Whale researchers say they've collected enough evidence to make a remarkable assertion: Humpback whales deliberately save other creatures from killer whales. The scientists collected 115 accounts between 1951 and 2012, they write in Marine Mammal Science. Maine ecologist Robert Pitman got the idea for the survey after seeing an encounter himself in 2009. A group of killer whales, or orcas, had spotted a seal on an ice floe in Antarctica and created a wave that forced it into the water. As the orcas zeroed in for an easy meal, two humpbacks showed up, and the seal swam toward them. One of the humpbacks rolled over, and the seal ended up on its chest. "Then, as the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water," a "shocked" Pittman recounted in Natural History.
When the seal began to fall off the whale's chest, "the humpback gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper ... and moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe." So why would humpbacks do this? That part is unclear. Killer whales are too small to hunt adult humpbacks, but they do go after calves, and the humpbacks might be trying to discourage that, notes a post at Mother Nature Network. They might be effectively hard-wired at this point to move in when they see orcas attacking anything, adds Science. Whatever the reason, an NOAA marine biologist not involved with the study is convinced. “They make a very good case that it’s a proactive response to killer whales,” he says. “I think they’re absolutely right.” (Scientists also just found a new whale species.)