The killer orcas aren’t winning. They could be self-sabotaging

Orcas are sinking ships, but memes aside, it could harm them in the end

By Nicole Karlis

Senior Writer

Published June 1, 2023 5:15AM (EDT)

Killer Whale near a boat (Getty Images/Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images)
Killer Whale near a boat (Getty Images/Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images)

Last Thursday, another group of orcas (Orcinus orca), also known as killer whales, rammed into a sailboat off the southern coast of Spain and nearly sank it.

As detailed by Reuters,  the pod damaged the rudder and pierced the hull of the 66-foot vessel. The apparent attack adds to a running list of incidents where orcas have caused damage to, or had physical interactions, with boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal this year. It's estimated that at least 20 interactions between boats and orcas whales have happened this month alone — and it's not just exclusive to this year. In 2022, there were 207 reported incidences.

The rising trend was first observed in 2020. The altercations have turned the orca into a personified meme on the internet in an anthropomorphized narrative in which the orcas are rebelling against seemingly wealthy people with boats. Jezebel reported "Solidarity! Orcas are sinking the rich." Memes suggest that the orcas are leading an uprising against billionaires. It's a nice thought given that private yachts have an outsized negative impact on the environment, but the reality is more complicated.

The news first surfaced when LiveScience published an article on May 18, 2023, suggesting that orcas could be teaching each other how to sink yachts. The report explained that out of 500 recorded interactions since 2020, there have been three sunken ships. The reported behavior also appeared to follow a "clear pattern," where an orca approaches the stern of a ship, strikes the rudder, then loses interest when the boat stops moving.

One researcher theorized that a female orca, called White Gladis, could have had a traumatic collision with a boat and is suspected to have started the "trend" of orcas having physical contact with other boats.

"That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat," Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, told Live Science. "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."

"Our hope is still that they kind of lose interest in it and move on to something else"

As Dr. Luke Rendell, who researches learning, behavior and communication among marine mammals at the University of St Andrews, told The Conversation recently, it's not "outlandish" to believe that this behavior is happening in solidarity with White Gladis and that this is a move out of self-defense among the orcas. Rendell also said there have been multiple accounts of "orcas developing idiosyncratic and not obviously adaptive habits."

"These range from one group engaging in what seemed like a short-term fad of carrying dead salmon on their heads, to another vocally mimicking sea lions (there may be an adaptive outcome to convincing sea lions that you are a sea lion too, not a voracious predator, but there's no evidence of this occurring)," Rendell said.

Does that mean that this fad is here to stay?

Monika Wieland, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, told Salon that fads in orcas can last anywhere from a couple of weeks to a couple of years. She said it is concerning that this particular one has been going on for a couple of years now. "Our hope is still that they kind of lose interest in it and move on to something else," Wieland said, noting that for several years, orcas in Washington state have gained an interest in moving crab pots. "They'll pull buoys underwater, and they'll drag the crab pots and move them several 100 meters, and that's been going on for several years as well. It could just be one of those things that does stay as a popular fad for longer term."

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Wieland said the reality is that scientists have no way of predicting when a behavior like this will appear or disappear.

Lance Barrett-Lennard, PhD, senior research scientist at the Raincoast Conservation Foundation, told Salon another example of a fad is when humpback whales were observed playing with kelp and blowing it up in their air.

"When we see those kinds of behaviors, they usually go on for two years, and then eventually the whales move on to other things," he said, cautioning though that it's hard to compare killer whales to other animals. "Their offspring are like empty vessels, a great deal of their behavioral repertoire, they learn social and emotional learning, and so they're prone to fads."

Barrett-Lennard said behavior becomes a way for the young whales to "demonstrate their membership of the group and to demonstrate their prowess."

He added that whales have become acclimated to the sounds of boats, and they likely aren't intimidated by them. However, that doesn't mean that the behavior among the orca whales off the coast of Spain and Portugal are aggressive.

"All of the evidence that I've seen in the people I've talked with, it doesn't really seem as if they are deliberately sinking boats," he said, adding that this isn't the first time a whale has had physical contact with boats and was potrayed as "attacking" them. An orca named Luna, also known as Tsux'iit, also made headlines in the 2000s for damaging boats near Vancouver Island.

While some might see this as "winning" for the whales in this so-called uprising, others are worried this could be a form of self-sabotaging.

Another example of a fad is when humpback whales were observed playing with kelp and blowing it up in their air

"If these killer whales continue attacking boats, it will make protecting them harder," Rendell wrote in The Conversation. "Not only does interacting with revolving propellers increase the risk of injury to these animals, it also threatens people – from the injuring of crews to the sinking of vessels – which will create political pressure for something to be done."

Wieland told Salon she is concerned this could be a "step backwards" for orcas and how they're perceived by the public. Wieland said that the human relationship with orcas has shifted over the last 50 years.

"We used to fear them as these blood-thirsty predators and they were often shot at by fishermen. I think we've learned so much more about them as social creatures much like ourselves," Wieland said. "I have some friends here that work in the whale watch industry, and they've already been asked by passengers, 'Is this boat safe?' People don't realize that this is very specific to these few whales in this one region."

Wieland emphasized that it's extremely unlikely for this behavior to catch on with other pods across the world.

"Whale culture tends to be very insular, they don't really associate with other populations," Wieland said. "I think the chance is very low that they're going to show this to other whales from another region."

If there's anything that can be learned from Luna's story, it's not good, as the orca eventually died after getting caught in a tugboat's propeller in 2006. reported that "Bonding with people and boats may have led to Luna's demise."

Barrett-Lennard said he hopes what's happening with the whales off the coast of Spain and Portugal evoke wonder and awe in people — not fear.

"I hope a lot of people will look at this as evidence that we live in a world with fascinating animals," he said. "And that sort of fascination and awe overwhelms the sort of concerns about inconvenience and mild danger."

By Nicole Karlis

Nicole Karlis is a senior writer at Salon, specializing in health and science. Tweet her @nicolekarlis.

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