European sailors first reported a spike in orca encounters off the coasts of Spain and Portugal in 2020. Since then, the interactions continue to increase and occur every day. .is now happening every other day.
” They clearly take pleasure from these encounters, said Andrew Trites of the Marine Mammal Research Unit of the University of British Columbia, Canada.
But Trites isn’t talking about malicious pleasure, though it may feel like that for the people whose boats are taking a beating. Sailor Werner Schaufelberger described his encounter with orcas in May as “brutal.”
“They’re probably socializing, yucking it up with each other about their adventures without realizing the terror they’re creating in their moments of joy,” Trites said.
Trites is one of several orca experts Insider spoke with who all agree the orcas are just having a good time and probably don’t have any ill will against the boats or humans on board.
However, none of the experts Insider spoke with were convinced this was the case.
” I certainly believe orcas can have complex emotions,” Monika Weland Shields told Insider. We haven’t ever seen that before. And we have given orcas plenty of reason to want to seek revenge on us.”
Shields points to the long history of humans harming the orca population, from shooting them at fisheries to the years of live captures in the ’60s and ’70s in which humans separated orca offspring from their families to display them in aquariums.
And yet, these situations haven’t resulted in wild orcas attacking boats, Shields said. Orcas in captivity have attacked and killed humans, but there are no records of orcas killing humans in the wild.
The orcas are trying to play
According to Shields, orcas’ natural curiosity and playfulness are likely the cause for these encounters and not revenge.
Orcas, according to Shields are social animals who often interact with their environment.
According to Shields, orcas are known to drag crab traps around in the Salish Sea, off the Washington coast, and play with them for several minutes, or even hours, until they lose interest.
“To Shields, this behavior is similar to that of the orcas in Spain. “It’s the same type of behavior, they might be thinking, ‘Hey, there’s this piece of equipment in my environment, I’m going to play with it for a while then move on.'”
Hanne Strager, a mammal marine biologist and author of the book “The Killer Whale Journals: Our Love and Fear of Ocras” agrees that curiosity is the likely cause.
In fact, Strager doesn’t classify these encounters as “attacks,” or attempts by the orcas to harm people and their property, but rather an example of orca exploration.
“I don’t doubt that it feels like an attack for the people on the boat,” Strager told Insider. From the orca’s point of view, I do not think that it is aggressive. Just because it feels and looks very dramatic to us doesn’t mean it is dramatic for them.”
Orcas find boats stimulating
Experts agree orcas are definitely targeting sailboats, but probably because there is something stimulating and exciting about “playing” with boats that causes them to repeat the behavior and teach it to others in their pod.
According to Trites, orcas might simply enjoy the sensation of ramming into boats.
“Orcas are very tactile and sensitive to touch,” Trites told Insider. “In my research I’ve been struck by how often they touch each other and run into each other while swimming. Just like humans. We need to be touched.”
Orcas might also be enticed by a boat speeding through the water and get a thrill out of chasing it, Trites said. In fact, the more people on a boat make a commotion or try to speed away, the more exciting the event is for the animal and the more likely they are to try to ram the boat again, Trites said.
“”You cannot outrun a killing whale”, Trites stated. “Just turn off your engine, let your rudder up, and become as boring as possible.”
Playful, or not, this behavior could put orca lives at risk
While orca experts have good reason to think the animals are just being playful, ultimately, it’s impossible to know what they’re thinking.
This uncertainty makes people feel uneasy. This is especially true as orca encounters are becoming more frequent and dangerous.
“I think tensions are escalating,” Shields said. “And I think it’s just a matter of time before a whale gets hurt or gets killed.”
With better tracking of these incidents, hopefully, sailors can avoid high-risk areas and after enough “boring” encounters with boats, the orcas will eventually move on, Strager said.
Until then, Trites said it’s important to remember these are endangered creatures who likely aren’t out to hurt us.
The post Orca attacks on boats aren’t out of revenge, killer whale experts say. The whales are just playing. appeared first on Business Insider.