Humpback whales and their killer whale nemesis

Originally published at: Humpback whales and their killer whale nemesis | Boing Boing


On the other hand, the presence of orcas is enough to clear whole groups of great white sharks away from an area for a whole season, as I read in Susan Casey’s amazing book “The Devil’s Teeth” about the waters and sharks around the Farallon Islands off San Francisco, a great white feeding and breeding ground. I wonder if humpbacks have ever rescued a great white from an orca. Great whites also feed on young whales when they can. Curiously, there are no records of orcas ever attacking humans as far as I know, and a friend of mine once related her friend’s experience diving among ice floes in Alaska waters of an orca swimming up to this scuba diver who was backed up against an ice wall, floating up very close, looking the diver up and down, then swimming away. If that was me, my dry-suit would need a good cleaning after that!


Sounds like a pulp sequel to the Victor Hugo novel.


Ok, so they’re not helping out of compassion. They’re doing it because it’s useful to help their kin – but then that has manifested as a general impulse to help others even when they are clearly not kin. What exactly is compassion if not that impulse to help others?


It is wrong, or at least potentially wrong, to read human instincts into wildlife. But, imagine if the Humpbacks and the Orcas supported rival sports teams. Or rival religions. Jets and Sharks. Left and Right. Basically, they hate each other’s guts: We attack Them on sight because They attacked Us first. If an Orca attacks something else, then its attention is elsewhere, and a couple of Humpbacks can get the drop on it, and mess it up good. It’s not very nice. It may not be accurate, but it is simple and credible.

Compassion is more sophisticated. Is a Humpback attacking an Orca out of pity for the Great White it is attacking, who may then go on to attack a Human? Suppose you have this underwater trolley… Can you transmit this moral argument to others, so you act together? Not convinced.


The humpbacks seem to know that sharks are even bigger bastards than orcas are.

The orcas somehow seem to respect humans and hat-tip them, rather than nibble them.

However, compassion is not an “effect” observed after-the-fact; it is a cause that results in an act of compassion. The whales are not being “compassionate.” What we are observing is “instinctive self-preservation by proxy”; it’s a side-effect, a happy accident (for the seals).

But I’m curious HOW do humpbacks hunt down orcas? I thought orcas were more agile and nimble than whales, which was how they killed humpback calves in the first place.

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We probably should never mention SeaWorld to them …


“This isn’t compassion, only we are capable of compassion!” says the species responsible for hunting some whale species to near extinction.


ouch! that’s not fair to either.

right?! orca gone insane in captivity have hurt or killed their human “trainers” (read: prison guards). they all need to be set free, wherever possible. like Tokitae, the calf-napped captive “performing” orca that has been kept in the smallest enclosure for 50 years may get her reprieve:

whatever one thinks of “killer” whales, none deserve her treatment these last 5 decades!


While assigning human motivation to completely alien intelligences (like whales) is bound to be wrong, denying the possibility of “higher” emotions is just as wrong and likely to lead to error. I could propose that they are denying orcas food in an effort to drive them to hunt elsewhere, I could propose that they are doing this because they just hate orcas that much, or I could propose that they see themselves as the “guardian angels of the sea” and set out to protect smaller creatures from the wolves, and every one of these is probably wrong because we just cannot ask them. They are different enough that we will not understand their motivation until (unless) we can come to communicate with them. But to assume their motivations must be something mindless and “animalistic” is denying their intelligence and agency. Just my $0.02.


I find it curious that they discuss the possibilities of an altruism motive and a vengeance motive as though they were two wholly distinct options when there’s the unifying possibility of spite.

It’s kind of a jerk flavor of altruism, since it’s about hurting others even though that hurts you; but it fulfills many of the same adaptive functions as altruism because spite is what keeps you from escaping retribution merely by being too much hassle to go after; a strictly rational actor will ignore you if you do that; but a spiteful one will not.

If the presence of orcas is undesirable for humpbacks, due to the danger they pose to juveniles, adult humpbacks doing locally costly and not immediately rewarding things to mess with orcas seems like a classic spite move: it’s hostile, so it isn’t strictly altruism; but it presumably makes orcas less enthusiastic about being near humpbacks, which is a desirable state of affairs for the humpbacks and so not strictly irrational self-destructive revenge.


Not in the wild, that I know of, but there have been attacks by captive orcas. Which, to be fair, is understandable.


If 'Star Trek IV - The One With the Whales" taught us anything, it’s that we don’t know jack about humpback whales.


How do you think human compassion evolved? Especially considering apes are abundantly capable of compassion.


I don’t know if I can agree that it is - or if I even agree that this is a statement that is possible to make with any kind of general truth claim from a human perspective. If anything this argument - like those presented by Robert Pittman in the quoted sections - smacks heavily of the heavily biased base assumptions of enlightenment philosophy and biology, through the failure to recognize that the ranking you’re referring to - compassion being more complicated, and thus being more difficult to ascribe to non-human - is borne out of the Christian logic of man as placed above animals by God, being intrinsically superior and rightly their master [sic]. In which, “more human” behaviours and traits (a designation that is mainly arbitrary, constantly changing, and heavily influenced by our inability to reliably communicate with animals) are ranked higher because they in turn reinforce our place as separate and superior to animals. It’s essentially circular logic.

In short, the “we shouldn’t ascribe human behaviours, thoughts or feelings to animals” line of argumentation simply isn’t logically sound, as the distinction argued for is unknown (and possibly unknowable), and itself a construct of human culture. “Base animal behaviours” is just as much a human construct as “complex human behaviours”. The idea that compassion is more complex or sophisticated is just as much of a human construct as anything else, and there is no trustworthy basis that I know of for actually stating that this is true that is not inherently poisoned by this extremely biased thinking. We cannot remove science from its specific sociohistorical underpinnings or contexts, and Pittman’s “we must reject this idea as it contradicts evolution” argument is effectively an ideological defense unless it can couple this with the complex interiority and culture of the whales.

And, if anything, the more we learn about animal behaviours and cultures, the more complexity we discover, and the more we learn that ascribing complex, human-like (but not necessarily identical) or entirely alien behaviours is often the best explanation we can arrive at. Hand-waving at “evolution” or “instinct” is as often a deflection mechanism aimed at killing any possibility of debate as much as it is an explanation.

As such, I’m very happy others in this segment took this in a more complex and less reductive/essentialism direction.


From the podcast, it sounds like the Orca’s get annoyed and frustrated with the humpbacks and just leave the scene like jilted teens yelling “Ok, Boomer!”

Exactly, I try to look at other species like Blim Blam the alien that is so alien, it’s incapable of laughing from Rick and Morty:

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In response to objections, I withdraw or at least qualify this flawed statement. I had felt that the gang-war ‘Humpbacks attacked Orcas’ was simple, and ‘Humpbacks attacked Orcas because they felt compassion for the Seals’ was a sophistication. The introduction of the third party (the seals) did not seem necessary or convincing to me; particularly when compared to the simpler explanation of the pack / gang / tribe defending itself against an outsider.

I did not intend to say that Compassion itself is a sophistication. You may feel compassion for a child without needing to protect them from a third party. Only in this particular case did introducing compassion for the seal as a motive seem like a sophistication.

I am not sure my simple reply was aiming at anything like such a big target. It is hard to prove a particular sentiment in a non-verbal intelligence equaled the sentiment we collectively call ‘compassion’ in ourselves; yet it would not be surprising if intelligence in different creatures came to similar solutions when presented with equivalent problems.


My personal take is that we are nowhere near as smart as we think we are and other lifeforms are far smarter and more complex than we give them credit for.


I didn’t mean that as a direct reply to you alone, I was going to write it anyway due to what that dude said in the quotes. You were just a useful starting point for making a much broader point :slight_smile:

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No worries. It had not occurred to me that people actually might rank emotions in this way. I Learned A Thing, Yay.