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Image: A whale breaching the ocean's surface, with barnacles stuck to its chin

A Whale Saved Her From a Shark, Then Came Back to Visit

There are stories aplenty out there of human-animal connections that touch our hearts. But every once in a while, you stumble across one that is so spectacular… it’s almost unbelievable. Well, believe it folks, because we’re about to treat you with a story that is going to make you gasp, smile, and cry all at the same time! 

Let’s meet a scientist, a whale, and a shark (yikes!), to learn how a selfless sea creature can inspire a wave of goodness that will motivate us to be our best selves each time we regale it.

Image: A whale breaching the ocean's surface, with barnacles stuck to its chin
Source: Unsplash

Before we dive into the animal-element of our story, I’d like to introduce our human scientist, Nan Hauser, whose story about a humpback whale encounter is nothing short of amazing.

Nan Hauser has spent much of her adult life in Brunswick and in the South Pacific Cook Islands. As Founder and Director of the New England Dolphin Outreach Project, she has taught on a global level for the Dolphin Research Center, Whale Conservation Institute, and many other non-profit organizations, including the Gulf of Maine Research Institute. She is currently on the Board of Directors of the Ajubatus Foundation in South Africa and has been awarded the international title of “Earth Ambassador.” 1 In addition to her accolades as a whale researcher, she is also a Registered Nurse, who teaches and practices medicine on the outer islands of the Cooks. 

While many of the locals had heard of the charismatic nurse-turned-whale biologist who spent the better part of 30 years studying humpback whales in Rarotonga, 2 it was a chance encounter in 2017 that would make her—and her work—known around the world. 

That time a whale saved her life.

On a mid-September day in 2017, Nan jumped into the ocean to get some video footage with two of the humpback whales she was studying, when the most remarkable thing happened.

As she swam alongside the whales, the gentle giants began to display warning signs that danger was near. Suddenly, she spotted another whale aggressively swimming toward her at full speed. Just as panic began to set in, one of the whales used its fin to propel Nan onto its back and out of range of…not a whale…but a 15 foot tiger shark! 

After the shark disappeared, in a sweet-hearted fashion the whale safely escorted Nan back to her boat. She climbed aboard and yelled “Thank you! I love you!” to the whale. After a few minutes, the whale disappeared into the depths, and Nan said goodbye, feeling grateful for this once in a lifetime encounter.

One year later…He came back!

Almost a year later to the date, Nan received a call from a local fisherman saying that he spotted whales in the harbor. Could it be? Could her whale friend have returned? Because Humpback’s often return to their same migratory routes, hope swelled inside her. 

She acted fast and jumped on a boat… and guess who swam right alongside the boat to greet her?! Nan instantly recognized her friend by the two distinct notches on his tail, and leapt into the water to swim with him. 

Now, I love this story, but it’s really best told by Nan herself. Watch this delightful video by BBC Earth as Nan describes her life-changing experience with the whale that saved her life, and how he came back again to reconnect with her. Her heartfelt delivery of the tale is one that should not be missed.

**Disclaimer: You may be tempted to swim with whales after watching this, but please don’t. Nan is a professional whale researcher and for your own safety, neither of us recommend giving it a go on your own. Thank you!

Via: BBC Earth 3

The most selfless act is to unconditionally care for others.

I wanted to touch back on the bit she mentioned about altruism in whales. Altruism is defined as a selfless act of kindness, such as protecting others, without expecting anything in return. This is a quality that isn’t usually displayed by animals, but some researchers are starting to recognize this characteristic in humpback whales.

Robert Pitman (the colleague Nan mentions in the video) is a marine ecologist with the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. He witnessed this behavior in Antarctica in 2009 when two Humpback whales saved a seal from a group of orcas by nudging the seal under their bellies with their fins until it could reach safety on a patch of ice. 

“That incident convinced me on the spot,” says Pitman. “Those humpbacks were doing something that we couldn’t explain with what we knew at the time about humpbacks and killer whales.” 4

There is still a lot of mystery surrounding whale intelligence. There’s so much we don’t know. However, there are some ways we can advocate for these majestic humpbacks.

After Nan’s encounter, she struggled with how best to thank the whale. After all, it’s tricky to hug something that is so much larger than you. 

So what’s the most impactful way to thank a whale? It’s by caring, learning more about them, and protecting their habitat. We can offer our own altruistic displays of compassion for the humpback whales by donating to organizations that prioritize research and their wellbeing. 

Click here to donate to Nan’s organization, Center of Cetacean Research & Conservation

If a monetary donation isn’t do-able, there are other small ways we can help. For example, eliminating single-use plastics from our lives as much as possible will reduce ocean pollution, especially if you can get others to do it with you. 

And on that note, share this article with your friends! The more we spread awareness about how amazing this kind and intelligent species is, the more hyped people will be to ensure that they thrive in the future.

What about altruism in humans?

Like humpback whales, humans are creatures of habit. So what if we made kindness a habit? What if we could be the whale in our own story? A pinch of compassion sprinkled into our daily lives can grow into a lifetime of good deeds to look back on.

We can’t speak directly to the whales (well, maybe you can if you are Ellen Degeneres), but if we could ask them for advice, what do you think they would say? Maybe their silence is the key, because it’s not actually what we say, but what we do that will show others that we care. 

Keep dreaming and notice the beauty around you!


Caught whale fever, have you? Learn more about them by migrating to some of these articles from our archive!

Nature Does it Better: Why Whales are the Best Carbon Capturing Technology We Have

If we change the plea of climate change from a moral perspective to an economic one, would that convince world leaders to pursue international climate efforts? As it turns out, protecting our world’s whales is worth trillions of dollars in climate change prevention.

Read Article Watch Video Listen to Podcast
A True Tale of Finding a Best Friend in a Beluga Whale

Can an unlikely friendship help save an entire species? When an aquarium trainer met her counterpoint in a friendly beluga whale, a bond was formed that can teach us more than we ever dreamed possible. Let’s dive into a real-life story that will have you heading to the nearest aquarium in search of a new best friend!

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  1. “Saved by a Whale – the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation.” The Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation –, https://whaleresearch.org/saved-by-a-whale/.
  2. “Saved by a Whale – the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation.” The Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation –, https://whaleresearch.org/saved-by-a-whale/.
  3. BBC EARTH. A Whale Saved My Life | Close Encounters | BBC Earth – YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=OXNCCdcBhcY?__ref=vk.api.
  4. Smithsonian Magazine. “What Humpback Whales Can Teach Us about Compassion.” Smithsonian.com, Smithsonian Institution, 18 Aug. 2017, https://www.smithsonianmag.com/science-nature/what-humpback-whales-teach-us-compassion-180964545/#:~:text=Humpbacks%20act%20to%20improve%20the,witnessed%20in%20Antarctica%20in%202009.
Published: March 28, 2022

Image: Renee Laroche-Rheaume

Renee Laroche-Rheaume

Outreach Coordinator & Writer

Renee is a graduate of FIDM, and has held jobs in several industries such as apparel manufacturing, retail, professional office work, and even hospitality. Her creative outlook, wide variety of experiences, and desire to notice the beauty around us make her a great addition to the Goodness Exchange team.

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