Killer Whales are Carrying Out Orchestrated Attacks on Boats and Scientists Don’t Know Why
Orcas, or killer whales, have been ramming into sailing boats in the Straits of Gibraltar since July, leaving sailors and scientists befuddled. The inexplicable aggression is a departure from how orcas usually treat humans in their midst — with friendliness and playfulness — researchers say, adding this new behavior is “highly unusual” and “concerning.”
Sailors off of the coast of Spain and Portugal have been sending distress signals following encounters with orcas, which they report have led to serious damage to their boats and physical injuries to the people in them, The Guardian reports. They are currently at a loss to explain just why this is happening.
One theory scientists have for this behavior is that the Gibraltar orcas are responding to a threat of endangerment, The Guardian reports. Currently, there are approximately 50 orcas left in the region, deprived of food and existing in polluted waters, while almost completely unable to raise their calves. This is a result of profit-making orca watch tours that increase marine traffic in the region, even as their food — bluefin tuna — is depleted due to overfishing, often injuring the orcas in the process. During the Covid19 pandemic, these activities subsided for a while, which scientists muse probably gave the orcas a few short months of respite. As activities resume, they think the orcas are responding to the sudden invasion of their habitat after a period of quiet “most of them probably never experienced before,” marine biologist Jörn Selling told The Guardian.
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The “attacks” include repeated ramming and spinning of boats and biting off the boats’ fiberglass rudders. The orcas also reportedly communicated with each other through loud whistling in a manner that felt “totally orchestrated,” biology graduate Victoria Morris told The Guardian. “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.”
We already know killer whales are one of the most intelligent beings in the world, with the second-biggest brains amongst all ocean mammals. They can effectively communicate with their pods, teach each other hunting, and engage in “pranks, tests of trust, limited use of tactical deception, emotional self-control, and empathetic behaviors.” They also harbor the cognitive capacity to take revenge and change their minds about being friendly or aggressive with humans. Now, as their reality drastically shifts again, it is possible the orcas are, what researchers are calling, “pissed off” — about the calves they lost, the injuries they sustained, the lack of food they’re currently grappling with, and the threat humans pose to their lives.
These behaviors shed light upon not only how humans have changed the habitats of millions of species but also how these species could react in response to new, ongoing stresses. Now, it turns out, the killer whale — one of the strongest, smartest mammals out there — is fighting back.