“I knew there was a chance I could easily be killed by this whale,” whale scientist Nan Hauser can be heard saying in a 2021 interview with BBC Earth. Hauser was recollecting an unusual and shocking encounter between herself, a humpback whale, and a tiger shark.
While it sounds like the cast of a “walks into a bar” joke, her extremely up-close-and-personal run-in with the overprotective whale was actually quite scary. While filming on location off Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, Hauser had been swimming towards two humpback whales when one charged at her.
Whales, often thought of as gentle giants, are extremely powerful animals whose fins are lined with razor-sharp barnacles. As such, being hugged by one is logistically complex if you don't wish to be squashed or spiralized. In the case of Hauser, the whale seemed hell-bent on tucking her under its pectoral fin.
Fearing for her life, things only got scarier as the humpback whale hoisted her out of the water on its back and refused to let her get away. When she finally did get some space, the motivation for the humpback’s bizarre behavior became clear.
In the distance, she could see what looked like two whales, one of which was smacking its tail against the water. On closer inspection, she could see that the second whale was moving peculiarly, with its pectoral fins tucked in and its tail swishing side to side instead of up and down.
It was at this point Hauser realized she was looking at the biggest tiger shark she’d ever seen.
“I’ve spent my entire life underwater and I’ve seen plenty of tiger sharks,” she explained. “This was like a truck. This was a huge tiger shark and it was coming right for me.”
It’s Hauser’s belief that the whale was trying to get her under its fin to protect her. While we can’t yet speak Whale – yet – this motivation to save her life seems to be confirmed as its final action was to get her on its back and ferry her back to the boat.
“I still to this day can’t believe it happened and being a scientist it’s even harder,” she said. “If someone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe them.”
Humpbacks are known to exhibit altruism, a behavioral trait where you do something for another individual that in no way benefits you. Hauser's story is an impeccable example as the whale put itself in the firing line to protect a human.
Quite the hero then, and amazingly Hauser got to be reunited with her rescuer one year and 15 days after the event. She was radioed that a whale had swum into the area, and after boating out to see it Hauser recognized its tail fluke had two notches on it, just like the one that saved her life.
“And then next I knew the whale came up next to the side of the boat," said Hauser. "He ignored everyone else on the boat and he stared directly at me… I looked at him and I saw a scar on his head and I just screamed ‘he’s back I can’t believe it he’s back!’ and sure enough there he was.
“I just whipped on my wetskin and slid [into the] water and I swam down next to him and he opened his eyes and he just looked at me and kept nudging me... It was like seeing your dog that you haven’t seen in six months.” At 27-33 tons, that’s one hell of a cuddle.
Hauser also expressed her hope that she would get to see her cetacean pal again. "I miss him," she said. "I mean, who misses a whale?"
An earlier version of this article was published in November 2021.