it exhaled one big blast of water from the blowhole on top of its head and submerged.
Viewing her own camera footage and that of her diving partner, along with footage from the drone, Hauser became convinced the whale was indeed trying to protect her from the shark. The scientific community is somewhat divided about this instance. Some say there’s no way to know what the whale’s intentions were, while others agree with Hauser’s theory.
And there’s plenty of evidence that Humpbacks have been known to save other animals. One 2016 study found more than 115 documented cases over a period of 60 years of these magnificent whales working to rescue their own calves, as well as animals of other species, including dolphins and seals.
We shall never really know what inspired this whale to do this. But we do know one thing for sure: He’s a hero.
Featured image courtesy of the video above