The way Nan Hauser saw it, she was either going to film a miraculous encounter between herself and a 25-ton humpback whale or document her own death.

“I’ve always said I’d be killed by a whale,” said Hauser, a renowned marine biologist who travels all over the world but resides in Brunswick. She was only half-kidding. “If someone told me the story, I wouldn’t believe it.”

Because in her story, there’s also a shark.

The encounter happened in October, in waters off the Cook Islands in the South Pacific. Hauser, 63, accompanied by other researchers and a documentary filmmaker, was diving to search for whales, something she had done dozens, maybe hundreds, of times before.

She encountered a humpback and swam toward it. She knew not to touch the creature and was a little paralyzed when it got close to her. Then, the animal started to nudge her, almost push her with its head, in the water. At some points, the whale shielded her with its pectoral fin.

“It was trying to be gentle, but this is a 50,000-pound mammal,” said Hauser, who is president of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, which documents behaviors and patterns of large sea mammals, especially humpback whales. She’s been featured in numerous films that have aired on Animal Planet, Discovery Channel, National Geographic and Smithsonian.

Whale biologist Nan Hauser says a humpback whale pushed and lifted her when a tiger shark was nearby, possibly proof of whales’ intuitive nature to protect other species of animals. Photo © Nan Hauser & Dick Harrewijn

Not knowing what was happening, and not wanting to risk angering the whale, Hauser simply stared at the animal and tried not to make sudden movements.

“His eye was so wide, I was just waiting to get whacked,” she said. “But it was clear it was trying to communicate something.”

For 10 tense minutes, the whale moved Hauser through the water.

“It felt like three hours,” she said. “I just tried to stay calm so he couldn’t sense my fear.”

Her research companions watched what was happening but didn’t really know what to do, Hauser said. They even turned off the drone they were using to film footage so they wouldn’t accidentally have footage of her being mauled to death.

Whale biologist Nan Hauser with a 50,000-pound humpback whale, who took it upon itself to push her through the water, apparently to protect her from a nearby 15-foot tiger shark. The whale, Hauser said, pushed her with his head and mouth, tucked her under its pectoral fin and even lifted the biologist out of the water on one occasion on his flipper. Photo © Nan Hauser & Dick Harrewijn

When she was close enough to the research boat, Hauser moved away from the whale with trepidation. She spun around to look back and that’s when she saw it – a massive tiger shark.

The whale may just have saved her.

Hauser posted the video footage from her encounter, most of its shot underwater, on Monday morning. Since then her phone has been ringing off the hook. She said she was happy to oblige each interview request.

“We know these creatures are altruistic,” she said of whales, her longtime research subject. “We know they hide seals under pectoral fins to protect them from predators.”

But a human?

“I’ll admit, I’ve been studying whales for 28 years and I’ve published 56 papers, I think. I’ve never heard of that,” Hauser said.

Brunswick biologist Nan Hauser filmed a video of her encounter with a humpback whale in waters off the Cook Islands in the South Pacific that she says may have saved her life. Courtesy of Nan Hauser

Even after she swam away from the whale and started to climb onto the boat, the creature surfaced again about 20 feet away.

“It was checking on me, making sure I was safe,” she said.

Hauser, who raised a family and worked as a nurse before embarking fully on her current career, said she’s had numerous close encounters with whales. She knew enough to keep her distance and said she was trying to get away from it at several points.

Now, she’s glad she didn’t.

The tiger shark was at least 15 feet long, she estimated. Bigger than any she’d ever seen.

Hauser suffered some bruises and scratches from her impromptu swim with the whale but was otherwise unscathed.

As the footage started to make its way around social media Monday, Andrew Pershing, chief scientific officer at the Gulf of Maine Marine Research Institute, was among those who watched. He was astounded.

“To have something like that happen with cameras in the water, that’s really extraordinary,” he said.

Pershing said the encounter underscores how much there remains to learn about whales but also highlights the risk in doing the type of research Hauser does.

He said he doesn’t known Hauser personally but her reputation in the field is exemplary.

Hauser returned home a few weeks ago to frigid temperatures and frozen pipes at her Brunswick home.

After a brief respite and some time with her grandchildren, she’s headed back to the South Pacific in less than two weeks.

Eric Russell can be contacted at 791-6344 or at:

[email protected]

Twitter: PPHEricRussell

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