The One Where I Dive Into Why I Feel So Emotionally Connected to Humpback Whales

Driving through the mountain forests of southern Indiana, we threw on an episode of RadioLab. On the road for almost two weeks at this stage, we had mainly entertained ourselves with rotations of music, conversation, and silence. The episode discussed a phenomenon some marine biologists had become fascinated by – humpback whales protecting seals from orca attacks! The episode shared a sequence of anecdotes, trying to answer, “were humpback whales actually, purposefully, protecting other animals from orca attacks?”, and, if so, “why on earth would they do that?”

As they began to investigate further, they discovered there were anecdotes across the world of humpback whales displaying this kind of behavior towards seals. One way that orcas will catch a seal is by isolating one on a floating chunk of ice and then rushing towards the ice and creating a wave to wash the seal into the water for easy picking. The scientists witnessed humpback whales interfere with this process by surrounding isolated seals and driving the orcas away. In other instances, seals under attack would search out and find a humpback whale to protect them. Not only were humpback whales protecting seals, but the seals also knew that humpback whales would protect them!

In fact, the humpback whales were protecting pretty much all species of orca prey, including other kinds of whales. I was already fascinated by this story, when they also recounted a scenario where a blue whale calf was killed by orcas – humpback whales had come to protect the baby whale, but they were too late. However, the humpback whales still drove the orcas away and would not allow the orcas to eat the calf. While it was hard to interpret the behavior, the humpback whales swam down to the calf and touched it with their fins.

Much of the episode was dedicated to understanding these behaviors. The scientists took a rather Darwinian stance on the matter, trying to decipher how this behavior was well-adapted for the survival of humpback whales. The episode offered nothing conclusive, pretty much only going so far as suggesting that it is always best to assume that a behavior can be best understood from the perspective of self-preservation and self-benefit. The episode concluded with a vague and open-ended discussion of how there were some clear benefits to humpback whale communities in not allowing orcas to eat, but I found myself growing more and more frustrated as I listened to the hosts and scientists try to fit this strange occurrence into a survival-of-the-fittest framework.

It seems relatively understandable, through this perspective, that humpback whales have a lot to benefit from protecting all prey from orcas. The episode noted that humpback calves are a target for orcas and most humpback whales have scars from escaping orca attacks as children. Fewer orcas mean a safer life for humpback youth. The conclusion of the episode was loosely that it appears there is a general benefit to the survival of the humpback species. I found myself deeply frustrated, angry – as I listened to the episode. I felt quite strongly that I could relate to what the humpback whales were doing (tears coming to me throughout the episode), why they would be so motivated to protect not only their children, but all other orca prey. I waited for them, growing more agitated, to discuss what the humpback whales must be feeling… but all the hosts and scientists provided was a shrug and suggestion that all animals behave in their self-interest, so that must be what is also happening here.

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The commentary from the hosts and scientists upset me deeply. I found the actions of the humpback whales both beautiful and relatable, and I felt a deep loss to hear other people try to figure out how this made sense from this purely Darwinian perspective. I do not say this as a dismissal of evolutionary thought, but as humans we typically don’t walk around thinking “are my actions best for the survival of my species” and I have a hard time imagining that whales (who most likely do not have frameworks about evolution) are swimming around, figuring out the best way to assure the longevity and vitality of their species. As humans, the course of our lives is shaped by our feelings, by our dreams, by our fears, by our desires – to tell the story of these humpback whales without reflecting on their feelings and fears felt deeply inadequate, though I struggled initially to capture where my feelings were coming from.

At the beginning of the story, they talked about how adult humpback whales are capable of driving away the fiercest predators in the ocean. Raising animals of my own (cats, dogs, chickens, horses), I was struck by the fact that there are not many animals on earth that have the ability to truly feel safe from external harm. Most animals will always live with some degree of fear – even my house cats will cower in the corner when an unexpected sound rings through the house. Humans are one of the few species that can create an environment where we feel safe from harm and where we can also feel confident that we are safe. Most animals though, especially wild animals, do not have access to this privilege. Imagine deer – their life is defined by their relationship with their predators, always anticipating the next attack, ready to run. Adult humpback whales, however, are one of the animals that appear to have access to some safety and security – they can confidently enter a fight with a group of orcas, one of the ocean’s greatest predators.

While the life of whales and humans are quite distinct, for humans feeling safe is such a crucial part of life. When we are scared, anxious, or living in a survival mindset, our life becomes shaped by our efforts to make it to the next moment. When we feel safe, we have room to play, to dream, to flourish, and to become. There is something very sacred about feeling safe from harm, it allows us to live with intention and live out the best version of our lives.

Simultaneously, we have all known fear of many kinds, we have all been hurt throughout our lives. Many of us are caught in the constant undertow of fear and pain, navigating each moment by taking great gulps as waves of time crash over our heads. Feeling safe, feeling protected, does not magically wipe our memories of the harms we have faced nor of the anxieties that have built homes in our minds and bodies. Feeling safe allows us to step into each moment with intention, even when our past tries to remind us of the score, tries to take control.

This is where I found myself frustrated by scientists talking about “survival fitness” and what not. At one point, the hosts and researchers briefly discussed the idea of altruism, that there is something “selfless” driving humpback whales to protect the other animals from orcas, going against their own survival instincts to protect other animals. However, this conversation was presented as if the simultaneous existence of self-preservation and altruism represented an untenable contradiction that they could divine no answer for. An anger boiled in me as I listened – now I can see that I felt that if these erudite scholars could not see what was motivating these whales, then they could never really understand me (or people more generally).

See, as people, we like to use words. We like to use words to a fault. We will try to use words to explain the world and we prefer words that fall far short of the truth to silence. We talk about “self-preservation” and “altruism” as if they are real, when really these words skim over the deep internal world of living beings. When I heard about the humpbacks warding off orca attacks, I felt a very specific kinship with what they were doing – I recognized that pattern of behavior in myself and in how I understand humans to be. Even as I try to explain now what I felt, I see that words taken too seriously (a la science) can obscure what is actually happening. I can see that this is a feeling that I haven’t put into words or heard put into words, and I think that is why I am writing this article – to try to name where this feeling came from within me.

Trauma is not held in the body as a series of words. It is not intellectualized. It is encoded into the body. It becomes a part of who we are in a deeply physiological sense. From the Darwinian perspective, this embodiment of trauma helps keep us alive, as we react to similar dangers by protecting ourselves. As I have come to a place in my life where I am not always controlled by my trauma responses, a place in my life where I usually feel safe and grounded enough to act with intention, the traumas of the past are still encoded in my body. I still have many of the same reactions I used to have, I have the same fears and anxieties, and many times these reactions do overwhelm me and take control.

I think this is starting to get to the surface of what I actually want to talk about – how the traumas we have endured do not only teach us to protect ourselves, but they teach us how we can protect others as well. With the humpback whales, I was struck by how most adults have physical scarring from orca attacks on their bodies. Orcas kill many adolescent humpbacks, so it was quite clear that nearly all humpback whales have trauma from orca attacks embedded within their minds and bodies. Humpback whales live with the fear of orca attacks. From a survival-of-the-fittest perspective, it is that fear which motivates humpbacks to protect themselves in the presence of orcas. But, as humpbacks grow older, they become relatively protected from orca attacks (by virtue of their size) and they appear to understand this in their behaviors.

The part of the discussion that was missing in this podcast was, simply – “how do humpback whales feel when they witness an orca attack other animals?” The scientists were trying to navigate self-preservation and altruism, but it felt like they just couldn’t put their finger on something that, for me, feels central to being human (or perhaps, being alive). Being safe and protected from harm doesn’t mean that embodied trauma disappears, it means that the way that trauma response manifests will be shaped by the fact we are protected from present harm. We often think about trauma responses like fight and flight as ways to protect ourselves from harm, where our body takes over to keep us safe. But what does a trauma response look like when we are safe and are able to act with intention?

Like, these scientists were wondering why a humpback whale would put itself in harms way to protect a seal or some other animal, as if there is some “rational” calculation in the whale’s mind where it calculates its chances of success and whether it is “worth it” to help. Mainstream science tends to treat people this way too – they will ask “why do people behave in this way?” and then try to answer the question using a cost-benefit analysis, even though, for the most part, people don’t actually do that in their heads before every decision they make. And this is where that missing question comes in – why are we trying to understand why whales (or people) behave, without asking how they feel?

See, “how they feel” opens up a truly intimate type of inquiry. We cannot bring feelings into the objective realm, words and theories will always fall a bit short – feelings are things we experience and relate to. But we live in a society where knowledge must be bankable, it must be something we can put into words, write on a slip of paper, and then insert into a child’s heads like coins in a piggy bank. The world of feelings and experiencing is not so easily reduced to rote facts.

So, I wanted to describe what I felt when I heard about humpbacks protecting seals from orcas. An orca attack is something humpbacks must have a deeply visceral response to – trauma from childhood embedded in their bodies. Scars on the physical body of each humpback tell a story of internal scars too, likely also including painful feelings of losing family to orca attacks. There is no cost-benefit analysis in considering whether or not to protect a seal – instead, there is a deep welling of one of the most intense experiences these whales have ever had. If they were in danger, this feeling would likely drive a flight-or-fight response, but in these cases the humpbacks aren’t in danger. So, then what does this feeling drive them to do?

When we are protected from certain harms, we can engage with the threat of them very differently. This does not mean, though, that the threat does not activate our trauma response just as intensely as if we were in true danger. It just means that that feeling will be channeled into a different type of action. Instead of flight-or-fight, what are we left with?

Adult humpbacks have something they did not have when they were children – the power to stop an orca attack. Their greatest fear, embedded deeply in their bodies… they have the power in their adulthood to drive that fear away. I have heard variations of the phrase “stepping into one’s power”, and this is an important example. These humpbacks are witnessing one of their greatest fears play out from a position of power. I can only imagine (and perhaps my imagination is being too active and presumptuous) that the intensity of the feeling an orca attack evokes in an adult humpback is all-consuming. Like with all trauma responses, this is a feeling that demands action. Adult humpbacks have an option available to them very few living beings have – the choice to drive that fear, that danger, away!

To me, this story seemed to embody one of the most beautiful parts of being alive. There is that Toni Morrison quote – “the function of freedom is to free someone else”. I always interpreted this as being philosophical and political, but I think this idea actually speaks to how our bodies and minds actually work. This is part of the story of our soul stuff. As calves, humpback whales are subject to the fear of orcas. As adults, they not only gain freedom from it, but they gain the power to actually prevent orca attacks from happening. Like a child afraid of the dark given a light – the fear of the dark does not abate, but now the child has the power to drive back the darkness.

As children, we navigate the world subject to the perils around us, we require protection. As we grow we also gain the understanding that we can change the world ourselves. It is with this power that we evolve from protected to protector. We each know deeply what it feels like to be scared, to be hurt, to be in danger. In fact, those fears live with us even when the danger is not present – fear itself is a living thing. Even as we step into our power and are able to protect ourselves and others, that fear still lives among us. That fear teaches us how to become protectors. It is not that darkness can ever be destroyed; it is that we become the light that drives it back.

This is why I was crying when I listened to tales of humpbacks protecting other animals. They were creatures that had stepped into their power, driving back the fear they knew themselves. Darkness cannot live where there is light. I felt deep anger that the hosts and researchers could not seem to even approach this idea that felt so overwhelming to me – but that anger is not really about them, but about the fact that we live in a society that refuses to value the world of feelings. We live in a society that requires that we numb ourselves to this world. Scientists struggle to understand why a humpback would prevent a seal from being killed because it is normal for people to ignore the fears and dangers the people around them are facing. When we allow ourselves to sense the fear others are facing – akin to opening our eyes to see – we learn to become protectors. When we open ourselves to the darkness, we can see where to shine our lights.

Until recently, stepping into our roles as protectors has been an important part of the story of humanity. When I turned thirteen, I led a Jewish coming-of-age ceremony. Religions and cultures across the world have variations on such traditions. These ceremonies usher us into adulthood, but, for me, the substance of “coming-of-age” was missing. I couldn’t really wrap my head around what it meant to step into adulthood. While I do not want to cast too broad of a blanket, I think that one of the biggest parts of these ceremonies is in teaching the protected how to also become protectors. Today, many such ceremonies have lost this substance and have become symbolic in their nature, as society has required many of us to blind ourselves to the world of feelings.

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So, is this essay about humpback whales and my dissatisfaction with pop science discourse? No, not really. It’s about our relationship with fear and how it can shape the story of our lives and how the way we tell the story of this relationship shapes our journey into adulthood. Many of us have no avenues through which to share or engage with our fears; it is an internal battle that we must fight alone. As a result, we also rarely witness the fear that lives with the people we care about the most. When our fear is invisible, others will not know how to protect us. When others fear is invisible to us, we will not know how to protect them.

There are other paths besides fear through which we can step into our power. I know that a big part of my journey as a musician has been to make the fears I reside with visible – I have come to know that others live with these same fears. And while it may sound New Age-y or whatever, we each possess a light in us – it makes sense to me to actually think of our souls as light and our bodies as the vehicles with which we can shine that light out into the darkness. We all experience moments where our bodies are not permitted to let our souls seep out. Some of us have to bury our souls as a matter of literal survival, while a huge number of us bury ourselves because we think that is what a “good” person or spouse or child or parent or employee is supposed to do. When we are forced to bury ourselves, we do not get to practice letting our soul shine through our body and our actions; we struggle to understand how that is even supposed to work.

One of the ways we learn to align our body and soul is by engaging with fear – we learn how to move the world by understanding fear and how we can drive it away. It is important that we make the fear in the world visible, that we elevate it, that we live with it. When we close our eyes, we can tell ourselves that we are standing in the sunshine, that there is nothing to fear. When we open our eyes, we can see where our light is needed. The part I have found profoundly terrifying is learning how to use my body to shine that light – that is the story that I want to hear more about.




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