Are Humpback Whales Altruistic?

The question, “Are Humpback Whales Altruistic,” has been researched and,
“Humpbacks, it turns out, deliberately interfere with attacking killer whales to help others in distress. They don’t just defend their own babies or close relatives. They intervene on behalf of other species – a gray whale calf with its mother, a seal hauled out on an ice floe, even an ocean sunfish. Humpbacks act to improve the welfare of others; the classic definition of altruism.”

The quote is from Elin Kelsey’s “The Power of Compassion,” published in HAKAI MAGAZINE. You can find the whole article along with photos of the humpback rescuers at,

Kelsey quotes Fred Sharpe, a humpback whale researcher with the Alaska Whale Foundation, who discusses the ability of male humpbacks to manage their aggression,
“The bulls love to fight. It’s like Saturday night in the Octagon,’ he says. ‘You’ll be in a whale watch boat and all these males will be thrashing on each other. They’re bloodied and so charged up, and the fact that they don’t redirect all that agitation towards the occupants of the boat is remarkable. With a lot of predators, if you got in the middle of that, it would be aimed at you in an instant.”

Sharpe went on to say that humpbacks are good at learning from each other and researchers have been able to observe that,
“Their ability to pick up on social nuance in some ways far surpasses ours.”
But we cannot test whale brains with the technologies we have for making discoveries about human brains. He added,
There is part of the human brain that is associated with prosocial behavior. … But we are so limited because we can’t put EEGs or PET scans on free-ranging larger whales

Robert Pitman, a marine ecologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and his coauthors wrote in MARINE MAMMAL SCIENCE that altruistic humpback whale behavior has been documented around the world for many years. Researchers know that it occurs but don’t know why. Especially puzzling is why humpbacks would deliberately take this risk,
Why “… when killer whales were attacking other humpbacks that may not be related, or even more perplexing, as in the majority of cases reported, when they were attacking other species of prey?’’

And it’s been discovered that humpbacks don’t intervene only when they come across an attack in progress,
“They race toward them like firefighters into burning buildings. And like these brave rescue workers, humpbacks don’t know who is in danger until they get there. That’s because the sound that alerts them to an attack isn’t the plaintive voice of the victim. It’s the excited calls of the perpetrators. Transient killer whales tend to be silent when they are hunting, but when they finally attack they get really noisy. Pitman believes humpbacks have one simple instruction: ‘When you hear killer whales attacking, go break it up.’”

 Altruism is defined as, “concern for the welfare of others,” and compassion as, “the deep feeling of sharing the suffering of another,” and although both may result in taking action, only compassion involves relating to the emotions of the other being. I’m not sure whether the case has been made that humpback whales experience compassion, but it is clear that they engage in behavior that benefits others.

Author Elin Kelsey wanted to know more about compassion and turned to Stanford University’s Center for Compassion and Altruism and to work by Felix Warneken, the head of Harvard’s Social Cognitive Development Group. It has been generally assumed that humans need to be taught to be altruistic, but Warneken’s findings say that the evidence shows something else. Children too young to have learned such lessons have demonstrated that they naturally try to be helpful to those in trouble making it clear that caring is part of being human.

Congressman John Lewis, a pivotal figure in the American Civil Rights Movement, knew this when, after a by-stander spat on him, he asked,
“Who taught this child to hate?”

Steve Cole, a professor of medicine and psychiatry at UCLA, has said that the old belief that we act only to insure our own individual safety and survival has been overtaken by new research in threat neurobiology that shows we act to defend the things we care about,
“ ‘This is why you get parents and those firefighters running into burning buildings to save children and soldiers running into a hail of gunfire for the country they love,’ says Cole. ‘These people are in adverse environments, but they are attached to some kind of big purpose or cause greater than their own individual well-being or perhaps sometimes, even survival.’ ”

I’m left wondering what I would risk my own health and safety for.

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7 Comments Add yours

  1. Trudy Summers says:

    Quite evocative.

  2. Tobin says:

    Why did you create a whole article that just quotes our story? Thanks for giving us a credit at the top, but why would anyone bother clicking on the link when you’ve essentially plagiarized and posted our entire article? We paid a writer, editors, fact checkers, a narrator, and other staff to create this story. It was expensive. It’s really unfair what you have done. Please have some compassion and remove this story from your site. Thank you.

    1. Anonymous says:

      Sir, (or madam), for me it was quite the contrary. After reading the post I was glad for the link and compelled to read the full article.

      1. Tobin says:

        Hi Anonymous, thank you, you are a fabulous exception to the rule!

  3. Anonymous says:

    No, Tobin, I don’t believe I am an exception. And you sell the original article short by accusing WINN post of plagiarizing and repeating the original. It might be useful to appreciate the inherent promotion of it.

  4. Lydia says:

    Tobin, several sources are used in this article AND credited as well. That is not plagiarism. The author’s own thoughts are included as well.

    1. Tobin says:

      Thanks for replying, Lydia. Is there an email address we can use to contact you?

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