Humpback whale "says thanks" after being freed from nets

[Video Link]. In this video, The Great Whale Conservancy (GWC) co-founder Michael Fishbach describes his encounter with a young humpback whale entangled in local fishing nets off the coast of Baja California, Mexico. Spoiler: the whale is freed, and she survives. After she is freed, she breaches again and again in a way that suggests she is thrilled to be free and alive (yes, there could be more dull explanations for her behavior, but she sure looks like one overjoyed whale to me). Even in the rare cases where humans are able to intervene to try and free whales trapped in fishing nets, this kind of happy ending is rare. I know people here in Southern California who have been involved in emergency rescue efforts, and the sad truth is: even with the best of efforts, they often fail. Knowing that makes this video all the more sweet. If you would like to donate to The Great Whale Conservancy's efforts, or get involved to help save more whales like this, you can contact Mr. Fishbach at, or contribute here. (via Reddit, thanks Susannah Breslin)


  1. I watched this last week and it put me on the edge of my seat. I love seeing stuff like this!

  2. not to downplay the emotional impact of this, but it’s well-known that whales will breach and crest to try to dislodge parasites (and show dominance, as well). Imagine being tied down for a week (or a month) and getting really itchy, but you’re unable to scratch it. The second you’re free, you’re going to scratch for a while. She’s probably dislodging all kinds of parasites, barnacles and bits of netting with her slapping and breaching… can’t anthropomorphize too much.

    1. and we also know that culture is stable and diverse in cetacean’s, that they have large languages with local and global vocabularies, and that creatures are driven to express themselves through language. we also know that whales engage in approving and disapproving action in relation to human intervention in other contexts. fear of anthrpomorphizing is just fine but you need an irrational amount of this fear to discount all of the variables in this story that collect whale action/speech and human action/speech in commensurate categories

    2. But how do you know the whale isn’t really happy and loves to breach? We are animals, whales are animals. I think it’s hugely dismissive when people assume other animals can’t experience emotion. Yes, it’s dangerous to assume they have the same emotions as us, but we simply don’t know.

      1. and p.s. the belief that humans are somehow “different” from other animals (or aren’t animals at all!) and that animals don’t experience emotion leads to factory farms where animal feelings are discounted entirely and a huge amount of suffering happens. Then again, we are capable of putting humans in factory farms (china’s factories and the holocaust being two examples of this) so it’s ridiculous of me to think that humans (as a species) would care that much about how animals feel if we are capable of doing that to ourselves.

        1. I would never say that animals don’t experience emotion – they certainly do. We just can’t assume that because the whale is jumping around, it’s saying “thank you! thank you! thank you!” – it’s more likely cleaning itself off. Whales *have* shown a variety of different behaviours (like the stuff in the Radiolab podcast that was mentioned) when relating to humans, so I’m sure it *was* relieved to be free.

          I just think that attributing a human trait to an activity that whales do *regardless* of whether or not people are around is a bit of a stretch. But as others have said, we’ll never know for certain.

          1. In the end, does it really matter? Do we really need to analyze what the whale may have been thinking/reacting to/or not thinking? It is a great moment and we as a species that most people consider as cognizant should strive to assist our fellow creatures regardless of what we believe about their minds.
            I find the idea of human traits a bit puzzling as well since we are day by day coming to recognize more ‘human traits’ in our fellow animals. I think lack of knowledge creates a divide and the word anthropomorphizing covers up our lack of knowledge.

          2. “I think lack of knowledge creates a divide and the word anthropomorphizing covers up our lack of knowledge.”

            And “covering it up” is exactly my problem with it.

        1. I find that people who complain about anthropomorphizing animals often suffer from a belief in human exceptionalism that seems to be based on some sort of magical thinking.

          1. Completely agreed. Mammalian neuroanatomy has a very great deal of commonality, particularly in the limbic (hence emotional) systems. Its’s foolish to think that we don’t share similar subjective emotional experiences.

    3. No, i don’t think you are downplaying, but we know that reciprocation is not a humans-only trait.  Many mammals demonstrate reciprocation, which sure does resemble “thanks.”  Whales also demonstrate several forms of communication.

      No doubt the whale was stretching stiff muscles and scratchign itches, but done in such a fabulous and visible way – seems likely there was at least a LITTLE communication intended.

  3. And they had to follow the whale for several miles in order to take in all of the ‘thank you’ breachings. So, maybe the first one was a ‘Wahoo! Thanks!’, but the rest were done for some whale-ish reason.

  4. Nice. Though it’s possible that instead of appreciation, it was washing off the stink of people

      1. “Whales don’t have a sense of smell.
        – – – – – – – – –
        not universally true apparently.

        “Cetacean expert Professor Hans Thewissen of the Northeastern Ohio
        Universities College of Medicine and colleagues based in Japan and
        Alaska made the discovery while evaluating the brain size of bowhead
        whales. The whales had been landed as part of the biannual
        Inupiat subsistence hunt along the north coast of Alaska, and Prof
        Thewissen’s team was allowed to dissect the brain cavities, to evaluate
        how much of the brain casing a bowhead whale’s brain actually fills.
        taking a brain out, I noticed that there were olfactory tracts, which,
        in other mammals, connect the brain to the nose,” Prof Thewissen told
        the BBC.
        “I followed those to the nose, and noted that all the olfactory hardware is there.”

  5. This reminds me of WNYC’s Radiolab show that did a program called “Animal Minds.”  A startlingly thoughtful show about the extent to which animals can think and relate to humans.  I strongly recommend it (one segment in the show relates to a similar situation as the video but perhaps due to the skill of the producers/reporters is even more moving).

    1. In the Radiolab segment, the whale actually thanked the divers who cut the nets off by swimming up to each one and gently tapping their chests. This whale didn’t actually say thanks, more like yipee!

  6. As moving as this video is I think these adults were irresponsible because the Nantucket sleigh-ride could have easily gone awry.  Near the end of the clip it becomes obvious there is a child on-board and if it were only adults taking the risk then that is their decision but to expose child to this risk is unethical.  Whales do not have speech hence they are not capable of rational thought and thus cannot make moral choices.  In my book this means when it come to the life of humans versus whales humans trump whales.  Nevertheless, I am delighted the whale survived the ordeal.   

    1. Glenn Beck has the power of speech. I defy you to prove that Beck is capable of making a moral choice.

      In that situation, I would have done exactly the same thing. We are obligated by our position as thinking, rational beings to do what we can to help those that cannot help themselves.

      To allow the whale to suffer and likely die would have been immoral.

      Far more immoral than the potential for a child to get an impromptu dunking. The object lesson the child experienced will last a lifetime. As would have the object lesson of letting an intelligent, sentiant being die slowly and horribly.

    2. They’re within sight of the shore and the child is wearing a life jacket.  I don’t think the risk was as great as you seem to think.

      1. At the 5:08 point in the video I can hear a small child whimper and then an adult voice say “its okay hon.” Clearly, the child is frightened.  At this point all of the men are exhausted not a good state to be in even with Life preservers.  An exhausted frightened wild-animal is unpredictable and given its size against a small boat creates a precarious situation. They are compassionate but foolhardy and were very lucky.  BTW, we have no evidence from the video that the child is wearing a life vest.

    3. How wonderful to know that there are people out there who know how the minds of other creatures work (sarcasm intended). Moral choices indeed; our species sadly makes more immoral choices than all the other species put together. And why do human needs always trump those of other creatures with people like you?

      1. Peter, you are so negative.  We are celebrating in this blog the salvation of a beautiful living creature from an agonizing death and all you can talk about is how the most sublimely beautiful specie of all, us humans of course, is “immoral.”  Speak for yourself sir.  BTW, the whale was saved by boatload of these seaming humans.  I’d like to see you save a whale.  You probably wouldn’t even save a puppy from the dog pound.

  7. Or perhaps the whale was demonstrating what it would do to the next gill netting boat it found.

    Instead of “thanks” maybe the whale was saying “SOOOOOOOOOOOON”.

  8. People look at ambiguous events and see what they want to see. It’s comforting and dangerous all at the same time.

  9. I’ve lived and worked closely with animals all my life and witnessed them do some remarkable things which defy explanation.  It makes me think the gainsayers and hard line skeptics may have lost their sense of wonder.  Watching this video made me feel a little better about the so called wise ape.  I found it a moving testament to the better angels of man’s nature. . .but then, some might argue I’m guilty of anthroposanctification.  Being a DFH godless liberal I’m certainly not qualified to make that judgment.

  10. Am I the only one who is worried about the fisherman’s livelihood? 
    (Not to discount any of the whale’s side of the story, of course. As a diver and biologist I definitely sympathised with both the people and the whale.)

    1. The fisherman can purchase a new net, if need be, or perhaps borrow. Can you do that with a life, human or not? No. Which has more value, the net (which can be replaced), or the life of a fellow living being? Cut up the whale to save the net? Are you insane?

  11. I don’t have a link, because it’s paywalled (I think), but New Yorker magazine did a long, long article from the Baja sea quite a while ago. Capsule summary: there have been a LOT of weird human/whale interactions in the years since whale hunting ended in the area, reported not just by gringo whale-lovers, but also by local fishermen. In particular, pregnant whales who come to that area to give birth have been making a point of bringing their new calves directly up to human-occupied boats and “introducing” them — eyes rolled up out of the water, looking at the humans as the humans look at them, and staying there for a good long look.

    When they got to the point where they’d freed one fin, the whale had to use what instincts it had and what intelligence it had to decide what to do about the fact that the species that made and placed that net was still trying to haul that net into the boat with her still caught in it – were we predators, were we just trying to get our net back? should she concentrate on escape, should she first kill the humans hauling on the net, should she submit? Note that despite the failed panic flight, she never took even one violent action, even when presented the opportunity to do so. However afraid she was, she showed no signs of behaving as if she believed that our intent was hostile.

    Whales don’t have to be sentient (whatever that even means) to have a cultural relationship with humans that regularly share their range, any more than dogs or horses do. Something weird and new in the way of a joint human/whale culture is being reported in the Baja sea. And we really don’t know, yet, what it means.

  12. I think the whale was trying to blind itself after seeing that guy’s red speedos.

    Just teasing, that was a wonderful video.  It’s great to see such an amazing creature freed, intentional thanks or not.

  13. Hmmm… Don’t want to be a wet towel but sorry, but it does seem like there is a lot of narrative projection of what is happening here. Great to see the whale freed, but not too sure if the motivations applied to the whale’s behavior hold much water.

  14. Incidentally, a fascinating human-whale culture grew up around Eden, on the Australian Pacific coast.  “The local pod of killer whales would drive the baleen whales into the shallow Twofold Bay and the men would then kill them. The Carcass would then be left overnight for the Orcas. The reward was the Orcas would get the tongue of the huge beast which apparently was a delicacy to them. This came to be known as the “Law of the Tongue.”

    This history of this relationship went back to aboriginal times and had existed for many years.”

  15. “Whales do not have speech hence they are not capable of rational thought and thus cannot make moral choices.” 
    Helen Keller comes to mind…
    Sorry, that has to be the lamest thing I’ve heard, or read all week.

  16. I know three of the folks in that boat. All are awesome people.  The dude in the orange life vest is a hella drummer.  Everybody needs a good drummer every now and then.

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