Saved by a whale: are humpbacks the original altruists?

A new documentary reveals how the ties between humans and animals are growing closer by the day.

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Did it intend to kill them – or did it jump by mistake and then swerve at the last minute to spare their lives? This is the question that has hung over Tom Mustill and Charlotte Kinloch ever since a giant whale launched itself out of the water and collapsed over their kayak in the summer of 2015.

Tourists on a nearby boat captured the shocking scene on film and the clip subsequently went viral, gathering over 6 million views on YouTube alone. But the effect of the experience on Mustill has been just as vast: in the days after, he wrote of being haunted by the image of the whale’s oncoming belly, unable to get it out of his head.

He still can’t. Three years on, in a new BBC2 documentary, “Humpback Whales: A Detective Story”, the 35-year-old filmmaker sets out to answer the sea of questions the whale has left him: who was it, why was it there, and did it leap with intent?

His quest for answers takes him back to Monterey Bay, California, and into the homes and laboratories of an array of marine experts. The resulting, life-affirming story bursts with whales – and with the humanity of the brilliant, devoted scientists who protect them. But as Musthill attempts to solve the mystery of his particular whale’s identity, an even larger enigma emerges.

Type “whale” and “empathy” into YouTube and you are met with a strange and surprising list: videos of humpbacks protecting other animals from orcas, of seals riding to safety upon their backs, and even one rescuing a diver from the path of an oncoming shark.

The diver in question is Nan Hauser, a marine biologist from the Cook Islands, and when Mustill goes to meet her she touches on the intriguing psychological side of humpback whales' behaviour: 

“This is not a normal thing,” she says of being pushed to safety by the giant creature. “I just know that it’s incredible altruistic behaviour […] what did this whale gain from any of this other than pushing me to the boat and protecting me.”

Does this suggest whales act with an almost human-like sense of altrusim? 

Opinion is divided. Marine biologist Robert Pitman has told Smithsonian magazine that he thinks their heroic acts towards other species are simply a misdirected extension of their instinct to save their own calves. Yet soon a new research project, being run by scientists at the Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence Institute (SETI), will attempt to measure empathy in the whales – and use the findings to better interpret signals from beyond our atmosphere.

For Mustill, his experience leads him to conclude that his whale jumped by accident, and didn't mean to hit the kayak. He's not sure it then swerved for entirely unselfish reasons, however: “I think probably [it missed us] because it didn't want to land on something uncomfortable”, he told the New Statesman.

But while much is still unknown, one thing is certain: if humans don’t take more pains to do as whales do, and extend our altruism to non-human species, these majestic creatures may soon slide out of existence entirely.

In Mustill’s film, he witnesses a whale-rescue team risk their lives to free a humpback trapped in fishing lines. And this is just the start of the human-made hazards these mysterious creatures endure.

From chemicals like mercury and PCBs building up in their blubber, to climate change compromising their ability to catch food, whales face a deeply uncertain future. Just this week, a study of dead sea mammals washed up on UK beaches found plastics in the stomach of each examined body.

Willie Mackenzie, an Oceans Campaigner at Greenpeace, told the New Statesman that whales help move nutrients around different levels of the sea and store massive amounts of carbon in their own bodies. Losing them could thus spell disaster for the wider ecosystem. “For decades we’ve been exploiting the ocean and taking things out without an understanding of what the result of that is,” he says.

“We need to do less harm in the oceans and that starts with individual action at home – but it also means we need big international efforts to protect new areas of ocean, such as the Arctic and Antarctic, which are crucial feeding grounds for humpback whales.”

Greenpeace and other campaign groups are now pushing for marine areas outside of national jurisdiction, known as the “high seas”, to receive new protection from over-exploitation. But the fact that no one country can do this on its own will require new levels of international co-operation and altruism.

One can only hope that, when it comes to saving other species, humanity becomes a lot more whale – and fast. 

Humpback Whales: A Detective Story airs on Friday 8th January, on BBC2, and then again on Saturday 9th.

India Bourke is an environment writer and editorial assistant at the New Statesman.