Almerina Mascarello lost her left hand in an accident almost 25 years ago. Now, thanks to scientists in Rome who unveiled the first ever non-laboratory based bionic hand to enable a sense of touch, Mascarello can feel again.
It seems like only yesterday the same international team introduced the globe’s first feeling bionic hand to the general public, but back then, it was a whole other story.
Yes, the features were overall the same, but the sensory and advanced computer equipment demanded that the hand stayed in the lab as it was too large to be moved. Now, four years later, technology has progressed, and the research team finally made the impossible possible.
Robotics specialists, surgeons, neuroscientists, engineers, and electronics professionals from Germany, Italy, and Switzerland all assisted in downsizing the technology to a scale that makes it portable – but also small enough to fit in a rucksack.
Mascarello was blindfolded when she was first introduced to the prosthetic arm, saying:
“The feeling is spontaneous as if it were your real hand; you’re finally able to do things that before were difficult, like getting dressed, putting on shoes – all mundane but important things – you feel complete.”
The way it works is that the prosthetic hand has sensors meant to detect information, which is relayed to the attached human’s brain through tiny electrodes implanted in the nerves of their upper arm.
The information detected sends a message stating whether the object touched is hard or soft, and these messages are linked to a computer positioned in a rucksack. Then, the messages are converted into signals, thus a language comprehendible by the brain.
Professor Silvestro Micera is a neuroengineer at EPFL in Lausanne and Sant’Anna School of Advanced Studies. She stated the aim of further development through a film reference, stating:
“We are going more and more in the direction of science fiction movies like Luke Skywalker’s bionic hand in Star Wars – a fully controlled, fully natural, sensorized prosthesis, identical to the human hand.”
Marine biologist Nan Hauser has spent a large portion of her life researching and monitoring ocean life, focusing mainly on whales and dolphins. For 28 years, she has pursued risky aquatic expeditions and taken part in countless dives in the Cook Islands and the Bahamas. She has directed her focus mainly on helping turn the territorial waters of the South Pacific into a safe haven for whales. A recent dive, however, introduced an alarming encounter, unlike anything Hauser experienced before.
Exploring The Islands
Hauseris one of the world’s leading whale experts and has been featured countless times on Animal Planet, the Discovery Channel, and National Geographic. Hauser lives on Rarotonga, which is the largest among the Cook Islands, and spends most of her time studying ocean life.
The Cook islands are comprised of 15 small islands which are home to 21 species of dolphins and whales, over 600 fish species, and 16 types of sharks. Assuming it would be just an ordinary day, Hauser anchored down her speedboat and dove into the waters to begin her exploration.
An Unexpected Encounter
Marine biologist Nan Hauser has spent a large portion of her life researching and monitoring ocean life, focusing mainly on whales and dolphins. For 28 years, she has pursued risky aquatic expeditions and taken part in countless dives in the Cook Islands and the Bahamas.
For three decades, Hauser has focussed on helping turn the territorial waters of the South Pacific into a safe haven for whales. A recent dive, however, introduced an alarming encounter, unlike anything Hauser experienced before.
Emerging From The Deep
Just as Nan Hauser entered the water, she spotted a gigantic figure, heading straight towards her. Leaving her with no time to think, the creature rapidly approached, and it wasn’t long before Hauser recognized what it was – an enormous humpback whale, one which can grow to a whopping 40 tons and measure up to 60 feet long.
She estimated it to be about 50,000 pounds, but she never could have guessed what the massive creature was about to do…
Unafraid Of The Sea
Hauser is used to diving with colossal sea mammals and she’s familiar with many of those that she monitors during her studies. Despite this, she’d never encountered this specific type of whale.
At this point, Nan had already acquired a unique understanding of sea mammals and her rich diving experience taught her how not to antagonize creatures of the deep. Unafraid of the animal, she still was careful not to alarm or upset it. However, when the humpback surfaced for air, it got closer, and that’s when Hauser’s heart began to race.
A Sinking Feeling
Hauser didn’t plan on initiating contact or interacting with the whale. She told NPR, “Instead of swimming past me, he came right toward me and he didn’t stop coming towards me until I was on his head…”
Equipped only with a snorkel and camera, the scientist was by no means prepared for what was about to occur. Before she could even digest what was happening, she found herself on top of the whale’s huge head. This was, however, only the beginning of its odd behavior…
As an experienced marine biologist, Nan Hauser always has the animal’s best interests in mind when it comes to the creatures she studies. When in salty waters, she takes caution not to touch her whale subjects unless they are ill or stranded on shore.
However, on that particular day, it was the whale who initiated contact, not her. She recalled from her encounter, “In my head, I was a bit amused since I write Rules and Regulations about whale harassment – and here I was being harassed by a whale…”
Fearing For Her Life
The giant whale began rolling around in the water and even nudged her several times. Suddenly, the humpback had tucked her under its fin and there was nothing she could do but hold on for dear life as it lifted her to the surface of the water.
As the leader of the Center for Cetacean Research and Conservation, Hauser is usually not scared of mammals this size, but on that specific day, she undoubtedly feared for her life.
Preparing For The Worst
The encounter continued as the whale pushed Hauser around with its mouth closed for ten minutes. Hauser later shared that those ten minutes felt like hours to her. Helpless, the marine biologist came to a grim conclusion.
“I was prepared to lose my life. I tried to get away from him for fear that if he rammed me too hard, or hit me with his flippers or tail, that would break my bones and rupture my organs. If he held me under his pectoral fin, I would have drowned.”
Keeping Her Cool
Looking back, Hauser mentioned, “I didn’t want to panic, because I knew that he would pick up on my fear.” Although the marine expert has always prided herself in her close connection to animals, especially those of the sea, that day she experienced unusual intimidation by the creature.
She did, however, make best her best efforts in staying calm and figuring out how to get herself out of the situation. “I stayed calm to a point but was sure that it was most likely going to be a deadly encounter…” she explained.
Caught On Film
Although Hauser’s team was at the site when the incident occurred, there was nothing they could do to save her from the 25-ton whale. Virtually helpless, all they could do was pray that she makes it out alive.
Nan and a fellow cameraman were both recording the dive with their cameras, and luckily, were able to capture extraordinary footage. Hauser’s escort, however, was new to filming sea creatures and didn’t realize just how strange this whale’s behavior was.
Once the crew understood the severity of the situation, they feared for Hauser’s safety and abandoned aerial drone footage they’d been shooting, in order not to film her death. Meanwhile, Hauser attempted defusing the situation by keeping eye contact with the whale as much as possible.
As the humpback pushed her further away from her research vessel, she started to realize that her chances of escaping were slowly diminishing. But Nan was too focused on the whale situation to realize that something else was lurking nearby…
Three’s A Crowd
Just before she lost all hope, Nan saw another whale in the distance. Similar to the first whale, this one was also demonstrating odd behavior and persistently slapping its tail against the surface of the water.
While the scientist began to feel the sensation of bruises developing from the whale’s aggressive nudges and barnacles, another shadow emerged from the deep. She initially thought it was the third whale, but soon realized that this was not at all the case.
Traveling In Packs
Humpbacks are known to migrate the waters of the South Pacific to breed and rear their offspring during winter months. These gigantic mammals often travel in packs, especially when they’re protecting their babies.
With that in mind, it wasn’t unusual that a second whale was lurking nearby as the encounter took place. Not long ago, humpbacks were close to being on the verge of extinction, but thanks to strict protective laws, and spreading awareness, their numbers have slowly been rising.
No Whale’s Tail
Overwhelmed by the crowd of large sea creatures surrounding her, Hauser tried to distance herself as much as possible and swim to safety. When she finally diverted her gaze from the first whale, she managed to get a better look at the scene and came to a startling conclusion.
Observing how the third creature was ominously moving its tailfin from side to side, instead of up and down like a whale, Hauser understood that this third tail did not belong to a whale of any kind…
A Fearsome Creature
As the third creature headed towards the free swimming biologist, all the blood drained from her face and she froze. Once she discovered what the animal really was, it was too late to escape, and to her horror, it was already on its way to get her.
She recalled from that moment, “So my mind quickly went, ‘Oh, my gosh!’” As an expert on marine life, Hauser could make no mistake identifying this shadowy figure as the ocean’s most dangerous creature – the tiger shark.
Tiger sharks are one of the sea’s most deadly predators, which explains why Hauser was so petrified when it made its way towards her. These creatures can grow up to 25 feet long, weigh almost a ton, and are infamous for their fatal attacks on humans.
These predators are commonly found in the warm waters of the Pacific islands, and unlike great white sharks, who usually abandon their victim after a quick bite, tiger sharks are ruthless hunters and will continue attacking their prey to no avail.
A Deadly Dilemma
Once Nan spotted the vicious fish, she was no longer concerned with the intentions of the whales encompassing her, but rather was terrified of being the target of a potential shark attack.
With little time to spare and much to lose, Hauser had to think fast. Risking her life and trying to save it at the same time, she did the only thing that made sense at that moment. She made a swim for it with her fellow cameraman towards the research boat…
An Incredible Epiphany
Thankfully, Hauser and the snorkeler who accompanied her made it to the boat alive, providing the rest of the team with much-needed relief. When Hauser approached the vessel, she warned the crew that there was a tiger shark in the area.
Once she pulled herself inside the boat, she laid on the floor, dripping wet and exhausted from the traumatic event. As she examined the fresh bruises on her body, she came to an amazing realization of what the first humpback whale was trying to do…
Protectors Of The Sea
Humpback whales are omnivores and don’t usually prey on other animals intentionally. They are, in fact, known as the protectors of the sea and have demonstrated protective behavior toward other species of whales, dolphins, and seals when in the face of danger.
“There is a published scientific paper about humpbacks protecting other species of animals, by Robert Pitman,” Nan Hauser explained. “For instance, they hide seals under their pectoral fins to protect them from killer whales.”
When Hauser had a chance to review the footage taken from that day, it was clear the humpback had no aggressive intentions towards her. As a matter a fact, it was trying to warn her of the impending shark and get her out of harm’s way.
She reported, “Maybe the shark wasn’t going to attack me, but he [the whale] was trying to save my life.” Realizing how incredibly rare her encounter had been, Hauser was at loss for words. But that wasn’t all…
Although Nan was shaken from the horrific events of the day, she was still grateful for making it out alive and having the privilege to witness something so rare. Nancy’s team collected themselves aboard the boat and just before they headed back to shore, the same whale that saved her surfaced next to them.
It sprayed some water out of its blowhole before diving back down and swimming away. Nan says this was the humpback’s way of checking up on her.
Hauser admitted, “I’m a scientist, and if anyone told me this story, I wouldn’t believe it,”. In no time, Nan’s story became a viral sensation and the incredible account of the whale that had saved her life made news everywhere.
Although her story has warmed the hearts of many, scientists claim it’s impossible to determine what the whale’s exact intentions were. They have, however, acknowledged that while the whale’s behavior cannot be conclusively proven intentional, neither can they rule it out. Nonetheless, Hauser is sure that her footage captured something magical.
Although Hauser doesn’t recommend just anyone to get up too close to a humpback whale or touch them, she does hope that her incredible and heart-warming story will help prevent poaching and contribute to preserving the homes of these magnificent creatures.
Hauser wrapped up her anecdote, saying, “It’s funny how the tables are turned here: I’ve spent the past 28 years protecting whales, and in the moment, I didn’t even realize that they were protecting me!”