Experience: a whale saved me from a shark attack

When I was a kid in Pennsylvania, my family rehabilitated wild animals. I grew up with raccoons and a fox running around the house. We would go travelling to Bermuda and I would watch the whales off the shore. I fell in love with them and wanted to know more about what they got up to underwater. Now I’ve been studying whales for more than 30 years and am the president of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, mostly based in the Cook Islands and Bermuda.

In 2017, I was on a boat around Rarotonga in the Cook Islands, working on a film about whale conservation. The crew wanted to get more footage of me in the water with the humpback whales – I often slip in quietly to record their behaviour for research. Seeing a couple of humpbacks in the distance, I slid off the boat wearing a snorkel mask and a GoPro, and swam towards them.

As I was approaching, one of the male humpbacks came right up to me, nuzzling me with his head and pushing me through the water. It caught me off-guard – in 33 years of doing this work, this had never happened. I put my arm out and tried to push myself away while he attempted to tuck me under his pectoral fin.

My scientist brain was in overdrive as I tried to work out what he was doing. I felt a rush of adrenaline mixed with fear and apprehension. Then the whale swam underneath me and lifted me out of the water on his flipper. I signalled to the boat, then – swoosh – I was pushed back under.

As animals pick up on fear, I tried to keep calm, never taking my eyes off him. Whales are so big that if you’re not paying attention, you could be fatally injured. A tail slap and you’re dead; a whack with any part of their body can rupture your organs; and a nudge in the wrong place could crush you.

After seven and a half minutes of being pushed around by the humpback, I saw what I thought was a second, smaller whale. But then I noticed the tail – whales move theirs up and down, and this one was moving side to side.

I realised with horror that it belonged to a huge, 18ft tiger shark.

Tiger sharks are known to attack people, sometimes fatally. The shark had arched its body, with its pectoral fins pointed downward, which meant that it was in attack mode. I yelled out to the boat but, before I knew it, the whale had positioned me on the front of his head and was gracefully racing through the water. It was terrifying and yet peaceful. Within 10 minutes, he had safely returned me to the boat and out of the shark’s way.

Related: Experience: I don’t feel fear

My emotions were high by the time I took off my mask. I felt love, concern and care from the whale. I told him that I loved him and thanked him as he swam off. I gasped in relief and then proceeded to sob, overcome. I felt more motivated than ever to protect these beings. There are many documented encounters of humpback whales displaying behaviour we would consider altruistic and I believe this was another example – I think the whale had seen the shark and was trying to push me away from it.

The video of what happened was shared on social media and since then I have received thousands of emails from awestruck people. Though it was incredible, my encounter was extremely dangerous. I don’t encourage people to get into the water with whales – too often, it’s done to satisfy the human ego and get a selfie. With advances in technology, I now rely more on cameras set up on the side of my boat to study their behaviour, to avoid interfering.

Just over a year later, I was on a boat around the Rarotongan reef when I heard of a whale sighting in the harbour. I headed there and saw the whale who had protected me – I recognised him from the notches in his tail and the scar on his head.

It was the third time in 20 years that I had witnessed a whale return to the Cook Islands. I slid overboard and swam towards him; he approached and looked me in the eye. I rubbed his face and he extended his pectoral fin. I began to cry. I swam back to the boat and he stayed around for about 20 minutes after I got back on it. It was a lovely reunion.

As told to Elizabeth McCafferty