Written by Rowan Whiteside

In The News

The goddamn wonder of whales

Humpbacks are massing in unprecedented numbers off the coast of South Africa. Whatever they’re up to, Rowan Whiteside knows it’ll be awesome.

humpback whale breaching the surface
Humpback whales are the goddamn guardians of the ocean. And we’re blessed to have them. Did you hear me? B-L-E-S-S-E-D.

After hunting them almost to extinction so humankind could make crucial things like corsets, perfume, candles and fishing rods, the humpback’s population has been making a comeback. Sure, nowadays they’re threatened by the Great Pacific Garbage Patch*, oil spills, oceanic noise pollution and collision by ships, but what’s a little bit of casual endangerment between friends? At least we’re not going after them with harpoons, amiright?**

*If you are also concerned by plastic pollution in our oceans, you could check out the excellent Seabin Project, or perhaps volunteer to participate in a beach clean-up near you.
**For two excellent books on whale hunting try the non-fiction Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick, and novel The North Water by Ian McGuire.

But I’m getting off topic. Humpback whales. Guardians of the ocean. Colossal singing creatures. Warm-blooded, water-breaching, super-intelligent, deep-diving delights. They’re really, really amazing.

And they are back in the news because they’ve been gathering in huge pods off the coast of South Africa. These super-groups can number 200 whales: a previously unprecedented figure. And weirder: the humpback whales shouldn’t even be there. By this time of the year, they should all be off down in Antarctica, not sunning themselves in Southern Africa. (Frankly, I’m a bit pissed off about it. I purposely didn’t arrange whale-watching tours when I was home in SA because the time of year was wrong. Could they not have started this a bit earlier, before I flew back?)

You might have already seen this brilliant film of a humpback being untangled from a fishing net, and leaping and blowing and flapping with gratitude. Doesn’t matter. Watch it again. Think about how you’d react if you were walking along, minding your own business, only to get wrapped in a football net. Yeah, you’d be pissed, right? You certainly wouldn’t do an elaborate thank you dance after one of the fuckers who probably trapped you to begin with cut you free.

“Is it too far-fetched to imagine humpbacks are gathering to discuss the state of the ocean? Or possibly to plot on finally overthrowing the vicious killer whales?”

Ahhh. Humpback whales. Such magical, forgiving sea-beasts.

Or so you’d think. Turns out, when it comes to killer whales, humpbacks are FIERCE.

Last year, a marvellous study hit the major newspapers: Humpback whales were hindering orcas who were attacking other sea creatures. They were deliberately intervening to save the poor victims. More than that, humpback whales would swim recorded distances of more than four miles to stop the killer whales from chowing down.

Oh, but wait. They get cleverer. Humpback whales would only intervene with mammal-eating killer whales, not their relatively harmless cousins fish-eating killer whales. In fact, in 93 per cent of recorded cases where humpbacks mobbed killer whales, they were mammal-eating killer whales, and 87 per cent of the time those killer whales were attacking or feeding on prey. (I’d highly recommend reading the full scientific report. It’s ace.)

I mean, COME ON. Humpback whales are basically the emergency services of the sea.

The hypothesis runs that a humpback whale hears the distinctive calls of orca attacks, thinks, “I’m not having that,” and swims straight over to break it up. And then the humpbacks will protect whatever is at risk of becoming dinner, whether it’s sea-lions, porpoises, sunfish, or baby whales. The humpbacks will use their flippers, tails and blowholes to threaten the killer whales and protect the victims.

Here’s a BBC film of humpbacks trying to save a grey whale calf from killer whales, which always makes me cry:

Humpbacks have even exhibited learned skills in their defensive manoeuvres. On two occasions, humpback whales have been seen forming a rosette – heads in, tails out; calves safe in the centre – a behaviour that has only previously been seen in southern right whales. So not only are humpbacks demonstrating extraordinary magnanimity in rescuing other species, but they’re also learning new behaviour to do so.

Round of applause, please. Those humpbacks sure do deserve it.

It’s not known why humpback whales exhibit this behaviour pattern. It’s assumed it’s because orcas will attack young humpback whales (in fact, many humpbacks bear scars from killer whale attacks). But, it could be vigilantism. Or genuine wonderful amazing altruism.

With this in mind, is it too far-fetched to imagine humpbacks are gathering to discuss the state of the ocean? Or possibly to plot on finally overthrowing the vicious killer whales? (I’m never ever going to think of killer whales as being anything than evil. And, before you say it, I’ve watched Blackfish.)

Or maybe, just maybe, humpbacks have had enough of our human nonsense, and are about to declare themselves overlords of the land as well as sea.

I, for one, am ready to bow to our cetacean leaders. All hail the mighty humpback; long may they reign.


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Written by Rowan Whiteside

Rowan Whiteside is a writer, reader, and consummate gin-drinker. She is never without a book and sheds to-do-lists wherever she goes. Like everyone else, she is currently working on her first novel.