Natural History Magazine recently reported two separate instances of humpback whales protecting seals from the very sophisticated and coordinated attacks of orca whales in the Southern Ocean.
The scientists who observed the rescues speculate that this might be maternal instinct on the part of the whales. The problem with that bit of speculation is that it is extremely difficult to determine the gender of humpback whales at sea, and there is nothing to indicate that these were female whales.
The final paragraph of the article may come closer to the truth:
“When a human protects an imperiled individual of another species, we call it compassion. If a humpback whale does so, we call it instinct. But sometimes the distinction isn’t all that clear.”
It seems likely to me that other animals are perfectly capable of acting out of compassion. I would not be surprised if the seals communicated their distress to the larger whales. Last year we saw interspecies communication at work in the case of Moko the dolphin who saved two pygmy sperm whales who had beached themselves in New Zealand.
We seem to find it hard to believe that a non-human animal is capable of flexible behavior. We humans sometimes act compassionately toward other animals, and sometimes we eat them. Why should we think other animals behave any differently?
Whales have been living on Earth with their large, complex brains about a hundred times longer than modern humans. Maybe they are the more mature species, and we have a thing or two to learn from them about living on Earth with grace, balance, and compassion.
This is my hope for the year(s) ahead. That we humans will begin to see other beings not as objects to be studied or exploited, but as co-equal creatures, creators and creations both, of this amazing, rich, vibrant, living Earth.