Whale won’t let diver go until she sees why
Whale-watching continues to mystify and enchant people the world over. Something about the gentle serenity of the largest extant creatures on Earth fascinates humans. And some lesser-known aspects of these mammals’ behavior can be downright extraordinary, and even humbling. One harrowing moment in the South Pacific proved just how much the scientific community has yet to understand. When marine biologist and conservationist Nan Hauser encountered a male humpback whale off the Cook Islands, it did something so utterly unexpected and unprecedented that it defied anything she had ever witnessed, and shifted all previous knowledge about whale behavior, sending ripples through the scientific world.
1. A whale of a mission
Nan Hauser, a 63-year-old marine biologist and researcher, had made studying and rescuing whales her life’s passion. A Maine native, for the past 28 years she had traveled across the globe in her mission to document them, and to fight for their rights and protection. So naturally, swimming with them was like a no-brainer for her.
But despite how often Nan had been in the water with these gentle giants of the deep, and how comfortable she was in their presence, none of her previous experience could have prepared her for what happened to her one day while on a swim. One humpback whale would shatter her perceptions of the species.
2. The Cook Islands
Nan was residing in the South Pacific in the Cook Islands, making her home on the biggest island, Rarotonga. Over the years, through her mission of advocacy, Nan had managed to successfully turn the entirety of the Cook Islands’ territorial waters — all 772,200 square miles of them — into a whale sanctuary.
Nan founded the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation on Rarotonga. In 2001, the Cook Islands officially declared that the boundaries of their whale sanctuary would extend up to 200 nautical miles from shore. If whales could be grateful to one person, it would be her. But one humpback whale in particular caught her off guard.
3. A swim like any other
Nan was swimming off the shore of Rarotonga one day in September 2017. Chugging along right nearby was a research vessel carrying several of her colleagues, who were tracking her course. She had her underwater camera on and shooting as she documented her experiences during her swim in the warm waters of the South Pacific.
During the course of her swim, Nan came across a male humpback whale. He was massive, likely weighing upward of 23 tons. At 50 feet long, he was at the larger end of the spectrum as far as adult humpback size. And his behavior was incredibly unusual. He was coming straight for her.
4. Unclear intentions
It was not something that typified humpback whale behavior. Generally in this sort of scenario, Nan would be the one approaching the whale of her own accord to examine and observe him, not vice versa. But for some reason, this time the tables were turned, and it was unclear exactly why.
The enormous humpback whale headed directly toward her, and she could not get out of its path. She focused her camera on the rogue cetacean, filming him as he made his approach. But she had no idea yet just what his intentions could be — and whether there was reason to be concerned.
5. Strange behavior
This was far from Nan’s first time swimming with whales; it was a central element of her work, an activity she had engaged in perhaps hundreds of times over the long years of her career as a marine biologist and conservationist. But this sort of behavior was something she had never witnessed.
As he came closer, it was clear something was awry. Rather than swimming on by and ignoring her, the male humpback whale instead made a dash straight at her. He kept going, pushing forward, and didn’t stop until he had rammed into her. All of a sudden, Nan was pinned on his head. She couldn’t get away.
6. An enormous struggle
The whale kept ramming into her, pushing her away. Nan tried hard to get out of his path and swim away from him, but it was no use. She was at his mercy. Her heart started pounding. In all her years of studying the humpback whale, never had one done something like this to her.
To make matters worse, the humpback whale wasn’t capable of realizing the force of his own strength. Even if he didn’t intend to cause his human subject any harm, the potential for it happening anyway was extremely high. Being at the whim of an adult male humpback whale could have catastrophic consequences.
7. Sheer force
As the humpback whale continued to bump and push Nan through the water, even as she tried to understand what could have possessed him to do such a thing, Nan immediately feared for her life. Knowing the force a humpback whale could exert, she realized how she could be affected.
The marine biologist was convinced that if her swimming partner ran into her too hard with his head or body, he would break her bones or potentially damage her internal organs. All it would take was one misguided movement. And there was another thing he could do that she had to steer clear of.
8. Dangerous appendages
To make matters worse, as she tried to free herself from the humpback whale’s bizarre movements, pinned underneath him, Nan had to make sure she maintained a wide berth from the whale’s flippers and tail. As far as her situation was concerned, these were quite possibly the most dangerous parts of his body.
Though humpback whales are not renowned for any sort of aggression, just one smack from the flippers or tail in the wrong direction and with the right amount of force could have knocked her out and left her to drown. Nan was trying her hardest not to panic. But she had an idea.
9. Don’t lose your head
Even though humpback whales lack sharp teeth and feed by filtering through the baleen, or the filter-feeder system in their mouths, this was still a position Nan Hauser had to get out of as quickly as possible. As Nan’s brain went into survival mode, she remembered a lifesaving tactic to try and make the best of the situation.
She knew she couldn’t afford to lose her cool. Through her extremely thorough understanding of humpback whale behavior, she knew well enough that he would be able to sense her fear if she projected it, and this could cause another shift in his body language. Nan had to think fast.
10. Making the best of it
Nan liked to joke that something as massive as a whale didn’t scare her, but she was absolutely afraid of small spiders. That being said, being in the hold of this humpback whale and not knowing how it would turn out or why he was pinning her was an incredibly scary experience.
Nan maintained eye contact with the whale as best as she could. Normally, through her decades of experience, encounters with whales were the opposite of this. But if this whale changed its demeanor suddenly, in a split second it could smack her and kill her. Could her friends on the boat see what was going on?
11. Unable to stop it
Nan would have to get herself out of the whale’s dangerous embrace. She kept her underwater camera in her hand, documenting the entire experience even as she tried to escape. As the camera rolled, a horrifying thought crossed Nan’s mind. She was convinced that she and her colleagues on the surface might inadvertently be filming her own death.
Back on the surface, aboard the research vessel, the crew was concerned, as they could see what was going on from above through their drone footage. But they were helpless to intervene. They could merely watch and keep filming as Nan was bumped into and pushed along by this humpback whale.
12. Powerless humans
Nan was not the only crew member in the water. Another diver was alongside Nan in the water, just a few paces away. But this diver was not as experienced as her and not as keenly aware as Nan was of the subtleties of humpback whale behavior, nor the potential for harm.
Because of that, the second diver accompanying Nan didn’t realize that something was awry, even as the camera kept on filming the experience. She was unable to communicate that she needed help, and there wasn’t much that someone else could have done anyway. Nan knew she was alone in this struggle.
The humpback whale kept pushing Nan farther and farther away from her research vessel, taking her out to sea. It was absolutely petrifying and was the first time a whale had done this to her. Usually, Nan will not even touch the whales she’s working with, unless they’re sick or stranded on a beach.
This one humpback in particular was uncharacteristically relentless. He was determined to keep pushing her around, keeping her close to his body and not letting her out of his sight. After some time being jostled and shoved, she saw another huge entity looming up ahead in the water. They had company.
14. Cetacean squad
There was yet another humpback whale with them in the water, off in the distance. Unlike the adult male that had made its way straight over to where Nan had been swimming, this whale was keeping its space. But the fact that there was more than one humpback in the area was neither rare nor unusual.
Humpback whales are social creatures, tending to swim together in pods. That wasn’t strange to Nan. But if this male humpback’s aggressively dominant behavior was alarming, what she could make out from the other whale was totally perplexing. It was also behaving erratically, and she could not yet see why.
Even as Nan was trying to get away from the first humpback whale, she was still impressed by his companion. The second whale that had joined their company was continually slapping its tail on the water’s surface, and then lashed out at something behind it, another object in the water.
Nan’s keen eye as a marine biologist with decades of experience in her field couldn’t help but observe the other whale’s peculiar behavior. Both of the whales were acting in an abnormal way. If the first whale was riled up, something had the second whale clearly agitated. They were not alone.
16. Scraped up
At this point, Nan was bruised from continuously being pushed and shoved by the male humpback. The rough barnacles that were clinging to the whale’s skin scraped her again and again as she moved past it. Though it wasn’t clear if it meant to cause her harm, she was nonetheless getting battered.
Her ordeal was not a momentary fluke. The whale had not left her alone and had been pushing her along on its own course for more than 10 minutes now. But it was only at that point, when she saw the second humpback whale’s behavior, that she realized the danger lurking ahead.
17. Tossed around
In an instant, everything suddenly clicked and the entire situation made sense to her. The whale had kept her under his pectoral fin, bounced her onto his back, under his stomach, and even on his head, lifting her out of the water. It had all been on purpose, but now she saw why.
When she understood what was troubling the pair of humpback whales, she knew she had to double her efforts to get away, and fast. But the male humpback whale simply would not tolerate her swimming freely. If she had been in danger of accidentally being harmed before, now the threat level was skyrocketing.
18. Apex predator
Lurking off in the murky distance in the water behind the second whale was every diver’s worst nightmare: a tiger shark. Judging by what Nan could make out from its form, it was likely more than 15 feet in length. She and her fellow diver were now in grave danger, and not because of any whale’s accidental flipper slip.
Colloquially known as the man-eating shark, this tiger shark was likely several feet longer than the average. Though their teeth are smaller than a great white’s, they can even more easily slice through shell, flesh, and bone. Nan now believed the whales had been trying to protect her from the shark. She had good reason to fear for her life.
19. King of the seas
Usually, when people imagine a shark attack, the first culprit species who leaps to mind would have to be the great white. But the great white shark’s behavior in its onslaught differs from tiger sharks, in that great whites tend to strike once, take a huge bite of their victim, and leave.
Tiger sharks, meanwhile, have a decidedly more vicious offensive strategy, continuing to attack their prey ruthlessly. And now, Nan and her dive partner were in the same space as one of these apex predators. Nan swam as hard as she could to get away from the humpback whale’s embrace, and made a mad dash for the boat.
20. Breaching the surface
Luckily, Nan and her dive partner managed to get out of the perilous underwater situation in the nick of time. When Nan finally reached the boat, gasping for air as she climbed out of the water, her first words were to announce to everyone onboard that there was a big tiger shark not far off.
But far from being terrified, she was now filled with joy and excitement. She was obviously relieved, but now she understood what had just happened, and why it had happened. She checked her underwater camera to rewatch the footage. And then, she looked back into the water — and saw that they had been followed.
21. Checking on her
The male humpback whale had not left Nan alone just yet. He surfaced once more, as though he was genuinely concerned and making sure she was absolutely out of harm’s way. Then he shot spray out of his blowhole. In an instant, Nan had forgiven him for the frightening ordeal he had put her through.
She now truly felt that all along he had just been trying to keep her safe. Nan calmly sat on the edge of the boat to gaze down at the massive creature, and she told her cetacean companion she loved him. Then, she began to piece together the whole scenario.
22. A marine biologist’s theory
As she watched the footage that had been taken from three different angles, Nan became even more convinced that she understood why the humpback whale had behaved so strangely. Even if not every action or moment could be discerned from the film, the footage she had managed to record was proof enough.
According to Nan’s theory, the whale had relentlessly kept her close to him, whether under, on top, or behind his fin, to protect her from the tiger shark that was nearby. Given everything she knew about humpback whale behavior, it could have made perfect sense. Overall, this was not an isolated incident.
23. Giant shields
Nan’s theory about what had happened to her in the waters of the Cook Islands would mesh with previously proven behavior patterns found and studied in humpback whales. There are a plethora of recorded instances in which humpback whales went out of their way to shield other mammals from the imminent threat of predators.
In fact, a 2016 study gathered a whopping 115 documented instances, stretching back over 62 years, in which humpback whales actively intervened in order to rescue not only their own calves, but other species, such as smaller dolphins or seals. But nonetheless, there was something drastically unique about Nan’s experience.
24. Unprecedented case
Scientists were not unfamiliar with the humpback whale’s propensity for rescuing other animals in danger. In fact, marine ecologist Robert Pitman had reported a humpback whale even flinging a seal out of the water so that it would be saved from voracious orcas. But what had happened to Nan was unprecedented.
If Nan’s theory was right, and the humpback whale had indeed been pushing her along in order to make sure she stayed safe close to his body, this was the first documented instance of a human being rescued by a humpback whale. And despite her assertion, she was not without her critics.
25. A divided scientific community
As news of her story spread, many skeptics emerged. There were critics in the scientific community saying it was impossible to discern what the humpback whale’s true intentions had been. According to them, the whale could have had other intentions, and the shark’s presence in the distance had been mere coincidence.
But Nan wasn’t too upset: She had proof of her experience to back up her claims. And if that male humpback whale had not been trying to protect her from the tiger shark, then what other logical explanation existed for the erratic way in which it had intentionally jostled her around?
26. Live documentation
Nearly everything that had happened to Nan in the Cook Islands on that momentous and harrowing day in September 2017 had been caught on film, from her camera, the camera of her fellow diver, and the nearby research vessel and their drone. The footage, in her mind, could speak for itself.
Regardless of the fact that the marine biology community had its skeptics, she was convinced. Besides, even if its accuracy could not be known for certain, her theory about the whale’s behavior definitely could not be disproved. Beyond that, her footage provided valuable material about cetacean behavior. She even has her own term for this phenomenon.
27. Animal altruism
Nan, like some of her colleagues in the marine biology community, is careful to refer to the whale’s behavior as “altruism.” They pay close attention to the phrasing used in codifying animal behavior. While the casual observer might be inclined to call the male humpback’s actions “compassion,” she wants to discourage people from associating human traits and attributes with whales.
There is a discrepancy between altruism and compassion, in that the guiding force that leads an animal to act in a certain way is different in the two scenarios. Other marine biologists have hypothesized as to why the humpback whale might go out of its way to protect other species.
28. Compassion vs. altruism
Marine ecologist Robert Pitman has explained the motivation factors guiding compassionate behavior as opposed to altruistic behavior. He noted that if a human protects another animal that is in danger, it is purely out of compassion. But if a whale does it, this desire to protect comes out of a place of sheer instinct.
It could be that the humpback whale thought she was a seal or another marine mammal. But its innate instinct is to shield its calf from harm’s way, and this could have been the instinct causing the humpback to save Nan. And that was not the last Nan would see of her friend’s herd.
29. Back under the sea
Four days after her mind-blowing experience, Nan was right back out on the ocean off Rarotonga, on the research boat once again, in the same waters that she had helped to become a whale sanctuary. It was business as usual. She then noticed yet another humpback whale, a female this time.
She had swum with these gentle giants of the deep for decades, but now, in light of what she had just witnessed, they held a different meaning for her. Still filled with gratitude and awe from her experience, Nan instantly got back in the water. What happened next left her amazed.
30. A birthday gift
The female humpback whale swam calmly just 4 to 5 feet underneath Nan. And then she put out her pectoral fins around Nan, as if to give her a hug! It just so happened it was Nan’s birthday, and she got the most wonderful gift: the magic of a whale’s embrace.
What happened to Nan Hauser in the Cook Islands remains a baffling event without precedent. All through the course of this marine biologist’s career, she had sought to protect whales. Now, when she least expected it, she had experienced what it was like when one reached out and returned the favor.