Why Are Orcas Attacking Boats?

Is it a whale uprising or just a playful "fad"?
Will we ever know why orcas keep attacking sailboats?
Will we ever know why orcas keep attacking sailboats?
via Associated Press

Reports of orcas attacking sailboats have made headlines around the globe recently – but no one is quite sure why it’s happening.

The first recorded attack occurred in May 2020 in the Strait of Gibraltar, but this turned out to be far from an anomaly.

Similar incidents have been reported since, with passengers claiming small groups of whales swam under boats’ rudders, disrupting it, and swimming away.

Then the attacks led two boats to sink last year and one this year. However, the mammals show no interest in the humans on the boats, even when they end up in the water.

Everyone involved in each attack has been rescued and no injuries have been reported – but the phenomenon is still shocking, for people both on and off the targeted boats.

While the exact cause remains unclear, here are the most common theories being thrown around right now.

Did one female orca start it?

A paper from Marine Mammal Science traced the attacks back to nine whales in two groups, one made up of juveniles, the other led by the only mature female in the pack, called White Gladis.

The researchers speculated she may have a personal grudge against such boats perhaps because she was in an accident with one, and now this is her way of getting revenge, or rather, a sign of her “defensive behaviour” against the vessels.

“That traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact with the boat,” biologist Alfredo Lopez Fernandez theorised to Live Science.

Is it a way of getting back at humans?

The paper in Marine Mammal Science suggested the attacks have now spread to 39 whales, in an area where fishing, pollution, noise and ship strikes may have disrupted the animals’ lives (around the Iberian Peninsula).

Twitter has definitely run with this idea, with singer Grimes even tweeting: “I’m SO proud of the orcas that have started fighting back. Can’t believe this. We deserve to have our boats rammed frankly.”

Is it a form of play?

Orcas are playful and have been seen following “trends” (or “fads) in the past, from playing with kelp to playing with jellyfish.

Hanna Strager, co-founder of the Andese Whale Centre in Norway and author of The Killer Whale Journals, told National Geographic: “I think it’s just as reasonable to suggest that they’re doing this because they can, because it’s fun.”

Strager said one biologist who was on a boat when it was attacked “didn’t feel any aggression”.

Renaud de Stephanis, a marine biologist, told Spanish newspaper El Mundo that the whales were probably looking for a “massive adrenaline rush” and that it was “just a game for them”.

“If two or three killer whales really attacked a yacht, they would sink it in a matter of seconds,” he said. “It might feel like an attack to us humans but, without wanting to be too dismissive, a furious attack by this animal could have much worse consequences for a boat and for whoever is on board than a mere feeling of fear for a few minutes.”

Similarly, Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, told the BBC there has “never been a case of an orca harming a human being in the wild”.

She said: “It’s a case of copycat killer whales rather than aggression,” especially as whales are known to be social, intelligent beings.

However, Strager did point out any subsequent human attempts to repel potential attacks through any means possible – like pouring diesel on the animals – may just aggravate the situation, making it dangerous.

Is it spreading?

A similar incident was recently reported near Scotland – more than 1,000 miles away from the Iberian Peninsula.

Retired Dutch physicist Dr Wim Rutten was attacked near the Shetland Islands earlier in June, by a single orca smacking in the boat’s stern, then circling back to hit it repeatedly “at fast speed”.

Orca researcher Dr Conor Ryan told The Guardian: “It’s possible this ‘fad’ is leapfrogging through the various pods/communities.”

Will we ever know?

Probably not.

North Gulf Oceanic Society’s Dan Olsen also told National Geographic: “The whale brain has been evolving separately for 50 million years.

“It’s hard to get a whale into an MRI, we don’t even know which parts of the brain are dedicated to which activity. It’s hard enough for us to explain behaviour in humans and in primates that are closely related to us.”


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