Why Do Humpback Whales Rescue Seals From Killer Whales? - Dispatch Weekly

August 9, 2016 - Reading time: 3 minutes

Scientists have found that humpback whales are rescuing and protecting seals and other animals from orcas, or killer whales.

In 2009, Biologist Robert Pitman, a researcher at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center in the NOAA Fisheries Service in California, took a surprising photo on a research expedition, of a humpback whale caring for a Weddell seal, helping it stay afloat in the ocean after the seal was attacked by orcas.

The humpbacks fended off the killer whales by calling out and splashing with their flippers until the orcas eventually forfeited their meal.

Pitman wrote an article in the Natural History magazine in 2009, which was incorporated into a deeper examination of humpback whales and why they are fending vulnerable animals from the predatory orcas.


Pitman researched found 115 documented interactions, looking at 54 different observations ranging from 1951-2012.

The results showed that:

in 89 percent of recorded incidents, the humpback whales stopped the killer whales at the beginning or mid-hunt to protect animals such as: gray whales, harbor seals, sea lions and ocean sunfish

His findings can be found in the journal Marine Mammal Science.

Reasons for Altruism

Some scientists are baffled as to why these whales would showcase such altruism when it puts them at obvious risk of attack.

Pitman said in response, “I think we need to consider the possibility that altruism can be unintentional and arise out of self-interest, as we suggest for the humpbacks.”

He also said it was more difficult to study whales accurately as the numbers have been declining since the 20th century.

Mother Nature Network asserted there could be a more selfish reason why humpback whales were fending off killer whales.

Fully formed humpback whales are too large to be hunted by orcas but their calves were helpless to the predators.

They said, “Orcas have been witnessed hunting humpback whale calves in much the same way that they hunt gray whale calves.”

“So, by proactively foiling orca hunts, perhaps the humpbacks are hoping to make them think twice about messing with their own calves.”

Another reason could be due to close bonds forming whilst growing up in packs. This would naturally cause a sense of protectiveness. However, it could be a subconscious instinct rather than consciously motivated.

DW Staff

David Lintott is the Editor-in-Chief, leading our team of talented freelance journalists. He specializes in covering culture, sport, and society. Originally from the decaying seaside town of Eastbourne, he attributes his insightful world-weariness to his roots in this unique setting.