Despite the threatening-sounding name, killer whales aren’t really something humans should be afraid of — at least not in the wild.
The encounters prompted tongue-in-cheek memes portraying orcas as revolutionaries fighting back against environmental destruction brought about by humans.
But experts say orca the animals are likely only engaging in play, and not organizing a revolt.
Generally speaking, killer whales do not pose much of a threat to humans.
In the case of the boat encounters near the Iberian Peninsula, no humans have been harmed. In fact, there are no documented cases of an orca intentionally harming a human in the wild.
“The killing whales don’t seem interested at all in humans. Strager, co-founder of the Andenes Whale Center, Norway, said Insider that they are only interested in herring, which is a food source for them. “I think they just think humans are some odd thing, certainly not food, and not really anything that they are bothered by.”
That’s exactly why the orcas do not attack — they do not see people as food.
“When you look around the world, the different types of populations have specialized in eating different types of prey,” said Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, adding that some orca populations primarily eat fish, while others eat marine mammals.
” They stick with what they are familiar with, and humans were never part of their diet,” Trites told Insider. He noted that Iberian orcas prefer bluefin tona. Trites said that given orcas’ intelligence, he did not think they would mistake humans for seals.
Strager also noted that the Iberian populations who target boats do not appear to have an interest in humans. The encounters typically involve the orca approaching the boat from behind and striking the rudder, sometimes until it is broken and the boat is immobilized.
A crew member on the vessel that the whales sank told Strager, that the orcas left the boat as soon as it began sinking. They don’t seem to be interested in what’s on board the vessels, just the vessel itself.
Strager and Trites are among the experts who think the most likely explanation for the behavior is that the orcas are playing. Strager compared it to the way a human might play with bubble wrap by popping it. In other words, the orcas may just view the boats as big toys.
Orca-caused human deaths all have one thing in common
There have been four recorded orca-caused human deaths — along with hundreds of instances of killer whale aggression towards humans — but only in captivity.
Three of these deaths involved the same wild-caught orca, named Tilikum, who was a focus of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” Tilikum was involved in the deaths of a trainer at a park in Canada, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando, and a man who was believed to be trespassing at the Florida park.
However, Strager said it’s impossible to draw any conclusions about wild orcas based on the behavior of captive orcas, as they are in such an artificial environment.
While there are no documented cases of orcas attacking humans, this does not mean that they can be trusted to swim in open water, according to Strager and Trites. As with any large, wild animal, there’s an inherent danger involved, just as there would be if a human approached a herd of elephants.
Even if orcas don’t attack humans, boat encounters can be dangerous.
Researchers have also expressed some concern over the perception that orcas are attacking people.
“If we become so frustrated with their behavior that we think they don’t deserve to be protected anymore, then it is a risk for the whales,” Strager said, noting the orca population near the Iberian Peninsula is severly endangered.