A yacht sailing from Lerwick to Bergen in Norway was rammed by an orca on Monday, in the first such incident in northern waters. The whale hit the stern of the seven-ton boat repeatedly, creating “soft shocks” through the aluminium hull. The yachtsperson, Dr Wim Rutten, a 72-year-old retired Dutch physicist, was not injured but was frightened by the “very loud breathing” of the animal.
This is the latest in a series of encounters between orcas and boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal since 2020. Some of these incidents have resulted in boats being sunk or damaged, but no human injuries or deaths have been reported. Scientists are baffled by this unusual behaviour, which has been seen in the Iberian orca population but not in other regions.
Orcas, also known as killer whales, are highly social cetaceans that use complex vocalisations to communicate and to hunt for food, from small fish to blue whales. They learn matrilineally, and post-menopausal females assume the greatest importance in individual pods. Experts believe that the orcas may be attracted by the water pressure from the boat’s propeller, the fishing line, the rudder, or that this behaviour could be a form of play or curiosity among juvenile whales.
Dr Alfredo López, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, who has studied the Iberian orca population, said: “We know that many boats use fishing lines from the stern to fish and it is a motivation for orcas, they come to examine them.” But he added that the focus on boats’ rudders may come from adult whales who have developed an aversion towards boats, perhaps because they “had a bad experience and try to stop the boat so as not to repeat it”.
Some experts also suggest that this learned behaviour could have spread from one pod to another, or even from one region to another. Dr Conor Ryan, a scientific adviser to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, who has studied orca pods off the Scottish coast, said: “It’s possible that this ‘fad’ is leapfrogging through the various pods/communities.”
The orca attacks have raised concerns among sailors and conservationists alike. Some have dubbed them as the “Orca Wars”, and wondered if the whales are seeking revenge for human interference in their natural habitat. Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington state, said: “They’ve certainly had reason to engage in that kind of behavior. There are places where they are shot at by fishermen, they’ve watched family members be taken from their groups into captivity in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
However, she cautioned against interpreting the orcas’ motivation as aggressive or malevolent. She said: “I think it gets taken as aggression because it’s causing damage, but I don’t think we can say that the motivation is aggressive necessarily.”
The question remains: what will happen next? As MSN News put it: “The era of human control over the high seas may have come to a close. But what happens next?”
– Orca rams into yacht off Shetland in first such incident in northern waters, The Guardian, Wed 21 Jun 2023
– Video Shows Killer Whale Gang Attacking and Ramming Boats, Yahoo News, Fri 16 Jun 2023
– Why Have The Orca Whales Turned On Us And Started Attacking Our Boats? The ‘Orca Wars’ Explained, MSN News, Wed 16 Jun 2023
– Revenge of the killer whales? Recent boat attacks might be driven by trauma, NPR News, Mon 13 Jun 2023.