Reports of killer whales attacking boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal are piling up. This issue has aroused endless attention from people all over the globe and many journalists have put the ‘attacks’ down to the killer whales fighting back against overfishing. But the situation isn’t as black-and-white as the mainstream media would have some people believe.
Killer whales are interesting for a number of reasons. For a start, despite adoring them, most people aren’t even aware of the fact they’re not whales, but dolphins. Yet, orcas, as they’re sometimes known, have been leaving some sea-goers terrified and divided scientists as to why their supposed ramming of boats is happening.
In September of this year, Scotsman Graeme Walker, along with his wife and friend, said they were targeted by orcas, off Cape Finisteirre in Spain. While at the helm of his yacht, Walker felt an abrupt jolt. Spotting orcas “after the boat,” the three travellers prepared the onboard life raft.
Meanwhile, their yacht was spinning around and being rocked. The ordeal lasted a petrifying 45 minutes and 1.5sq ft of the yacht’s fibreglass rudder was bitten off by the overtly tactile dolphins.
In October of this year, skipper David Smith was part of a group venturing from France to Gibraltar to deliver a catamaran. As the sun was setting, a crew member sighted orcas beside the boat, igniting fascination in the other sea-goers. But wonder soon turned to horror when one of the animals vanished and a loud thumping noise emanated from the hull of the boat.
The first report of such audacious behaviour off the Spanish and Portuguese coasts surfaced during July of this year. Since then, around 40 reports of orca-related incidences have arisen
Smith called the coastguard, who was an unnerving three hours away. While on the phone to them, he could seemingly feel more orcas ramming the boat. He feared they would dislodge the rudder stock – a steering column found throughout the hull. If this became damaged, Smith and his team would have been in serious peril.
“I was definitely preparing to ask the Portuguese coastguard to send a helicopter to get us off,” he tells BBC News. But thankfully, after a few hours, the orcas left the boat and its crew alone.
The first report of such audacious behaviour off the Spanish and Portuguese coasts surfaced during July of this year. Since then, around 40 reports of orca-related incidences have arisen.
Biologist Renaud de Stephanis says: “It’s getting worse and worse.” He has joined a group of scientists who are trying to get to the bottom of this maritime mystery.
Research has uncovered that three individuals are involved in most of the ‘attacks’. All three are male and juvenile. Orcas commonly travel in tight-knit pods that are each led by a matriarch. However, males have been known to swim away from their pods and mate with females from other ones, so scientists can’t accurately place which family these three orcas belong to.
Ruth Esteban, a marine scientist who once worked with de Stephanis, is hesitant to call the encounters, primarily carried out by these three orcas, ‘attacks’. She prefers to call them “interactions” and when de Stephanis’ take is considered, this might seem sensible to some.
“I’ve seen them hunting,” de Stephanis explains. “When they hunt, you don’t hear or see them. They are stealthy. I’ve seen them attacking sperm whales. That’s aggressive! But these guys, they are playing. They can weigh 4-5 tonnes and when they play, they really play.”
Reports of aggressively playful orcas aren’t unheard of. In 2010, a SeaWorld Orlando employee, 40-year-old Dawn Brancheau, was killed by a captive killer whale called Tilikum. It latched onto her ponytail and dragged her through the pool, causing Brancheau to die of blunt-force trauma to the head, neck and torso.
So, could this predatory instinct, and even anger, be the reason behind the increasing scary orca encounters in the waters of Spain and Portugal?
No one can say for certain why Tilikum did this, though SeaWorld insisted it was because he became interested in Brancheau’s ponytail and wasn’t aware that he was harming her. Unsurprisingly, many people have refuted this claim.
National Geographic contributor Ken Brower put the incident down to Tilikum’s supposed predatory instinct. So, could this predatory instinct, and even anger, be the reason behind the increasing scary orca encounters in the waters of Spain and Portugal?
Once it emerged that one of the juvenile orcas implemented in the ‘attacks’ had potential boat-related injuries, many news outlets put the encounters down to the orcas wanting retribution for harmful overfishing.
The New York Post claimed they were “orchestrating revenge attacks.” But Esteban discredits articles like these, saying: “We don’t know what came first, the injury or the first incident with a boat.”
Esteban thinks the language used in their headlines is inflammatory and incites violence. There’s never been a report of a wild orca killing a human being. But many orca pods are endangered and the media painting the species as aggressive may cause humans to become resentful towards them, endangering them further.
Claiming the interactions come from a place of revenge also paints orcas in a too-simplistic way. Lori Marino is a neuroscientist and the president of the Whale Sanctuary Project.
In 2004, she and other scientists scanned a deceased orca’s brain and discovered that orcas’ limbic system, that works as an emotional processor, is shared with humans. Orca behaviour that looks like anger and joy, Marino explains, is “probably exactly what they’re experiencing.”
It seems unlikely that these increasing tactile encounters with killer whales stem from a taste for revenge.
However, Marino does believe humans oversimplify their behaviour and try to place them into categories: good or bad, aggressive or playful. “We make them into caricatures,” she says, and stop ourselves from truly understanding why they behave the way they do.
It seems unlikely that these increasing tactile encounters with killer whales stem from a taste for revenge. So, do the killer whales feel threatened by the growing influx of boats or are they being playful? Is there a different reason for these unsettling experiences? Are there multiple reasons?
It might be that the orcas are attacking the boats hoping to find a specific prey onboard – tuna. The bottom line is, we just don’t know for sure. But, as Marino says, “We can’t characterise them in one dimension” if we wish to find a definitive answer.
For more content including uni news, reviews, entertainment, lifestyle, features and so much more, follow us on Twitter and Instagram, and like our Facebook page for more articles and information on how to get involved.