Despite their name and nature as highly-intelligent, powerful apex predators at the top of the food chain, killer whales are not actually whales and are not generally considered a threat to human life.
Also known as orcas, they are actually part of the dolphin family, and though there has been rare instances of an orca killing its trainers in captivity (as was shown in the documentary, Blackfish), in the wild, they are not known to display aggressive behaviour towards humans.
However, since 2020, in the body of water between Europe and Africa which connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea (known as the Strait of Gibraltar or “orca alley”) there has been an unprecedented rise in one orca subpopulation, known as the “Iberian orcas,” interacting disruptively with boats – mostly sailboats – even sinking them in a select few cases.
In many cases, such encounters have been referred to as “attacks,” but sailors and scientists alike are still baffled by the spike in unusual orca behaviour, with the true intent still being largely unclear. While some experts propose the encounters could just be down to the animals’ curious and playful nature, others have suggested they could be more deliberate.
What is clear, as experts have warned, is that the continuation of such incidents between humans and killer whales in the region is concerning; not only for the safety of sailors, but also for the conservation of endangered Iberian orcas.
What’s more, as both Insider and NBC reported this month, the phenomenon has exploded on social media, with many users taking sides with the orcas. Dubbed as the “orca wars,” some users have championed the killer whales involved, in what some users are calling an “orca uprising,” as “orca comrades.”
One user Tweeted: “Unconditional solidarity with orca saboteurs.”
Sailors’ accounts of orca encounters
The Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA) explains that, since 2020, aside from the typical sightings and interactions between humans and killer whales in the region, some Iberian orcas have begun displaying a new “disruptive” behaviour.
Reports from sailors range in severity, but some patterns of unusual orca behaviour such as pods of orcas ramming the boats’ hulls and/or destroying the rudders have emerged within accounts.
For example, in 2020, Victoria Morris, a biology graduate and sailing instructor, recounted to the Guardian how a pod of nine orcas rammed her boat for more than an hour:
“The noise was really scary. They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat. And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other. It was so loud that we had to shout,” said Morris, explaining to the Guardian how it felt “totally orchestrated.”
More recently, Captain Dan Kriz explained to Newsweek how, in mid-April, when he encountered a pod of orcas which tore off both of the boat’s rudders, this was not his first experience of unusual orca behaviour.
“Looks like they knew exactly what they are doing. They didn’t touch anything else,” Kriz explained to Newsweek.
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On May 2, according to 9News, British sailor Greg Blackburn also encountered a pod of orcas which he first thought was waves hitting the boat, but later realised was the animals repeatedly slamming into its hull.
“At that point, we were like ‘there’s definitely something down there’,” Blackburn told 9News, going on to explain that “[i]t was definitely some form of education, teaching going on.” He did however say that the encounter didn’t feel malicious, according to 9News.
“There were two smaller and one larger orca,” Schaufelberger told Yacht, according to Live Science, “[t]he little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side.”
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In late May, April Boyes wrote a first-hand account of an orca encounter which she explained the media had “very much sensationalised,” prompting her to provide the full details. She also called for more research and for the animals to not be demonised in her statement.
Boyes described how upon spotting the pod of orcas, the boat’s engine was switched off, but that “it didn’t take long” for the animals to begin hitting the boat’s rudder with a force that spun the helm “violently.” She stated that “the whales were very much honing in on our rudder,” which eventually caused a “gaping hole” with “seawater flushing in,” and that the Orcas followed the boat inshore.
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Just last week, according to Insider, Iain Hamilton explained in an interview on BBC Radio 4’s “Today” program how a pod of five orcas pushed his yacht around “like a rag doll,” repeatedly bumped against it and tore off its rudders. He said in the interview that he felt the orcas were being “almost playful” opposed to aggressive, according to Insider.
“They seemed to be playing with the rudders, and just inadvertently rendering the boat very vulnerable and in a fairly dangerous situation,” Hamilton explained in the interview, according to Insider.
What the experts say
In speaking to Bloomberg on May 30, former SeaWorld orca trainer, John Hargrove, suggested such behaviour could escalate.
“Orcas love having fun, but they can have a much darker side to their mischief when they don’t like what’s been happening to them,” Hargrove said, going on to warn that “this type of behavior always escalates. We’ll be reading more about these events.”
Yet, there is still no general consensus amongst experts on the intent behind the spike in disruptive behaviour.
Some have put the encounters down to the animals’ curious and playful nature, rather than aggression.
Deborah Giles, an killer whale researcher at the University of Washington and non-profit Wild Orca, told Live Science: “They are incredibly curious and playful animals and so this might be more of a play thing as opposed to an aggressive thing.”
And the authors behind the 2022 study on “disruptive” orca behaviour suggested that one possible motivation behind the interactions could be “the natural curiosity of these animals.”
Some have suggested it could be a “fad,” as there have been other instances of orcas displaying trends in behaviour.
“Killer whales do have fads that come and go, and they’re often most prevalent among certain sex and age classes in the population. Then, over time, they tend to disappear,” Jared Towers, Director of Bay Cetology, told Discover, going on to say: “I’m certainly hoping that’s what happens with this behavior. But it’s been going on for a few years now. So, we’re not quite sure what to expect.”
One hypothesis is that this could be a response to human- and environmental-related pressures.
For example, the authors behind the 2022 study on “disruptive” orca behaviour also suggested that pressures such as “prey depletion,” “boat disturbance” and “interaction with fisheries” could also be possible motivations behind the interactions.
Another is that the encounters could have been triggered by an orca suffering some kind of traumatic incident.
As reported by Live Science, experts suspect that one orca in particular, known as “White Gladis,” may have experienced a traumatic event or “critical moment of agony” which sparked a change in behaviour that could now be being imitated by other orcas within the subpopulation.
“The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day,” Alfredo López Fernandez, co-author of the 2022 study on “disruptive” orca behaviour told Live Science, also saying that most encounters have been harmless, according to Live Science.
“We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives,” López Fernandez told Live Science.
Since 2019, Iberian orcas have been classified as “critically endangered” on the IUCN Red List.
What to do if you encounter orcas at sea
GTOA regularly updates a “risk map” of the area based on reports from “navigators and salvage services, interactions and sightings.”
The GTOA also provide some recommendations on their website for what you should do when encountering Iberian orcas. As well as the details on how to call for help and report orca interactions, GTOA advise:
- If possible “slow down, stop engine, (slow the sails), turn off autopilot and leave the rudder to track.”
- “Take your hands out of the rudder wheel and do not touch it, move away from any part of the ship that may fall or turn sharply.”
- If possible “turn off the sonde and keep VHF TURNED ON and position elements.”
- If possible, record the animals on a camera phone or another device, “especially their dorsal fins, in order to identify them.”
- “When after a while you didn’t feel pressure at the rudder and the animals have moved away, Check that it spins and works.”
Though such encounters have of course raised safety concerns for sailors in the region, many have said that more research into the phenomenon should also be a priority and that the animals involved should not be blamed.
As Dan Kriz told Insider: “I’m strongly against harming the orcas,” also adding: “Bottom line is, we are in their territory.”
And as April Boyes expressed in her first hand account: “[T]he ocean can be unforgiving but these are beautiful creatures and demonising them is not the answer there is clearly a wider issue here that needs extensive research.”
Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed here by the authors are their own, not those of Impakter.com — In the Featured Photo: Orcas swimming. Featured Photo Credit: Nitesh Jain