Why Do Humpback Whales Protect Seals & Other Marine Animals From Hunter Orca Pods?

May 15, 2019 Updated: May 22, 2019

It’s a little bit like school yard justice meets the deep blue sea. The bullies of the ocean, those most notorious and efficient of all hunters, killer whale pods are known to track down everything from whale calves to great white sharks, eat their livers, and tear them to pieces.

Ocean tourists have witnessed horrifying red waters after a successful kill—not for the faint-hearted. But there are also giant peacekeepers of the ocean, too big to be hunted by orcas, with a soft spot for those more vulnerable than they are, who are willing to lend a helping fin whenever the opportunity arises. They are the humpback whales.

The phenomenon of humpbacks protecting other marine animals from orcas has been noted to be both real and widespread for a long time. The giants, typically weighing 40 tons, have bewildered scientists with their seemingly “altruistic” behavior ever since at least the 1950s.

In 2009, marine ecologist Robert Pitman observed this incredibly rare but real phenomenon off the coast of Antarctica; an orca pod had knocked a Weddell seal off an ice floe, and it seemed like dinner time was at hand—and that the seal was the main course for these orcas.

Then, just in the nick of time, a humpback whale appeared upside-down and raised the seal up out of the water on its belly—out of reach from the killer whales. The seal was then able to escape to safety onto another piece of floating ice.

After the incredible encounter, Pitman and some of his fellow researchers decided to research similar encounters of humpbacks protecting ocean animals from orcas. They came up with 54 separate occurrences going back from 1951 all the way to 2012. One hundred and fifteen such instances were published in the Journal of Marine Mammal Science.

In 57 percent of these cases, the humpbacks initiated the intervention, which seems to suggests that they actively seek out such encounters. Eighty seven percent of these involved orcas that were in the act of hunting, and 89 percent of the time, the humpbacks were protecting a species other than their own.

Orca pods use their numbers to corral sharks or push whale calves and other marine mammals underwater to drown them. They are incredibly efficient hunters, the top echelon in the food chain of the sea.

Meanwhile, humpbacks also use various techniques to ward off orcas such as splashing with their flippers, bellowing, chasing them off, or lifting potential prey out of the water. They have come to the rescue of various ocean species such as sea lions, sun fish, seals, and grey whales.

There was even a recent instance of a humpback pushing a human diver out of the water to protect him from a shark. The incredible moment was caught on video, and it’s been making the rounds on online media lately.

The anti-bullying behavior has scientists baffled. Some suspect that humpbacks are automatically keen on driving away orcas to protect their own whale calves. This instinctual response to drive away killer whales thus extends help to other species naturally, and the gentle giants flow with it. In any case, the bullied of the sea live to swim another day thanks to their ocean schoolyard protectors. Meanwhile, the orcas go hungry another day—well, maybe that’s the whole point!