In January 2009, marine ecologists Robert Pitman and John Durban were watching a group of Antarctic killer whales wash a seal off an ice floe when, surprisingly, a pair of humpback whales intervened:
Exposed to lethal attack in the open water, the seal swam frantically toward the humpbacks, seeming to seek shelter, perhaps not even aware that they were living animals. (We have known fur seals in the North Pacific to use our vessel as a refuge against attacking killer whales.)
Just as the seal got to the closest humpback, the huge animal rolled over on its back — and the 400-pound seal was swept up onto the humpback’s chest between its massive flippers. Then, as the killer whales moved in closer, the humpback arched its chest, lifting the seal out of the water. The water rushing off that safe platform started to wash the seal back into the sea, but then the humpback gave the seal a gentle nudge with its flipper, back to the middle of its chest. Moments later the seal scrambled off and swam to the safety of a nearby ice floe.
“I was shocked,” Pitman said later. “It looked like they were trying to protect the seal.”
Perhaps they were. Humpbacks organize to protect their own calves, of course, but they also protect other species — indeed, this happened in nearly 90 percent of attacks where the killer whales’ prey could be identified.
Is this evidence of a moral sense among the whales? Donald Broom, an emeritus professor of animal welfare at Cambridge University, thinks so — if right means meeting individuals’ basic needs and maintaining their rights, and wrong means impeding these things, then there’s considerable evidence for a sense of morality among nonhumans. In The Cultural Lives of Whales and Dolphins, Hal Whitehead and Luke Rendell write, “When whales and dolphins go out of their way to help other creatures with their needs that looks pretty moral, at least on the surface.”