ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:
Nan Hauser is a marine biologist who has spent her professional life around whales. In September, she had an encounter with a humpback whale that was like nothing she had experienced before. The video came out this week and quickly went viral. And we've invited Nan Hauser to tell us what happened. Welcome.
NAN HAUSER: Thank you very much.
SHAPIRO: You were in the Cook Islands where your research center is based. This is in the South Pacific. How did this humpback whale interact with you?
HAUSER: Well, instead of just swimming past me, he came right towards me. And he didn't stop coming towards me until I was on his head. And next thing I knew, for about 10 minutes, he was - had me rolling around his body, really trying to tuck me under his pectoral fin.
SHAPIRO: And in the video it's clear how large this animal is. Your body is tiny next to him. Do you know how big the whale actually was?
HAUSER: Oh, probably about 46, 47 feet.
SHAPIRO: And how unusual is this kind of behavior?
HAUSER: It's (laughter) highly unusual. I've been underwater with whales for 28 years, and this is just really unusual behavior. It's crazy.
SHAPIRO: Humpback whales are not typically dangerous animals, but any animal that big could unintentionally harm a human. Were you afraid for your own safety?
HAUSER: I was. I was the whole time. And I'm not afraid of whales at all. I'm afraid of little spiders. But whales I can deal with.
HAUSER: Seriously. Yeah, I mean, he's big, and so I was pretty bruised up. He wasn't trying to hurt me. He could have. He could have whacked me with his pectoral fin or his tail. I'd be dead. I mean, he was really pushing me with the front of his mouth, too. He could've opened his mouth, and he didn't do that, either. But I didn't know he wasn't going to do any of that.
SHAPIRO: When did you realize what was actually going on here?
HAUSER: When I saw the shark.
SHAPIRO: Tell me about the shark.
HAUSER: Well, I was very intently watching the whale the whole time because I was trying to get away. I did think I was probably going to die. When I did finally get closer to the boat and a little bit away from him, the - I looked off in the distance, and I saw another whale who was quite frantically tail slapping this other animal, which I thought was another whale. And I looked at it, and then I saw it swimming towards me. But it was - the tail fin was going side to side instead of up and down. So my mind quickly went, oh, my gosh. That is a shark.
SHAPIRO: A shark's tail goes back and forth. A whale's tail goes up and down.
HAUSER: Up and down, exactly.
SHAPIRO: So it was this large tiger shark swimming towards you. What was your conclusion then about what the whale was doing?
HAUSER: Well, the only thing I could figure is that everything I've read about what they do with altruistic behavior to protect other mammals - marine mammals. And I've even seen them protect a little hammerhead shark before. They protect other animals in the sea from harm. I've just never heard of it happening with a human.
SHAPIRO: Why would a whale be altruistic? It doesn't seem to fit with survival of the fittest, Darwinian evolution, (laughter) those sorts of things.
HAUSER: Absolutely. But why are we altruistic? That's a good question. And I've been studying humpbacks for 28 years, and I plan on spending a lot more of my life trying to figure that question out because it's actually a beautiful question to try to answer.
SHAPIRO: As a scientist, you are trained to be a skeptic. How likely is it that we are just trying to impose an anthropomorphic storyline on animal behavior that is not actually anything like whale saves diver from shark?
HAUSER: Exactly. If someone told me this story, I wouldn't believe it. If it hadn't been me, if it hadn't been filmed in three different angles, I wouldn't believe it. I tried a lot not to anthropomorphize any of the behavior that I see. It's easy to do, but it's not a good practice in science.
SHAPIRO: So how do you as a scientist who is skeptical of these anthropomorphic tendencies feel about the headlines ricocheting around the world - "Whale Saves Diver From Vicious Shark" (ph)?
HAUSER: I think it's gone a little bit too far.
HAUSER: What wasn't written up - and this is even weirder - is that four days later, the other whale that was tail slapping came to the boat and kept spyhopping and looking in the boat. So I got in the water, and I rolled the camera. And she came right up underneath me 4 or 5 feet away from my belly, and she put her pectoral fins out around me. And it was my birthday, and I got a hug. And you tell me any scientist that will tell you that a whale hugged them. That's impossible. But again - three angles, three different cameras, and I got a whale hug. (Laughter) So I don't even tell people that because they'll think I'm crazy.
SHAPIRO: Nan Hauser is president and director of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation speaking with us on Skype. It's been a pleasure. Thanks so much.
HAUSER: Thank you. Bye-bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.