Humpback Whale
A humpback whale breaches off the coast at Clovelly Beach in Sydney, Australia, June 19, 2016. Reuters/David Gray

Experts have revealed that humpback whales save other species from ocean killers. Apart from their gigantic size, spectacular leaps and gentle behaviour, whales also have another amazing characteristic and that is concern for other animals.

The scientists have seen humpback whales thwarting attacks by killer whales on other juvenile whales, sunfish, sea lions and seals. They have been seen intervening when other sea creatures are in danger of getting attacked by killer creatures.

Even though many animals behave unselfishly to protect members of their own species, the humpback whales appear to display a purer form of altruism, write The Australian. The study, published in the journal Marine Mammal Science, revealed that humpback whales sometimes even travel more than a mile to be in the area of killer whales and may spend up to seven hours around them.

Killer whales are usually silent killers but make vocalisations when they approach for a kill. It is believed that humpback whales identify these sounds as an attack signal and swim towards them to stop them from killing a sea creature.

Interestingly, in about 85 percent of the cases, the prey was not another humpback. The experts have suggested further research to find out if the humpback whales really believe altruistically.

Vet at the Zoological Society of London who specialises in marine mammals, Paul Jepson, however believes that even though the study has provided insights into behaviour of whales, motivation of the humpbacks were more likely protection of their own species than concern for others.

“It might be that it’s a way in which humpbacks can tell killer whales ‘don’t mess with us.’ Rather than being pure altruism it could be that it is in the interests of humpbacks to deter killer whale,” Jepson said.

The study was conducted after an incident in 2009 when a marine ecologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service in the US, Robert Pitman, came across a pod of killer whales hunting a weddell seal off Antarctica.

During the hunt, a humpback whale rose out of the water and used it flippers to keep the seal safe. Later, the seal was able to escape. In yet another incident, a pair of humpback whales was seen protecting a grey whale calf from killer whales. However, the humpbacks did not succeed. Pitman and other experts analysed 31 such cases of humpback whales intervening in killer whale hunts and trying to protect other sea creatures.