A humpback whale surfaced a hundred feet away, so close that whirlpools and waves rocked my paddleboard. For several days, I had hoped for a close encounter with a whale. While kneeling on my board and clutching its sides to keep from capsizing, I felt something I hadn’t expected: fear.
The humpback surfaced and blew three times, lifted its flukes toward the sky, arched its back, and with the suppleness of a ballerina, the behemoth poured its body back into the sea—leaving droplets of spray jeweling in the light. A circle of smooth water lingered on the surface after the whale disappeared. Was it underneath my board?
What struck me when I was near the whale was not how large the animal was but how small I am: a tiny mammal on an unstable board, a seeker adrift on the sea.
Deep breathing slowed my adrenaline and stilled my fear, helping me focus on the dream-like moment; then the humpback rose again, so near its breath dampened my face and filled the air with a sulfurous reek. The whale’s eyes swiveled in sockets bigger than my fists as it raised a flipper that seemed the size of an aircraft wing.
The pectoral flippers of the humpback whale are the largest appendages of any animal on the planet. A single flick of one of these flippers, a weapon up to sixteen feet long that humpbacks use to defend themselves against killer whales, could swat me into the water and hold me beneath the surface while I struggled to breathe. But humpbacks have also been known to use their flippers to protect vulnerable beings. They have guarded the calves of other whale species, seals, even sunfish from orcas and sharks.
In 2017, a humpback roughed up a marine biologist snorkeling in waters off the Cook Islands. The whale shoved her, lifting her body from the ocean with its massive head. The biologist feared for her life. She worried the whale would break her bones, rupture her internal organs, and drown her beneath its flippers. When she managed to get back to her boat, she saw a tiger shark swimming nearby and realized the humpback had been shielding her from danger.
Why do humpbacks have such empathy for other beings? Spindle neurons may play a role. Not long ago, scientists thought these specialized brain cells involved in emotions and social behavior might be unique to our species and other great apes and may even be what makes us human. Spindle neurons are linked to our language ability and capacity for suffering and love. Recently, however, researchers discovered that humpbacks have higher densities of spindle neurons in some regions of their brain than we do, raising a provocative question. If spindle neurons make us human, are humpback whales more human than we are? Perhaps more humane.
Once hunted to oblivion’s edge, humpbacks have rebounded in recent years, yet their future remains uncertain. Whether these whales can find enough to eat in overfished oceans and survive ship strikes, noise pollution, fishing gear entanglement, and the poisons, plastics, and heat killing the living seas are open questions. The fate of our species is also uncertain. The oceans we are denuding of life deliver more than half the oxygen we breathe.
As I paddled home after my close encounter with the whale, my adrenaline drained, and lingering awe replaced fear. Paying attention to the suffering that binds all beings seemed akin to bliss. All creatures on this planet are in peril, beginning the day they are born. Every animal on earth is so inconsequential amid the vastness of the universe, so fragile—even humpbacks with their bulk and humans with our technology.
What struck me when I was near the whale was not how large the animal was but how small I am: a tiny mammal on an unstable board, a seeker adrift on the sea. I was at the mercy of a species that humans almost exterminated.
Whales were saved by their songs. In the 1970s, recordings of humpback vocalizations, intricate and otherworldly, inspired our species to bring whales back from extinction’s edge. In 1977, NASA launched the Voyager 1 and 2 spacecraft to explore our solar system and beyond. Gold-plated records carried on the Voyager vessels contain greetings in sixty-one languages, human music, and the song of a humpback whale. In 2012, Voyager 1 left the shores of our solar system and plunged into deep space, carrying its cargo of song through the interstellar sea.
If an alien intelligence from another world follows our music, and that of humpback whales, to earth, these beings will almost certainly be more compassionate and cooperative than we are; otherwise, they would have annihilated themselves, as we seem so close to doing with our nuclear weapons and our reckless project of dismantling the natural systems that support us on this planet.
Scientists tell us to avoid anthropomorphism—ascribing human characteristics to nonhuman animals like whales. Perhaps alien scientists will think along similar lines. They might explain to fellow members of their species, “The humans we are watching sometimes perform what seem like compassionate acts. But we can only know what it’s like to be us. We cannot know what it’s like to be human. Do not attribute your own motives to the humans. Do not look for explanations beyond what you can observe. Look at their behavior. Look at what they have done to the seas. Look at what they have done to the whales, the ones who help humans when danger is near. The ones who show mercy.”
Stephen Grace has authored many books, including Dam Nation: How Water Shaped the West and Will Determine Its Future and Grow: Stories from the Urban Food Movement, (winner of the Colorado Book Award for Creative Nonfiction). He explores the Northwest’s natural history by snorkeling, paddleboarding, skiing, trail running, and backpacking.