Marine biologist Nan Hauser has been diving with wild whales for the past 28 years — but it wasn’t until recently that she could credit one with saving her life.
Back in October, Hauser was diving off near the Cook Islands, in the South Pacific, with a camera crew who wanted to film her in the water alongside humpback whales. In an unusually persistent manner, one whale swam right up and began nudging her with his mouth and chin, seemingly trying to tuck her underneath his pectoral fin.
“He just wouldn’t stop touching me,” Hauser told. “I tried to get away over and over again, but he kept at it. He eventually pushed me up right out of the water on his fin. He kept putting his eye right next to me and I couldn’t figure out what he was trying to tell me. ”
The interaction continued for about 10 minutes and, with adrenaline pumping, the worst thoughts began to creep into Hauser’s mind.
“I thought the camera crew was going to end up filming my death,” Hauser said. “One whip of a whale’s tail on you, and the pressure would break your bones.”
But as it turns out, the whale wasn’t the one Hauser needed to be afraid of. She soon realized there was a shark nearby — and the whale was doing everything he could to keep her away from it. Another humpback in the distance kept watch, and repeatedly slapped her tail onto the water; the noise can be heard underwater for miles.
“I finally took my eye off the whale and saw something swimming very fast with his tail swinging side to side,” Hauser said. “Whales swim with their tails moving up and down … It was at that moment I realized it was a tiger shark — and it was one of the largest sharks I’ve ever seen in my life.”
At that point, the whale had all but delivered Hauser back to the boat after an intense few minutes of wrangling her and spinning her around. When the moment was right, Hauser quickly jumped back into the boat and the whale lingered nearby to make sure she had gotten there OK.
“I just put my hands on my face and started crying,” Hauser said. “I can’t say whether they were tears of relief that I was alive, or because I had just experienced the most incredible thing I have ever seen in my life.”
Humpback whales are known for their altruism, and there are several documented cases of them trying to save other animals from danger. Marine biologist Robert Pitman analyzed this behavior for over 60 years and concluded that humpbacks will frequently band together to interrupt killer whale attacks, regardless of the type of animal that is being attacked.
To date, Hauser’s encounter is the only documented case that involves a human.
“Even though it was an absolutely crazy experience, I feel so honored to have had it happen,” Hauser said. “It’s an incredible quality that they’ll go rushing into a dangerous situation for the sake of someone else.”
While Hauser did experience a bit of bruising from the encounter, it didn’t stop her from going into the same waters four days later, on her birthday. A female humpback followed their boat for miles, and kept breaching up out of the water as if to gain their attention.
“I just knew that she was the second whale from that day, the one who was slapping at the water,” Hauser said. “I got in the water with her and she dove down below. I thought ‘No, she didn’t recognize me.’ But right underneath me, she was coming straight up with her beautiful pectoral fins out. She put her flippers around and hugged me.”
After an eventful few days, Hauser couldn’t help but feel more inspired than ever to continue her important work — and to further educate people about the issues that whales face across the world’s oceans. Species across the board are consistently threatened by pollution, entanglement in fishing nets and hunting in countries like Japan.
“Right now, oceans and whales are in so much trouble,” Hauser said. “The ocean is the amniotic sac for the earth, and what’s happening to creatures in the ocean will soon happen to us if we aren’t more careful. We need to be a voice for them.”