A Marine Biologist’s Swim with Humpback Whales Goes Completely Wrong

Whales may be the largest animal on Earth, but there’s actually very little that we know about them. These gigantic mammals are incredibly powerful, but, at the same time, they are gentle and non-aggressive. There is still a lot we don’t know about how whales operate, but one marine biologist’s experience has shed some light on their mysterious behavior.

Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

In 2017, Nan Hauser was swimming right off the coast of the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. The area is officially a whale sanctuary, and the marine biologist regularly encountered humpback whales. But, on this day, something exceptionally unusual happened, which forever changed the way she thought about these gentle creatures.

Find out what happened and why this experience had an impact on the marine biology community.

Gentle Giants

Nan Hauser has made it her life’s mission to research and protect humpback whales. At 63 years old, the marine biologist has spent the last thirty years living in the Cook Islands, where she spends her time helping as many whales as she can.

Nan Hauser
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Part of her job as the President and Director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation is to document everything she can about whales. That is, how do they behave? And how do they move? Hauser has to get up close and personal with these gentle giants, which means that she often gets to swim alongside them. Although these swims have become pretty much routine, Hauser experienced something unusual, to say the least.

Just Keep Swimming

Towards the end of the summer of 2017, Hauser was swimming with a research vessel off the coast of Rarotonga in the Cook Islands. Her colleagues made sure to keep a close eye on her by tracking her course with a drone. Armed with an underwater camera, Hauser was able to photograph herself swimming near a small pod of humpback whales.

A few whales towards the bottom of the ocean
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

While she was busy videotaping, a humpback whale began swimming in her direction. This mammal must have weighed at least 25 metric tons and was at least 50 feet in length. Can you imagine? Whales don’t typically swim towards humans, and Hauser knew that this was unusual behavior. She was nervous about what could happen next.

What’s Going On?

Despite their size, swimming alongside whales is generally not considered a dangerous activity, especially for those who know what they’re doing. As a whale expert, Hauser was caught off guard by the whale’s behavior. She couldn’t understand why this humpback was rushing towards her.

A humpback whale on its back
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

At first, she thought that maybe she could swim out of the way, but, within a few seconds, she realized that she was unable to get out of its path. It dawned on her that she was about to collide with the largest mammal on earth. What was it thinking? Was it trying to kill her? Hauser had completed hundreds of research swims throughout her career. In all of her time as a marine biologist, she had never seen behavior like this.

Unable to Escape

As the humpback whale approached Hauser, she realized something was, in fact, wrong. The whale was well on its way to collide with the marine biologist and then… BAM! The whale crashed into her, pinning Hauser to its head. And then, it continued to swim. What the heck was going on?

Nan underneath the fin of a humpback whale
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

The 64-year-old tried desperately to swim away, but the humpback whale repeatedly rammed into her, pushing her further and further away from the boat where her colleagues were waiting for her. No matter which direction Hauser swam in, the whale would not leave her alone. Not only had the marine biologist never experienced anything like this during a research swim, she had never heard of a whale acting like this towards another human being before.

What to Do?

At this point, Hauser didn’t know what to do. She began to think that this whale might actually end up killing her. The force of the whale’s movements was enough to seriously injure her. As the incident continued, Hauser realized something: trying to escape was only making matters worse. Every time she moved, the whale would just push back even harder.

A close-up photograph of a humpback whales eye
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Maybe, Hauser thought, she should just stay put. The whale’s strength could seriously injure her, and staying put meant that the whale wouldn’t ram her. But, on the other hand, she was dealing with a mammal that weighs over 25 metric tons. Staying where she was also very dangerous. Hauser didn’t know what to do.

Do Not Move!

Hauser understood that if the whale continued to strike her, she ran the risk of breaking multiple bones or damaging her internal organs. But this wasn’t the only thing that terrified her. Humpback whales are known to be gentle creatures, but they are also very powerful animals.

A humpback whale going into the water
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Hauser could be knocked unconscious and most likely drown if the whale accidentally hit her in the head with its flipper or tail. This terrified her more than anything, and, as time went by, it seemed more likely that this would be her fate. The marine biologist did her best to avoid any swift movements, as this would only increase her chance of being hit by this massive mammal.

Just Remain Calm

Although Hauser feared for her life, she tried her best to remain calm. The whale researcher knew that this was the only way she would be able to come up with an escape plan. In the end, Hauser decided that the best place to be was near the humpback whale’s head. Humpback whales eat krill and other small fish; humans are definitely not on their menu.

Nan swimming next to a large humpback whale
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Also, instead of teeth, humpback whales have baleen plates in their mouths. These plates hang down from the whale’s upper jaw and are made of keratin, which is the same material that human nails and hair are made of. The further Hauser stayed from the whale’s tail and flippers, the better.

Something Terribly Wrong

While Hauser knew she was safer near the whale’s head, she knew it was only temporary. She needed to escape as quickly as possible. Hauser jokes that she has a terrible fear of spiders, and while she screams at the sight of a tiny arachnid, she will happily swim with a powerful whale (that could easily crush her if it wished). Oh, the irony.

A humpback whale with its fins out jumping above the water
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Now, at this point, the humpback’s behavior was going against everything she knew about these gentle creatures. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something else was terribly wrong. Was the whale in danger? Was it trying to warn her about something? Hauser just couldn’t figure it out.

Everyone’s Hands Are Tied

As a professional marine biologist, Hauser has always been committed to her whale research. This commitment was still strong, even during what could have been her final moments here on Earth. Despite the horrifying situation, the 64-year-old was still videotaping the entire incident, even as she tried to wiggle free.

Nan’s crew setting up the drone onshore
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Back on the boat, her colleagues knew something was wrong. They were watching the entire incident on the drone, but like Hauser, they were just as helpless. At this point in the incident, the marine biologist feared that her footage of the humpback was going to be her last whale documentation ever. Can you imagine being in her situation?

Planning Her Escape

Hauser wasn’t the only person swimming in the water that day. Her diving buddy was also with her, but he had no idea that something was going horribly wrong. The 64-year-old was doing such a great job at staying calm that he couldn’t see that she needed help. But even if she had tried to signal her diving buddy, there was nothing he could have done.

A photograph of the bottom of a humpback whale
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

The humpback whale was far too big and heavy for him to do anything. As each minute went by, the gentle giant pushed Hauser further and further from her research boat. She knew that if something didn’t happen soon, she was going to find herself abandoned in the open ocean.

Wait, There’s Another One?!

All of a sudden, Hauser spotted another humpback whale out of the corner of her eye. This was not a huge surprise, however, as whales are social animals and tend to travel in pods. But, much to Hauser’s surprise, the second whale was behaving strangely as well. It may not have been trying to push her deeper into the ocean, but she could tell that something was not quite right.

Nan holding the fin of a humpback whale
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

What on earth was happening? Was Hauser going to be able to free herself from the whale’s grip? Suddenly, the second whale frantically started slapping the surface of the water with its tail. Then suddenly, the whale lashed out at something behind it.

It’s Another Whale, Right?

As the marine biologist was pushed further into the open water, she watched as the second whale continued to tail slap something. The usually peaceful creature was clearly agitated about something and was acting in a way that Hauser had never experienced before.

Two humpback whales in the water
Photo by Olaf Kruger / imageBROKER / Shutterstock

By now, ten minutes had passed since the male whale first rammed into her. She was bruised and sore from the sharp barnacles attached to the whale’s skin. Then, all of a sudden, something else started swimming towards her. At first, she thought it was another whale, but then she noticed something else: the tail fin was moving side-to-side, not up and down. This only meant one thing.

“Man-Eating Shark”

Now fifteen minutes had passed since the humpback whale had first started to bump into her. But now she realized that the whale wasn’t trying to attack her. No, he was protecting her from the creature that was swimming toward her right now: a tiger shark. Suddenly, it all clicked. The humpback whale was trying to keep Hauser close to his body so he could protect her from the tiger shark.

A tiger shark swimming on the ocean floor
Photo by SeaTops / imageBROKER / Shutterstock

Nicknamed “man-eating sharks,” tiger sharks are known to be vicious predators. These sharks are alpha predators and have the reputation of eating almost anything. Tiger sharks are also regarded as the most dangerous shark species by most researchers and are second to the great white in recorded fatal attacks on people.

A Quick Dash

Many people often assume that great white sharks are the most dangerous types of sharks. But that is mainly because of the popular thriller, Jaws. In reality, great white sharks are rare and less likely to attack a person for no reason. Great whites also usually take one bite, realize that a person isn’t a seal, and then swim away.

A tiger shark under a boat
Photo by Michael Weberberger / imageBROKER / Shutterstock

Tiger sharks, on the other hand, are far more dangerous. They are known to continuously bite and eat their victims. Both Hauser and her diving buddy were swimming very close to a dangerously large tiger shark which, Hauser believes was chasing them. That is when she decided to dash for the boat.

A Successful Escape

In a quick dash, Hauser and her diving buddy somehow broke loose from the whale’s grip, reaching the boat in the nick of time. Once she climbed aboard, the marine biologist told her colleagues about the tiger shark swimming nearby. Once she calmed down, Hauser reviewed the footage she and her partner had taken, along with the recording from the drone that captured the entire incident from the air.

Source: Instagram

When she examined the video footage, she learned that her instinct had been correct. Right when the tiger shark appeared, the whale had rammed into her and continued to keep her close. While we don’t know much about whales’ behavior, the marine biologist had heard of whales acting altruistically to protect other marine mammals.

An Altruistic Act?

She had even seen a whale protect a little hammerhead shark before, but she never had heard of a whale acting like this towards a human. In an interview with NPR, the marine biologist said she had been studying humpback whales for three decades but still has no idea why they are altruistic.

A humpback whale underneath their boat
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

It doesn’t seem to fit with the survival of the fittest theory, does it? So why do they do it? Hauser also says that, as a scientist, she is trained to be skeptical. She is trying hard not to make up a storyline that explains why these humpback whales acted the way they did.

Three Different Angles

In a 2018 interview with NPR, Hauser admits that if someone had told her this story, she would have had a hard time believing that it actually happened. “If someone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it. If it hadn’t been me, if it hadn’t been filmed in three different angles, I wouldn’t believe it,” she explained. “I tried a lot not to anthropomorphize any of the behavior that I see.”

Nan leaning on the side of the boat with the whales in the water behind her
Source: YouTube

Luckily the marine biologist had three different angles from three different cameras. This allowed her to take a closer look and see the situation from a bird’s eye view. But Hauser also doesn’t know if the whale was acting this way because he knew she was a human or because he thought she was something else.

A History of Protecting

In 2016, researchers complied 115 documented cases from the past 60 years. Each of these cases involved a whale rescuing creatures, like dolphins and seals, from other predatory animals. Since the study, researchers have tried to familiarize themselves with this altruistic behavior. Marine ecologist Robert Pitman once saw a humpback whale throw a seal out of the water to save it from being eaten by a pod of killer whales.

A whale’s tail sticking out of the water
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Now, Hauser can be officially added to this list of animals that owe their lives to these gentle giants, or should I say, heroes of the sea. Still, her experience is very unique because it was the first time researchers recorded a whale trying to protect a human.

There Are Always Skeptics

Hauser’s experience was very unique, and she received praise from members of the scientific community. Scientists were delighted by her accounts and believe that her conclusion that the humpback whales acted altruistically is indeed correct. Unfortunately, other members of the marine biologist community are skeptical about her story.

Nan sitting on the edge of her boat being photographed
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

They claim that it is impossible to know the humpback whale’s true intention. These scientists believe that the whale’s behavior may not have had anything to do with the tiger shark’s presence. During the encounter, Hauser was adamant that the whale was a male, but other scientists claim that the whale was actually a female. They believe that maybe the female whale lost her baby, and hormones prompted her to act motherly towards Hauser.

A Rare Experience

Regardless of what the critics say, Hauser is confident in her own conclusions and trusts her instincts. The marine biologist’s experience is extremely rare, which is why she is so lucky that the entire incident was captured on camera. Since there were three cameras (Hauser’s, her diving buddy’s, and the drone’s), the entire incident was captured from three different angles, making it hard to dispute her theory.

A humpback whale with a humpback calf
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

The whale’s behavior fits scientists’ broad understanding of how humpback whales behave towards other animals, and the footage clearly shows that the humpback whale was moving her away from the potentially dangerous tiger shark. That being said, it is still important to take Hauser’s critics seriously because applying human characteristics to animals can be a slippery slope.

Anthropomorphism? Never Heard of It

The official term for applying human characteristics and emotions to animals is anthropomorphism. For example, people may think that elephants have a sad face, while dolphins look happy. But what they’re doing is applying human emotions to an animal. Calling a humpback whale empathetic or compassionate would fall under this category because these emotions are human.

A humpback whale half out of the water
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

To avoid making this mistake, Hauser calls the whales altruistic. The difference between compassion and altruism can be a bit confusing, so I’ll break it down for you. When a human protects a helpless animal from danger, they do so out of compassion. They feel bad for the animal and don’t want it to suffer.

Oh, No! Not Again

But the humpback, on the other hand, most likely didn’t feel bad for Hauser. It likely protected the marine biologist because she reminded it of a calf and had a strong instinct to protect her. This natural instinct often results in an altruistic act.

Nan photographing a whale right outside of her boat
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser

Less than a week after Hauser almost lost her life, she returned to the water, this time confident that, in case of an emergency, she would have a helping hand. Almost immediately after she entered the water, a female humpback started swimming towards her. But this time it was different. The whale wasn’t charging at her like the one other day, but still. This type of behavior was still unusual. What did this whale want?

A Perfect Birthday

The marine biologist turned towards the female humpback whale, curious to see what the whale was going to do. The whale swam a few feet under Hauser and then opened her pectoral fins, as if she was giving the marine biologist a giant hug. Hauser was elated. It just so happened to be her birthday, and she couldn’t have asked for a better gift.

Nan Hauser posing for a photograph / A humpback whale’s tail sticking out of the water
Source: Facebook / Nan Daeschler Hauser (left and right)

Over the past week, two different whales had shown her love in a way she had not experienced from this species before. If the marine biologist ever needed a sign that she had chosen the right career, these experiences were just that. Regardless of how you interpret Nan Hauser’s story, it’s hard to deny that whales are truly magnificent creatures.

While humpback whales are the heroes of the sea, the rest of the ocean can be a bit terrifying. Check out this next story that proves the ocean is scarier than space!

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