Jul 29, 2022

The Humpback and the Killer

Killer whales — orcas — eat all sorts of animals, including humpback calves. But one day, biologists saw a group of humpback whales trying to stop some killer whales from eating… a seal. And then it happened again. And again. It turns out, all across the oceans, humpback whales are swimming around stopping killer whales from hunting all kinds of animals — from seals to gray whales to sunfish. And of course while many scientists explain this behavior as the result of blind instincts that are ultimately selfish, much of the world celebrates humpbacks as superhero vigilantes of the sea. But when Annie McEwen dug into what was really going on between humpbacks and killer whales, she found a set of stories that refused to fit in either of those two ways of seeing the world.

Special thanks to Eric J. Gleske and Brendan Brucker at Media Services, Oregon State University as well as Colleen Talty at Monterey Bay Whale Watch and California Killer Whale Project. Special thanks also to Doug McKnight and Giuliana Mayo.

Episode Credits:
Reported and produced by Annie McEwen
Original music and sound design by Annie McEwen
Mixing help from Arianne Wack
Fact-checking by Diane Kelly
Edited by Becca Bressler

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Alisa Schulman-Janiger took this video (https://zpr.io/5mYNTWpxs5GV) of the humpbacks defending the gray whale calf’s carcass from the killer whales.

Read Robert Pitman’s (et al) paper (https://zpr.io/iU9shuNW9tAj) about the humpbacks saving the seal and a review of the 115 interactions they collected between humpbacks and killer whales.

The World in the Whale (https://zpr.io/2BHBermJJfKj). If you are interested in whales, you are going to love this book.

Leadership support for Radiolab’s science programming is provided by the Gordon and Betty Moore Foundation, Science Sandbox, a Simons Foundation Initiative, and the John Templeton Foundation. Foundational support for Radiolab was provided by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.


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ANNIE MCEWEN: You guys want to introduce yourselves?

LATIF NASSER: Sure. Yeah. Yeah, yeah. I'm Lulu Miller.

LULU MILLER: My name is Egg McMuffin, and I had a yogurt for breakfast.

ANNIE: Okay, never mind. Okay. [laughs]

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Lulu.

LATIF: Radiolab.

ANNIE: All right.

LULU: And producer Annie McEwen.

ANNIE: Where should I begin? So we're heading out into the Antarctic Peninsula, which is the arm of Antarctica that kind of like, sticks up north.

LATIF: Oh, sure!

ANNIE: We're on a boat, nosing along the icy coast. And on the boat with us ...



ANNIE: Is this grizzled, mustachioed sea guy.

ANNIE: Are you Robert or Bob?

ROBERT PITMAN: Bob is good.

ANNIE: Okay.

ANNIE: Named Bob Pitman.

ROBERT PITMAN: I'm a whale biologist with the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.

ANNIE: And while Bob's first love ...

ROBERT PITMAN: Uh, boobies.


LULU: Hmm.

ROBERT PITMAN: Are a favorite bird of mine.


ANNIE: ... is sea birds ...

ROBERT PITMAN: I can talk booby any time.

ANNIE: He was down in Antarctica to study something a little bigger.

ROBERT PITMAN: Yeah, so there's a type of killer whale down there that feeds predominantly on seals.

ANNIE: And the way they hunt these seals is kind of amazing. They'll swim around looking for one that's lying on an ice floe. When they find it, all together ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... shoulder-to-shoulder, furiously beating their flukes ...

ANNIE: ... they charge towards that seal and just before they hit it ...

ROBERT PITMAN: They dive under it, kick their tails up, create a perfect little wave and wash the seal off.

ANNIE: And then the seal's in the water, and they eat the seal.

LATIF: Clever!

LULU: Wow.

ANNIE: Yeah, so that's like this kind of amazing thing that Bob is down there to see.

LATIF: Yeah.


ANNIE: During that trip, Bob also saw something else, and it was this something else that I called him up about. Because while at first glance, it just seemed to be one of those animal stories that we've all heard before, what it was actually hinting at was this whole universe, this epic throwdown, these deeply complex lives lived completely beyond our gaze. And the whole thing just sent me wondering, like, freshly wondering what the hell is going on in the ocean?

LULU: Ooh!

LATIF: Whoa!

LULU: Okay.

ANNIE: All right, okay. This actually evolves over three separate encounters. So encounter one.

ROBERT PITMAN: The first time we saw something that got our attention ...

ANNIE: Bob and his team were on their boat.

ROBERT PITMAN: ... and we had located our killer whales.

ANNIE: He could see their tall, black dorsal fins poking up out of the water, flashes of their white eye markings.

ROBERT PITMAN: They have an amazing paint job.

ANNIE: And it looked like there were about 10 of them sort of hanging out in this little pod. But as their boat got closer, Bob saw that in their midst ...

ROBERT PITMAN: There were two very large humpbacks.

ANNIE: Humpback whales.

LULU: Hmm.

ANNIE: These guys are sort of darkish gray, about twice as long as a killer whale with these giant, knobbly, barnacled fins. And for Bob, seeing them hanging out with killer whales—especially the mammal-eating kind—was weird. Because killer whales eat humpbacks. Usually only when they're smaller, like when they're calves or juveniles, but still ...

LATIF: Just, like, nomenclature-wise, like, I thought they were now orc—like, that they were rebranded as orcas because "killer whales" feels like too mean to them. But is that ...?

ANNIE: Well, do you know what "orca" means?


ANNIE: I learned this recently. It actually means "whale from hell."

LATIF: [gasps]

ANNIE: Like, loosely speaking, it means "whale from hell."

LATIF: What?

ANNIE: Or "jar from hell." Like, it's ...

LATIF: Jar from hell?

ANNIE: Or "vessel from hell." Like, it's a—you know, it is maybe—is that better than "killer whale?" Maybe. But also, like, these animals are amazing at hunting. Like, they're very good at killing. And they're ...

LATIF: They're—they're killing it, you could say.

ANNIE: [laughs] Why are we judging them for something that they ...

LATIF: Why are we judging them for killing it? You know?

ANNIE: Yeah.


ANNIE: Anyways, so humpbacks and these whales from hell hanging out together, it's a weird gathering.

ROBERT PITMAN: Yeah. The humpbacks were clearly agitated.

ANNIE: Slapping the water with their tails.

ROBERT PITMAN: Hitting the water with their flippers.

ANNIE: And kind of growling.

ROBERT PITMAN: Well, bellowing.

ANNIE: Bellowing.


ANNIE: And Bob and his crew, watching this commotion from the boat deck get kind of excited because they think ...

ROBERT PITMAN: Hey, maybe these killer whales are attacking these large adult humpbacks. Nobody's ever seen that before. But as we got in a little closer, we could see that the killer whales were swimming right around them, but seemed a little bit distracted.

ANNIE: There didn't seem to be any attacking or threatening going on. And then the killer whales just swam off.


ANNIE: And Bob was like, "Hmm."

ROBERT PITMAN: It didn't make any sense to us.

ANNIE: But then the film guy on the boat who's been filming this whole thing, he comes up to Bob with this camera and he says ...

ROBERT PITMAN: "Hey, take a look at this." And in his footage ...

ANNIE: You zoom in amidst all the splashing and the fins, you can see this little silvery head poking up out of the water.

ROBERT PITMAN: A Weddell seal that was there between the two humpbacks. Once we saw that it's like, oh yeah, now this makes sense.

ANNIE: Bob thought the killer whales must have just been trying to get at the seal.

ROBERT PITMAN: And the seal was hiding out among the humpbacks.

LATIF: Smart seal.

ANNIE: Right. And the humpbacks were just annoyed the killer whales were bothering them.

ROBERT PITMAN: They may not even have known that the seal was there.

LULU: Hmm.

ANNIE: And so with the mystery of that sort of cleared up …

ROBERT PITMAN: Kind of tied it together for us.

ANNIE: Bob and his team catch up with their pod of killer whales.

ROBERT PITMAN: And about 20 minutes later, we had our next encounter.

ANNIE: Encounter number two.

ROBERT PITMAN: We found them with another seal, a crabeater seal.

ANNIE: This one was lying on an ice floe. And the killer whales were using their heads to push that ice floe ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... into the open, and were getting ready to wave wash this guy.

LULU: So Bob's, like, watching from the deck, like, "Heh, heh, heh."

ANNIE: Yeah.

LULU: Cameras on, and he's like, "This is what I've longed for!"

ANNIE: [laughs] Yeah.

LULU: Okay.

ANNIE: So he's about to see what he came down to Antarctica to see.

LULU: Okay.

ANNIE: But as the killer whales are closing in ...

ROBERT PITMAN: All of a sudden, the two humpbacks that we left 20 minutes earlier are right there among them.

LULU: [gasps]

ANNIE: They just kind of appear out of nowhere, making a huge commotion.

ROBERT PITMAN: Swimming around the ice floe.

ANNIE: Slashing their flippers and slapping their tails.

ROBERT PITMAN: And bellowing.

ANNIE: And soon after ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... the killer whales tired of this pretty quickly and just left.

ANNIE: And hearing this, I thought oh my gosh, this really sounds like the humpbacks are rushing in to save this seal.

LATIF: Yeah.

ANNIE: But Bob was like, you know, not so fast.

ROBERT PITMAN: They still may not have known that the seal was there.

LULU: Hmm.

ANNIE: And that actually this looks a heck of a lot like something that ..."

[ARCHIVE CLIP: It's a young raven. He's after a messing.]

ANNIE: ... a lot of birds do.

ROBERT PITMAN: I think everybody has seen small birds chasing a hawk around their neighborhood.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: The fieldfares, screaming with anger, converge on their enemy. They mob him.]

ROBERT PITMAN: What's called "mobbing behavior."

ANNIE: The smaller birds just basically pestering the bigger bird.

[ARCHIVE CLIP: And now they bomb him with their droppings]

ANNIE: Until it leaves.

ROBERT PITMAN: So I figured that that's what these humpback whales were doing. They were just trying to drive these killer whales out of the neighborhood.

ANNIE: And Bob thought, "That's cool." And he sort of closed the book on the whole thing until ...

ROBERT PITMAN: A few days later ...

ANNIE: The third encounter.

ROBERT PITMAN: So we're back on the boat ...

ANNIE: Once again following their killer whales. And once again ...

ROBERT PITMAN: They had a Weddell seal on an ice floe, and were circling around and getting ready to make a wave.

ANNIE: Bob and his team were ready, their cameras were rolling. And then out of the corner of his eye, Bob sees ...

ROBERT PITMAN: Another pair of humpback whales.

ANNIE: Different ones?

ROBERT PITMAN: Different ones.

ANNIE: Just kind of on the periphery of the scene. But he doesn't have much of a chance to think about it because at that moment ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... the killer whales ...

ANNIE: ... charge together at the seal, and as one dive under the ice, creating a wave that knocks the seal into the water. Now what the seal should do, and what Bob was expecting it to do at this moment is pull itself back up onto the safety of the ice. But it doesn't do that. Instead, it starts swimming out into open water.

ROBERT PITMAN: Which is what the killer whales hope for.

ANNIE: And they charge after it.

LULU: In a hundred-meter sprint, who wins: the killer whale or a seal?

ANNIE: One hundred percent a killer whale.

LULU: So this is like certain death.

ANNIE: Oh, yeah. But then Bob notices that that seal ...

ROBERT PITMAN: Is heading straight toward these humpbacks.

LULU: [gasps]


ANNIE: In one fluid motion as the seal reaches them, one of the humpbacks ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... rolls over on its back. And as the seal was starting to swim over it ...

ANNIE: The humpback drops its flippers, arches its back ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... and lifted this seal completely out of the water.

ANNIE: And it just holds it there out of the reach of the killer whales.

LULU: Wait, what?


ANNIE: And after a few moments of this, the seal, its eyes these two giant black circles in its head ...

ROBERT PITMAN: It is freaked out about being lifted up out of the water on the chest of this humpback.

LULU: Yeah.

ANNIE: ... starts to try to get off.

ROBERT PITMAN: It was flailing around.

ANNIE: And it begins to slip off the whale belly. But then very gently ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... the humpback lifts this one-ton flipper up against the seal, and nudges it back up into the middle of its chest to keep it from sliding off.

ANNIE: And watching this ...


ANNIE: Bob cannot deny that ...

ROBERT PITMAN: These humpbacks are trying to protect these seals from these attacking killer whales.

ANNIE: The killer whales broke off and left.

ROBERT PITMAN: And the seal slides off and swims over and hauls out on some nearby ice.

ANNIE: And Bob, the other scientists on the boat, the boat captain, no one has ever heard of this. No one can explain it.

ROBERT PITMAN: When we got back to the United States ...

ANNIE: Bob gets home to San Diego, California.

ROBERT PITMAN: Started poking around, talking to some colleagues and doing some literature review.

ANNIE: He wrote up a short article about what he'd seen.

ROBERT PITMAN: Posted it on a marine mammal listserv.

ANNIE: Along with a question: has anyone out there ever seen an interaction like this? And over the following days and weeks, Bob's inbox was flooded with over a hundred accounts saying yes.

LULU: Hmm.


ANNIE: People had seen humpbacks fighting off killer whales from their prey up and down the west coast of Canada and the United States.

ROBERT PITMAN: Also reports from Australia and Africa, South America and, you know, Antarctica.

ANNIE: Wow! This is the humpback community of the world.

ROBERT PITMAN: Yeah. And there were some interesting patterns that came out of it.

ANNIE: They learned that, more often than not, it was the humpbacks starting the fights. They were the ones initiating the interactions with the killer whales.

ROBERT PITMAN: And in just about every case, the killer whales eventually moved on. They just gave up. There was no way around these humpbacks.

ANNIE: Bob learned that it was both female and male humpbacks doing this rescuing thing. They would sometimes do it alone, sometimes in groups. But the wildest part of these accounts that flooded in was that what these humpbacks were rescuing ...

ROBERT PITMAN: Only 11 percent were other humpbacks.

ANNIE: Only 11 percent of all this work they were doing was for the benefit of their own species, meaning that a giant 89 percent of the time they were saving something else.

LATIF: What were they saving?

ROBERT PITMAN: Uh, well ...

ANNIE: So many things.

ROBERT PITMAN: Two species of whales.

ANNIE: Gray whales, minke whales.

ROBERT PITMAN: A porpoise.

ANNIE: Dall's porpoise.


ANNIE: Weddle seals. Crabeater seals. Harbor seals. Northern elephant seals.


ANNIE: Steller's sea lions, California sea lions.

ROBERT PITMAN: And one very large fish. An ocean sunfish. Here was something that was quite remarkable behavior, it'd been witnessed quite a few times, but nobody'd ever pulled them together and tried to make sense of it.

[NEWS CLIP: Are humpback whales really vigilante sea beasts that guard the world from killer whales?]

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: They're the heroes of a grateful ocean.]

ANNIE: All right. So Bob's paper got some traction in the pop science world, and the word that started getting kicked around, sort of the same word that always gets kicked around was ...

[NEWS CLIP: Altruism.]

ANNIE: "Altruism."

[NEWS CLIP: Humpback whales may very well be altruistic.]

ROBERT PITMAN: We define altruism something like a behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.

ANNIE: And what the humpbacks are doing is technically altruism.

ROBERT PITMAN: If they go in and save a seal, it costs them time and energy, and they get absolutely nothing out of it.

ANNIE: And hearing this, I'm tempted, along with a lot of other soft-hearted folks, to attribute this to—what else? Compassion.

[NEWS CLIP: We all love it when someone stands up to a bully.]

ANNIE: But Bob says ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Aren't these gentle giants?]


ANNIE: ... the same thing that's always said.

ROBERT PITMAN: Biologically it doesn't make sense. Animals don't go out of their way to help other animals. And if you see an instance where it looks like they are, there's probably something going on there that you haven't accounted for.


ROBERT PITMAN: So then the question is: what are they getting out of it?

ANNIE: What is in it for the humpback whales?


ANNIE: And for me, I thought surely the case of a seal hovering on the belly of a humpback whale would be kind of a tricky one for a scientist to pack neatly away into a box. But actually, Bob was like, this is pretty simple.


ANNIE: What we're seeing here is kin selection.

ROBERT PITMAN: We think that kin selection is probably what's behind this apparent altruism in humpbacks.

ANNIE: The idea is if you're a humpback swimming along, hear a killer whale attacking something, rush to the defense and it turns out it's a humpback calf ...

ROBERT PITMAN: It might be a grandson of yours, or it could be a niece or something. So ...

ANNIE: This habit of saving stuff from killer whales ...

ROBERT PITMAN: ... it's worth it to them in the long run because they might be saving the life of a relative.

ANNIE: And therefore, some of their own genes.


ANNIE: But wouldn't they know that the thing they're saving is one of them pretty quickly? And wouldn't they just stop and turn around if it was just a seal and not maybe their cousin?

ROBERT PITMAN: Well, I think for the humpbacks, all they have to know is when you hear those mammal-eating killer whales calling, it's time to go over there and break up the party. And that means regardless of the species being attacked, if they do this enough times, then they're gonna end up possibly saving a relative of theirs. So individually, these cases can be altruistic, but in the long run they're doing it for their own self interest.

LULU: Oh, and that was it? It was like, end of interview? It was like, Annie was charmed by this phenomenon and he was just like, "Kin selection. They think it might be their baby. Bye."

ANNIE: He did—it pretty much was like a bit of a smackdown. I was like, "Gosh how magical!" He was like, "It's not about magic." And I was like, "That's right. Sorry, Bob!"

LATIF: It's about poor eyesight.

LULU: It's about there's a 10 percent chance it's your baby. Go save it. Okay.

ANNIE: Yeah, yeah.

LULU: It's about genetic perpetuation.

ANNIE: Altruism by accident is kind of how he says it.

LULU: Hmm.

ANNIE: But I think—I think somehow, like, it's hard getting the image of the seal on the belly ...

LATIF: Yeah!

ANNIE: ... you know, of the whale out of my head. And then I talked to these two other marine biologists about something that they saw a few years later.


ANNIE: And if in the last story we heard the standard battle play out, in this next one ...

NANCY BLACK: That—that was an absolutely mind-blowing experience.

ANNIE: We blow the whole framework apart.

LATIF: That's coming up right after the break.






LULU: All right.

LATIF: Latif.

LULU: Lulu. Radiolab.

LATIF: We're resurfacing. Back from the break.

ANNIE: Hi there!

NANCY BLACK: Okay, now you're on my ear.

ANNIE: All right!

LULU: With producer Annie McEwen.

ANNIE: So I reached out to these two marine biologists ...

NANCY BLACK: Nancy Black.

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Alisa Schulman-Janiger.

ANNIE: Because a few years after Bob saw the whale lift the seal down in Antarctica, they both saw a very, very different showdown between humpbacks and killer whales. This one off the coast of California.


ANNIE: In Monterey Bay.

ANNIE: So maybe just paint the scene for me. Where are we?

NANCY BLACK: It was an absolutely gorgeous day. Flat, calm seas, sunny.

ANNIE: Nancy and Alisa are on one of their whale-watching boats, and what they're watching are humpbacks eating the heck out of krill. You know, those sort of teeny, tiny animals.

NANCY BLACK: Small, shrimp-like organisms.

ANNIE: That hang out together by the billions. And humpbacks ...

NANCY BLACK: ... they look to find great swarms of these.

ANNIE: And they have to eat a lot of these, as well as some other types of small fish.

LATIF: It's like a joke. Like, if you were to have the biggest creature on Earth or thereabouts eat the smallest creature on Earth or thereabouts, like, it feels like a joke.

ANNIE: I know. Wait. I gotta tell you just really quick just two cool things I learned about humpbacks and krill.

LATIF: Sure.

ANNIE: Okay, so because humpback whales eat so much krill, their milk can be tinted pink.

LULU: Oh, my God!

LATIF: Weird!

LULU: Really?

LATIF: Strawberry milk?

ANNIE: Strawberry milkshake. And it apparently tastes like fishy butter. But also, this is how they get their water, because I was like—one day I was like, "How do they all drink?" Like, they can't drink the ocean. And so I was like, "How do they"—and they get it from their food. Like, they get it from the little bodies.

LATIF: Right.

LULU: Of the krill. It's like each one is a tiny water bottle?

ANNIE: Yeah. Yeah, exactly.


ANNIE: Anyway. So these humpbacks that Nancy and Alisa are watching are just bulking up on krill because they’ve just traveled from the south where they've spent the winter, up to Monterey Bay. And crazily, during that journey they lose almost a third of their own body weight.

LATIF: It's so crazy.

LULU: Wow.

ANNIE: Because they don't really eat—they don't really eat while they take that journey. So it's spring.

NANCY BLACK: There's so much food around for those humpbacks, and they were doing non-stop feeding.

ANNIE: And Nancy and Alisa are trying to ID them.

NANCY BLACK: Photograph individual humpback whales to see who all was there.

ANNIE: And they do this for a few hours until ...

NANCY BLACK: About five minutes after 12 that day ...

ANNIE: They get a call over the radio from another whale-watching boat.

NANCY BLACK: And they said, "We have killer whales, and it looks like they're attacking a gray whale mom and calf."

ANNIE: A pod of killer whales are attacking a gray whale calf and trying to separate it from its mother.


NANCY BLACK: And we weren't that far, so of course we, you know ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: May 3. Got an attack on a gray whale cow-calf pair.]

NANCY BLACK: ... dashed over there.

ANNIE: And as soon as they arrived, they began filming.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: Females are the two 16s. I haven't gotten a good look at the male yet.]

ANNIE: Basically, you see this sort of like, roiling knot in the water.

NANCY BLACK: Lots of splashing and lots of commotion going on. There were 10 different killer whales there.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: It's a jagged fin female.]

ANNIE: Their black fins popping up to the surface where they take a breath, dive back under. And somewhere in that knot is the gray whale mom and the baby gray whale that the killer whales are just trying to pummel with their heads.

NANCY BLACK: And hold it down to drown it.

ANNIE: Whenever the gray whale calf could, it would break the surface, take a huge breath.

NANCY BLACK: So it's really kind of hyperventilating and I'm sure was very tired.


ANNIE: And in the midst of this ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: There's two humpbacks interfering with the calf.]

ANNIE: ... are these two humpbacks.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: Humpbacks are trumpet blowing.]

ANNIE: And they're charging around.

NANCY BLACK: Lots of slashing. One humpback positioned itself next to the calf, trying to keep the killer whales away.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: Humpbacks are real upset.]

ANNIE: Nancy and Alisa watch this for a few minutes.


[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: Where's the calf?]

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: The calf went down.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: I don't see the calf.]

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: There was absolute quiet. No one was at the surface. I'm sure the killer whales were drowning the calf at that moment and keeping it from coming up.

ANNIE: And then in the video ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: Just saw the mom.]

ANNIE: You see the gray whale mom leaving. And typically, moms don't leave calves unless they're dead.

LULU: Oh! So her dead baby is in the water and the killer whales just eat it?

ANNIE: Actually, no. Because they can't. Because weirdly ...

NANCY BLACK: The humpback whales did not take off.

ANNIE: Even though the calf is dead and the battle's over ...

NANCY BLACK: They stayed there, and they were not quiet.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: The humpbacks are really moving around and rolling, slashing.]

NANCY BLACK: They were staying very close to where the killer whales were, and repeatedly diving where that gray whale calf had gone down and died.

LULU: Whoa!

ANNIE: They continue this for about 10 minutes, and then ...

NANCY BLACK: Charging in from the distance ...

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: Oh boy!]

ANNIE: Three more humpbacks arrive.

LATIF: Whoa!

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: More coming into the area. Got right in there.]

ANNIE: Slashing their fins at any killer whales that would come near the carcass.

NANCY BLACK: And then a couple more humpbacks arrive.

LULU: What?

NANCY BLACK: Charging over in this big agitated state.

ANNIE: And then more come.

NANCY BLACK: Flipper to flipper, side by side, facing the killer whales.

ANNIE: And a lot of these are the same ones that Nancy and Alisa were watching eat earlier that same day.

NANCY BLACK: They actually left the feeding, they were feeding on krill.

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Some came from three miles away or four miles away.

ANNIE: And the gray whale calf is definitely dead. There's nothing left to defend. But the humpbacks just keep coming. And the killer whales are just trying to deke around them and get a bite of the carcass. But at this point, there were just so many humpbacks. Ultimately, a total of 16.


LULU: Wow!

LATIF: Whoa!

ANNIE: That had rushed in from near and far to join the fight.

ANNIE: Like, how much time goes by?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Well, we ended up being there until sunset.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Alisa Schulman-Janiger: Seven hours later, that whale is still right with the killer whales.]

ANNIE: They've been going strong for seven hours.

LULU: Oh my gosh.


ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: When we finally left, there wasn't any more light to really get good images. And even as we were leaving, there were still humpbacks just "woo-woo!" Just really loud exhalations. They were still tail slashing and still extremely loud vocalizations.

[ARCHIVE CLIP, Nancy Black: Lots of trumpeting.]


ANNIE: So you don't actually know how long that they did it for?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: We don't know how long—how long they were there. I mean, they could have been there for hours more.

LULU: It's wild to imagine that they just keep defending this—this body, this carcass into the moonlight.

ANNIE: I know!

ANNIE: So what are they doing? I mean, it sounds like you're just more—like, what was your—what was your feeling?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Well, I was just pretty much blown away by everything that was going on because there was so—again, there was so much food around, and the humpbacks were, during their prime feeding season, ignoring the prey and really focusing on what looked like trying to keep the killer whales from feeding.

ANNIE: Are there other examples of that in the animal kingdom? Of rather than feeding yourself, you're gonna prevent your enemy from feeding?

NANCY BLACK: Yeah, not that I know of. No.

LATIF: So wait. The idea, it seems like, is that it's not about the victim that they're protecting in the first place, it's just that they don't want the killer whales to eat. They just hate killer whales so much. Like, it's like let's just forever make life miserable for them. Like—like, let's, like—like, annihilate them.

ANNIE: Right. Which seems like the opposite of what instincts honed by evolution should do. But according to Alisa ...

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Several of the humpback whales that we were with had killer whale tooth rakes on their flukes which definitely show that they had survived a killer whale attack, and have experience with either being attacked as a calf, or being a mom who is trying to protect her calf, or being another humpback whale that was with that mom and calf trying to protect it.

ANNIE: Do you mean to say that they've either lost a calf of their own, or they have themselves been attacked as a calf and they remember this?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Oh, absolutely they'd remember that.


ANNIE: It almost feels like, in this case, lived experience was beating out, or at least joining with evolution. And I was like, does—so is this revenge we're looking at? Like, is that what we're seeing here?

LATIF: Revenge!

LULU: Oh my God!

ANNIE: Could it be that, instead of humpbacks swimming through the ocean saving helpless animals, they're actually scouring the seas, carrying with them battle scars of their own near miss or the memory of losing their calves? Ignoring their own hunger pangs and trying to prevent their enemy from feeding? I mean, this is like the classic definition of revenge. Like, revenge ruins your life too because you are so focused on hurting the other, you know, your enemy that you—your own life is falling apart.

NANCY BLACK: Yeah, that's—that's interesting.

ANNIE: But Nancy and Alisa—and rightly so—were kinda like, "Revenge?"

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Revenge? I don't think we know enough. We just—there's no way for us to know that.

NANCY BLACK: Yeah. Like, I couldn't even guess about that.

ANNIE: Right. Right.

ANNIE: Okay, so admittedly the revenge thing is too far, but I think, you know, at this level of sacrifice, it's difficult to imagine this all just boiling down to self-interest.

LATIF: Right.

ANNIE: Anyway, at this point, I don't know. I guess I kind of found myself stuck in the middle. You know, there's the sort of cold, hard science on one side, and then there's the sort of dreamy whales-are-benevolent on the other side. And I was just sort of floating between those two.


ANNIE: But ...

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: ... there's a whole lot going on that we don't know.

ANNIE: ... then Alisa told me one more story, really just this scene. This time, the humpbacks are left alone to just be humpbacks. And hearing it did make this middle place feel different.

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: There was an attack of killer whales on a gray whale calf.

ANNIE: It was a similar situation. Killer whales killed a gray whale calf, humpbacks were there to prevent the killer whales from eating the calf.

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: But what was fascinating is that the next day we went back to that area where the attack had occurred on the 22nd of April. It was gray with billowing fog kind of coming toward us and breaking away a bit, and we found killer whales circling around the gray whale calf carcass. And then we saw a couple of humpback whales.


ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: And then the killer whales left in the fog, and those two humpbacks, they didn't follow the killer whales, they didn't chase them. And we decided to stay with the humpbacks that were staying near the gray whale calf carcass to see what would happen. And what they did with that calf's carcass is something that nobody's ever seen before. Everything was extremely slow motion. Turning upside down and looking at the calf. Touching it with the flipper, very gently pushing their head against it. Moving the carcass between them. The motion, the slowest motion you could imagine. It was surreal. It was like a dream. Was just one of the most amazing things I've seen in my life. And it looked a lot like what we associate with grief.

ROBERT PITMAN: There was a couple of the accounts that people talked about a carcass of a seal would be there, and a humpback whale would come up next to it and lift its flipper up out of the water and just touch the seal with the very tip of it. And I have to admit, you know, when I read that myself, it, you know, kind of makes you wonder what might be going on there, but you're always better off to—to go with the idea that these animals are acting in their own best interests.

ANNIE: Hmm. So what would—how would you explain that?

ROBERT PITMAN: I'm not sure. I'm not sure what was going on there. I—you know, I just put it out there.

LATIF: You know the blind man and the elephant?

ANNIE: Uh, no.

LATIF: You don't know the blind man and the elephant?

ANNIE: Mmm ...

LATIF: Okay. It's an old, I want to say Buddhist parable. And it's a little bit ableist actually, now that I think about it. But basically, the blind man and the elephant, it's like, I don't know what, like, five blind men walk up to an elephant. They're all using their hands to try to figure out what the heck is this thing in front of us.

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: One of them feels the tail and he's like, "Oh, it's like a rope. It's like a rope, basically." And one of them feels a leg and they're like, "Oh, no. It's like a tree—it's a tree trunk. It's clearly a tree trunk." And then one of them is feeling the, you know—the—the actual trunk and is like, "Oh, it feels like a—kinda like a hose, maybe?"

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: So they're—they're all—one's touching the ear and being like, "No, no, no. This is like a—it's like a giant leaf or something."

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: So each one of them are touching it and they're—they're right. Like, they're right based on their horizon of experience. But they're just, by sensation, incapable of seeing the whole picture. And I think that's all of us. Like, we're—our sensations are so limited, and it does feel like, you know, the pictures that we have, the parts of the elephant that we've groped enough times to know, it's just like, we know the nature red in tooth and claw, the nature, the savage nature, the killer of the killer whales. We know that story, right?


LATIF: We know the, like, oh, nice and altruistic, like, doing a thing. Like—like, we kinda know that story.

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: But then there's a story like the third one that's so bizarre. It's like we touched a new part of the elephant and we're like, "What the hell?" Like, we don't even know what this thing is anymore. Like—like, maybe this thing we thought we knew, we actually don't know.

ANNIE: Yeah.

LATIF: And the whale is just—it's so big and it's so complicated, and we're only seeing it this tiny fraction of the time when it's on the surface. So, like, when we do see another dimension of it, it just reminds us how—like, how we really are just grasping a tiny fraction of the whole portrait.

ANNIE: Right. It reminds us, like, how much we still don't know.

LATIF: Yeah!

ANNIE: And I feel like those moments where I see that the thing I thought I knew I really don't know, like, that's when the universe gets big again. Like, I just want to not know more!

LATIF: This episode was reported and produced by the amphibious Annie McEwen, who also contributed original music and sound design.

LULU: Special thanks to the many marine mammals of various species for their sonic contributions.

LATIF: Special thanks to Eric J. Gleske and Brendan Brucker at Media Services, Oregon State University.

LULU: As well as Colleen Talty at Monterey Bay Whale Watch and California Killer Whale Project.

LATIF: Special thanks also to Doug McKnight and Giuliana Mayo.

LULU: That'll do it for now. Thanks for listening.

[LISTENER: Radiolab was created by Jad Abumrad and is edited by Soren Wheeler. Lulu Miller and Latif Nasser are our co-hosts. Suzie Lechtenberg is our executive producer. Dylan Keefe is our director of sound design. Our staff includes: Simon Adler, Jeremy Bloom, Becca Bressler, Rachael Cusick, W. Harry Fortuna, David Gebel, Maria Paz Gutiérrez, Sindhu Gnanasambandan, Matt Kielty, Annie McEwen, Alex Neason, Sarah Qari, Anna Rascouët-Paz, Sarah Sandbach, Arianne Wack, Pat Walters and Molly Webster. With help from Bowen Wang. Our fact-checkers are Diane Kelly, Emily Krieger and Natalie Middleton.]




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