Entering the ocean, can be a scary place for many people. Even experienced marine biologist Nan Hauser feared for her life one day, when an unexpected situation completely took her by surprise.
Learning The Ocean
Hauser spent many years studying the ocean, and the wildlife that inhabits the beautiful vast deep unknown. Yet there were always things she could not predict.
World’s Leading Whale Expert
Hauser is one of the world’s leading whale experts. She lives in Rarotonga, on the Cook Islands in the South Pacific Ocean, where she is the principal investigator for the area’s Whale Research Project. This is definitely a job we would want.
Knowing The Species Well
Hauser also makes films to educate the world about her favorite sea mammals. She helped turn the whole of the Cook Islands territorial waters (a whopping 772,200 square miles) – into a whale sanctuary, and she’s also a Cook Islands Marine Park trustee. She is definitely a woman helping to make a difference.
Getting Up Close And Personal
The Cook Islands are an incredible place for an oceanic researcher. Its marine sanctuary, called Marae Moana, is a tropical wonderland of biodiversity. It is home to 21 species of dolphins and whales, more than 600 types of fish, 16 shark species and even endangered turtles.
Just Another Day On The Job
Diving in the waters off Rarotonga, this was just an ordinary day for the marine biologist, when Hauser had a whale experience, that even she couldn’t have expected. She was diving, when a humpback approached her, yet “instead of just swimming past me, he came right towards me,” she told NPR in January 2018. “And he didn’t stop coming towards me until I was on his head.”
Weighing around 25 tons and spanning nearly 50 feet, the huge whale began rolling Hauser around in the water. And while Hauser says she’s not normally scared of whales, in this instance she secretly feared for her life.
In all her 28 years of studying these magnificent creatures, she has never seen one act like this, describing the giant as “putting me on his head, or belly, or back, or, most of all, trying to tuck me under his huge pectoral fin.”
Fearing For Her Life
The incident was actually recorded by Hauser and her colleagues on video. The whale can be seen swimming up out of the deep, towards the diving biologist. After surfacing for air, it comes towards her, repeatedly pushing her around. At one point, it even throws Hauser up out of the water. She is seen to be holding on for her life.
A Fun Moment Turned Into A Nightmare
She had never feared whales before this event. The water was her second home. But something happened today that shook her. In that moment she had to just do nothing but surrender and pray she would be ok, against its huge weight.
Battered And Bruised
“I’ve been underwater with whales for 28 years, and this is just really unusual behavior. It’s crazy,” Hauser said. For more than ten minutes the underwater giant relentlessly shoved her around. Hauser says it would have taken only a single blow from its huge whopping tail or fin to kill her in a second.
Trying To Remain Calm
She desperately tried not to panic. “I stayed calm to a point but was sure that it was most likely going to be a deadly encounter,” she said. Completely focused on escaping, it was only when Hauser managed to move slightly away from the whale that she noticed yet another threat.
Hauser, who is familiar with these waters, and knows them inside and out, was not familiar with a situation like this. “I wasn’t sure what the whale was up to when he approached me and it didn’t stop pushing me around for over 10 minutes.”
“I didn’t want to panic, because I knew that he would pick up on my fear,” Hauser said of the frightening situation. “I feel a very close kinship with animals, so despite my trepidation, I tried to stay calm and figure out how to get away from him.”
Threats All Around Her
As she approached the boat, Hauser saw what looked like a second whale in the distance. It appeared to be thrashing at what she assumed was yet another whale with its tail. What would she do now?
Oh My Gosh
Then the third animal began swimming towards her. “But… the tail fin was going side to side instead of up and down,” she told NPR. “So my mind quickly went, ‘Oh, my gosh.’”
She may have known these waters, but she was not prepared for what could happen next. She was exhausted already, but this threat was even more scary, and potentially could end her life with one thrash of its tail. How would she get out of this situation?
This threat was a huge tiger shark. It was approaching fast, and her heart pounded as she quickly tried to think quickly, so as not startle the shark. Was it coming for her?
Possibly Harrowing Footage
Hauser had never seen the whale before she entered the water that day. On the biologist’s nearby research vessel, Hauser’s team was worried about her, abandoning their drone footage because, as Nan describes the moment, they “did not want to film my death.”
Surrounded From All Angles
She now had the whale and the approaching shark surrounding her, there was no way to turn, she was not sure if she should swim away, or see what would happen. Yet in that moment, as the shark started to get closer, something clicked and she had a huge realization.
Life Threatening Attack
Hauser quickly realized what the whale had been doing. Amazingly, it had been keeping her away from the approaching predator. She’d heard of the giant creatures protecting other animals from threats before, but this was the first time she knew of one protecting a human, let alone seeing it in action.
The humpback really is a gentle giant. It can reach 60 feet in length and 40 tons in weight, imagine having that thrashing you around. It achieves these massive proportions on a diet of tiny sea creatures and plankton. And although the species was once highly endangered, conservation efforts mean their numbers have now increased greatly.
Meanwhile, as Hauser was aware, there are many stories of humpbacks saving other animals from predators, usually killer whales. In fact, over the past 62 years, at least 115 such interactions have been recorded. In one instance, Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist, reported seeing a humpback deliberately heft a seal from the water to save it from a pack of killer whales.
Motivation Of The Killer
Fred Sharpe, who researches humpbacks with the Alaska Whale Foundation, told Hakai magazine in August 2017, “[Humpbacks] are directing their behavior for the benefit of other species. But there’s no doubt there are important differences between human compassion and animal compassion.” Wow how amazing.
When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion,” Pitman, who works for the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, said in the same article. “If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”
Whale’s Loving Intuition
It’s intuition the biologist compares to firemen being willing to rush into a house on fire to help save the lives of those they do not know.
Tiger Shark Motives
Meanwhile, tiger sharks, like the one spotted by Hauser, are more ruthless predators, that can grow to 25 feet long and can weigh almost a ton. They have a fearsome reputation and for good reason; indeed, only great white sharks attack more people. But while great whites often abandon their human victims after a quick bite, tiger sharks will usually keep on eating.
Tiger sharks are a common sight around the warm waters of the Pacific islands, where their main diet consists of seals, birds, turtles, fish and dolphins. Although normally a bit of a loner, the species has been known to attack humpback whales, albeit when part of a group. Sadly, the tiger shark’s days may be numbered, though: thanks to fishing and a high demand for its fins, the species is categorized as being near-threatened.
Though certain that the humpback she encountered that day wanted to save her from the tiger shark, Hauser understands why others are sceptical. “If it hadn’t been me, if it hadn’t been filmed in three different angles, I wouldn’t believe it,” she told NPR. “I tried a lot not to anthropomorphize any of the behavior that I see. It’s easy to do, but it’s not a good practice in science.”
It is not possible to know exactly what the whale intended with its behavior, but the experience will forever be special to Hauser. “I’ve spent years protecting whales, and in the moment, I didn’t even realize that they were protecting me,” she said.
Up Close And Personal
As for other people who might want to get up close to humpbacks, Hauser doesn’t recommend it. “I never touch the whales that I study unless they are sick or stranded on the beach,” she said. “In my head, I was a bit amused since I write rules and regulations about whale harassment – and here I was being harassed by a whale.”
Hopes For The future
The biologist now hopes to share the footage she and her team were able to capture, in order to expand research and awareness of such actions from whales.