May 19, 2024

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Just for fun, killer whale experts say

Just for fun, killer whale experts say

The rudder of this ship was damaged by killer whales.

  • Killer whales were crashing into boats and tearing rudders in the waters near southern Spain.
  • Insider spoke with three orca experts to better understand why these encounters happen.
  • All experts agree that while it may seem like an attack, these orcas just want to play.

European sailors first reported a sharp rise in orca encounters off the coasts of Spain and Portugal in 2020. The interactions have continued to grow since then and are happening every day, now.

Not only do killer whales ramming boats with their heads and tearing rudders with their teeth, but they’ve also managed to sink three ships so far this year.

“They clearly find a lot of fun in these encounters,” Andrew Traits, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Insider.

But the Trites do not speak of malicious pleasure, though they may seem so to people whose boats are battered. Sailor Werner Schaufelberger described his encounter with Orcas in May as “brutal”.

“It is possible that they socialize, talk about their adventures without realizing the terrors they create in moments of joy,” Tritts said.

Trites is one of several orca experts Insider spoke with who all agree that orcas are having a good time and probably have no ill will against the boats or humans on board.

This idea runs counter to a darker theory that orcas attack boats due to a traumatized killer whale named White Gladys retaliating. Other orcas mimic their behaviour.

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However, none of the experts Insider spoke with were convinced that this was the case.

“I definitely think orcas are capable of complex emotions,” Monica Weiland-Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, told Insider. “But we’ve never seen anything like it anywhere else in the world. And we’ve given plenty of reasons why orcas want to take revenge on us.”

Tilikum, the Blackfish’s orca, has claimed three lives.
Suzanne Ely / Magnolia Pictures

Shields points out Long history of humans harming orca populationsfrom shooting them in fisheries to the years of live filming in the 1960s and 1970s where humans separated offspring of orcas from their families to display in aquariums.

However, Shields said, these situations did not result in wild orcas attacking the boats. Orcas in captivity attacked and killed humans, but there are no records Orcas kill humans in the wild.

Dolphins are trying to play

According to Shields, it is likely that orcas’ natural curiosity and playfulness are the cause of these encounters rather than revenge.

Orcas are very social and inquisitive animals and often engage with their environments, Shields said.

In the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington, for example, it’s not uncommon for orcas to play with crab traps, luring them around for a few minutes or hours until they eventually lose interest, according to Shields.

“For me, it’s really similar to what’s happening in Spain,” said Shields. “It’s the same kind of behavior, maybe they’re thinking, ‘Hey, there’s a piece of equipment in my environment, I’m going to play with it for a while and then move on.'” “

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Han Strager, marine mammalian biologist and author of “Killer Whale Journals: Our Love and Fear of OrcasHe agrees that curiosity is the likely cause.

Indeed, Strager does not classify these encounters as “attacks”, or attempts by orcas to harm people and their property, but rather as an example of orca exploration.

Cavan Images/Rafi Magdashian/Getty Images

“I don’t doubt it looks like an attack on those on the boat,” Strager told Insider. “But from the orca’s point of view, I don’t think they’re aggressive. Just because they feel and look very dramatic to us doesn’t mean they’re dramatic to them.”

Orcas find boating stimulating

Experts agree that orcas certainly target sailboats, but perhaps because there is something motivating and exciting about “playing” with boats that causes them to repeat the behavior and teach it to others in their cabin.

According to Trettice, orcas may simply enjoy the feeling of being rammed into boats.

“Orcas are very tactile and sensitive to touch,” Trites told Insider. “In my research, it struck me how often they touch each other and bump into each other while swimming. It’s just like in humans. We need to be touched.”

Triets said orcas might be lured by a boat sailing through the water and excited to chase it. In fact, the more people on a boat or trying to speed up, the more exciting the event will be for the animal and the more likely it will try to ram the boat again, Tritts said.

“You can’t beat a killer whale,” said Tritts. “Just turn off the engine, let the rudder up, and get as dull as you can get.”

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Playful or not, this behavior can endanger the orca’s life

While orca experts have good reason to believe that the animals are just playing, in the end, it’s impossible to know what you’re thinking.

Jason Edwards/Getty Images

This uncertainty has made people feel uncomfortable, especially as these encounters are becoming more common and potentially dangerous to both people and orcas.

“I think the tensions are running high,” Shields said. “And I think it’s only a matter of time before a whale is injured or killed.”

With better tracking of these incidents, Strager said, hopefully, sailors will be able to avoid high-risk areas and after enough “boring” encounters with the boats, the orcas will eventually move in.

Until then, Trites said it’s important to remember that endangered creatures who probably wouldn’t hurt us.