Aggression not the reason for orca boat ‘attacks’, orca experts say

Animal News : Aggression not the reason for orca boat attacks, orca experts say
Orca family, photo: Canva

Killer whales, also known as orcas, have been bumping into boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal, a spectacle that has fascinated scientists, sailors, and wildlife lovers alike.

The odd occurrences have even inspired a social media trend humorously suggesting the marine mammals are revolting against wealthy yacht owners. However, aggression is probably not the motive behind these behaviors.

“They’re incredibly social animals, they’re curious animals, they’re playful, and I think that’s what they’re doing,” explains Dr. Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington in the United States.

She believes that these orcas are possibly drawn to the vessels’ vibrations or currents, using them to merely “go for a ride.” However, this playful demeanor has led to damage to boats. Despite the destruction, Giles maintains that “the whales are not attacking the boats, and they’re certainly not interested in the people.”

Naturalist Olivia Hafey, who enlightens tourists about killer whales and other wildlife on whale-watching trips departing from Friday Harbor on Washington’s San Juan Island, shares Giles’s sentiments.

“What’s often been being seen is that this very small, very distinct group of killer whales is essentially being playful with that rudder and lose interest as soon as those boats stop,” she said.

“So it’s more of, like, all about the chase, and I think it’s often getting misinterpreted as an aggressive behavior because we’ve seen things in the media like a sunken boat from it. So it comes off with these aggressive connotations, I guess, in the media, but it’s not necessarily an aggressive behavior,” Hafey added.

Michael Weiss, research director of the Center for Whale Research, presents a different perspective, suggesting that this is a recent trend among the killer whales. He highlights that they “culturally transmit behaviors and strategies pretty constantly.”

He recalls a strange trend in 1987 when Washington’s Southern Resident orcas unexpectedly started ‘wearing’ dead salmon on their heads, a craze that faded as quickly as it had emerged.

Weiss indicates that the boat-bumping behavior, which has been ongoing for a few years, appears to have been initiated by a few whales and then adopted by others.

“I think it’s really fun, the whole internet culture around these killer whale interactions in the Iberian Peninsula. They’re really fun to talk about, and the memes are funny. The jokes about orcas being comrades and stuff and sinking the boats of the rich, I find that funny, and I’m all for it,” Weiss said. “But I think it’s important that we don’t let that kind of leak into how we think of them and how we behave towards them.”

“I think the two most tragic ways that this whole saga could end are either through a horrible accident — one of these interactions ends with a person being seriously hurt or killed, or the killer whales don’t hurt anybody, but people get so riled up, so nervous and afraid, that someone gets their gun and goes out to try and shoot a killer whale.”

For Giles, the new orca behavior is intriguing and ultimately mysterious. She expresses, “We’re never going to know exactly why. That’s part of the charm of it. At least, it is for me. I like for the whales to keep their secrets.”

In conclusion, experts indicate that this behavior, although potentially damaging to boats, is not indicative of aggression from these intelligent creatures but may instead be an example of their social and playful nature.

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