Humpback whales and their killer whale nemesis

Whenever I encounter the word "nemesis", I can't help but think of Alan Ford delivering this line as Brick Top in the movie "Snatch":

Do you know what NEMESIS means? A righteous infliction of retribution manifested by an appropriate agent. Personified in this case by an 'orrible cunt… me..

Radiolab's recent episode "The Humpback and the Killer", delves into multiple marine scientist's stories of humpback whales mobbing killer whales that are actively attacking other species, which has led some to refer to this behavior anecdotally as "altruistic".

ROBERT PITMAN: We define altruism something like a behavior of an animal that benefits another at its own expense.

ANNIE: And what the humpbacks are doing is technically altruism.

ROBERT PITMAN: If they go in and save a seal, it costs them time and energy, and they get absolutely nothing out of it.

ANNIE: And hearing this, I'm tempted, along with a lot of other soft-hearted folks, to attribute this to—what else? Compassion.

[NEWS CLIP: We all love it when someone stands up to a bully.]

ANNIE: But Bob says …

[ARCHIVE CLIP, speaker: Aren't these gentle giants?]


ANNIE: … the same thing that's always said.

ROBERT PITMAN: Biologically it doesn't make sense. Animals don't go out of their way to help other animals. And if you see an instance where it looks like they are, there's probably something going on there that you haven't accounted for.


ROBERT PITMAN: So then the question is: what are they getting out of it?

ANNIE: What is in it for the humpback whales?


ANNIE: And for me, I thought surely the case of a seal hovering on the belly of a humpback whale would be kind of a tricky one for a scientist to pack neatly away into a box. But actually, Bob was like, this is pretty simple.


ANNIE: What we're seeing here is kin selection.

ROBERT PITMAN: We think that kin selection is probably what's behind this apparent altruism in humpbacks.

ANNIE: The idea is if you're a humpback swimming along, hear a killer whale attacking something, rush to the defense and it turns out it's a humpback calf …

ROBERT PITMAN: It might be a grandson of yours, or it could be a niece or something. So …

ANNIE: This habit of saving stuff from killer whales …

ROBERT PITMAN: … it's worth it to them in the long run because they might be saving the life of a relative.

ANNIE: And therefore, some of their own genes.


ANNIE: But wouldn't they know that the thing they're saving is one of them pretty quickly? And wouldn't they just stop and turn around if it was just a seal and not maybe their cousin?

ROBERT PITMAN: Well, I think for the humpbacks, all they have to know is when you hear those mammal-eating killer whales calling, it's time to go over there and break up the party. And that means regardless of the species being attacked, if they do this enough times, then they're gonna end up possibly saving a relative of theirs. So individually, these cases can be altruistic, but in the long run they're doing it for their own self interest.

Latif Nasser and Annie McEwen grapples with how to frame these stories about humpback wales mobbing killer whales and settles on something approaching "revenge" as a motive for the apparent altruism, in this exchange:

ANNIE: So what are they doing? I mean, it sounds like you're just more—like, what was your—what was your feeling?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Well, I was just pretty much blown away by everything that was going on because there was so—again, there was so much food around, and the humpbacks were, during their prime feeding season, ignoring the prey and really focusing on what looked like trying to keep the killer whales from feeding.

ANNIE: Are there other examples of that in the animal kingdom? Of rather than feeding yourself, you're gonna prevent your enemy from feeding?

NANCY BLACK: Yeah, not that I know of. No.

LATIF: So wait. The idea, it seems like, is that it's not about the victim that they're protecting in the first place, it's just that they don't want the killer whales to eat. They just hate killer whales so much. Like, it's like let's just forever make life miserable for them. Like—like, let's, like—like, annihilate them.

ANNIE: Right. Which seems like the opposite of what instincts honed by evolution should do. But according to Alisa …

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Several of the humpback whales that we were with had killer whale tooth rakes on their flukes which definitely show that they had survived a killer whale attack, and have experience with either being attacked as a calf, or being a mom who is trying to protect her calf, or being another humpback whale that was with that mom and calf trying to protect it.

ANNIE: Do you mean to say that they've either lost a calf of their own, or they have themselves been attacked as a calf and they remember this?

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Oh, absolutely they'd remember that.


ANNIE: It almost feels like, in this case, lived experience was beating out, or at least joining with evolution. And I was like, does—so is this revenge we're looking at? Like, is that what we're seeing here?

LATIF: Revenge!

LULU: Oh my God!

ANNIE: Could it be that, instead of humpbacks swimming through the ocean saving helpless animals, they're actually scouring the seas, carrying with them battle scars of their own near miss or the memory of losing their calves? Ignoring their own hunger pangs and trying to prevent their enemy from feeding? I mean, this is like the classic definition of revenge. Like, revenge ruins your life too because you are so focused on hurting the other, you know, your enemy that you—your own life is falling apart.

NANCY BLACK: Yeah, that's—that's interesting.

ANNIE: But Nancy and Alisa—and rightly so—were kinda like, "Revenge?"

ALISA SCHULMAN-JANIGER: Revenge? I don't think we know enough. We just—there's no way for us to know that.

The behavior exhibited by humpback whales towards mobbing killer whales, brings us back to the word "nemesis". It almost sounds like humpback whales recognize the nature of killer whales abusing their absolute power as apex predators, and respond accordingly with vigilante retribution only they can mete out. I really like how Latif Nasser and Annie McEwen encapsulates the feeling of learning all of the above, in this exchange at the end of the Radiolab episode:

LATIF: You know the blind man and the elephant?

ANNIE: Uh, no.

LATIF: You don't know the blind man and the elephant?

ANNIE: Mmm …

LATIF: Okay. It's an old, I want to say Buddhist parable. And it's a little bit ableist actually, now that I think about it. But basically, the blind man and the elephant, it's like, I don't know what, like, five blind men walk up to an elephant. They're all using their hands to try to figure out what the heck is this thing in front of us.

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: One of them feels the tail and he's like, "Oh, it's like a rope. It's like a rope, basically." And one of them feels a leg and they're like, "Oh, no. It's like a tree—it's a tree trunk. It's clearly a tree trunk." And then one of them is feeling the, you know—the—the actual trunk and is like, "Oh, it feels like a—kinda like a hose, maybe?"

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: So they're—they're all—one's touching the ear and being like, "No, no, no. This is like a—it's like a giant leaf or something."

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: So each one of them are touching it and they're—they're right. Like, they're right based on their horizon of experience. But they're just, by sensation, incapable of seeing the whole picture. And I think that's all of us. Like, we're—our sensations are so limited, and it does feel like, you know, the pictures that we have, the parts of the elephant that we've groped enough times to know, it's just like, we know the nature red in tooth and claw, the nature, the savage nature, the killer of the killer whales. We know that story, right?


LATIF: We know the, like, oh, nice and altruistic, like, doing a thing. Like—like, we kinda know that story.

ANNIE: Mm-hmm.

LATIF: But then there's a story like the third one that's so bizarre. It's like we touched a new part of the elephant and we're like, "What the hell?" Like, we don't even know what this thing is anymore. Like—like, maybe this thing we thought we knew, we actually don't know.

ANNIE: Yeah.

LATIF: And the whale is just—it's so big and it's so complicated, and we're only seeing it this tiny fraction of the time when it's on the surface. So, like, when we do see another dimension of it, it just reminds us how—like, how we really are just grasping a tiny fraction of the whole portrait.

ANNIE: Right. It reminds us, like, how much we still don't know.

LATIF: Yeah!

ANNIE: And I feel like those moments where I see that the thing I thought I knew I really don't know, like, that's when the universe gets big again. Like, I just want to not know more!

Learning all of this, I feel that the universe feels as if it's remained the same, but it's my perception of it that has expanded in the process.