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Orcas are ramming into boats, but experts warn against calling it revenge on humans


The Current19:10The mysterious ‘orca uprising’

A strange new phenomenon involving sea mammals has captured the public’s imagination — and theories that orcas are intentionally targeting humans as an act of revenge have swarmed social media. 

This narrative of an “orca-uprising” stems from our tendency to project human psychology onto intelligent wild animals, according to Justin Gregg, a senior researcher for the Dolphin Communication Project and author of If Nietzsche Were a Narwhal: What Animal Intelligence Reveals About Human Stupidity.

“I think we always want to sort of see their behaviour as human-like, which is why people think of it as revenge, because that’s a very human-like thing to do,” he told The Current guest host, Susan Ormiston.

“We think of other animals as little people, but they live their own complicated lives, which are fundamentally different.”

There are seemingly endless memes about orcas wanting to sink the boats of wealthy owners. (@drnelk/Twitter)

Pods of orcas began toying with yachts in 2020, ramming them, spinning them, and in some cases terrifying those on board. This behaviour is gaining momentum off the southwest coast of Europe and experts believe it’s being passed from orca to orca.

Orcas have snapped the rudders of some boats in half and caused at least three sailing vessels to sink, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group. Their risky behaviour was reported in the North Sea, near Scotland’s Shetland Islands, for the first time at the end of June.

In the last three years, there have been more than 400 reports published by Atlantic Orca Working Group of orcas reacting to boats off the coasts of Portugal and Spain, and near the Strait of Gibraltar. Of the cases dating back to 2022, 142 were categorized as “orca interactions,” where an animal touched a boat, and 283 were considered “uneventful passages.” 

But yachts have been around for centuries, so why the sudden pique of interest?

Gregg’s theory: “It’s probably just a random fluke.”

For them, snapping off a killer rudder is not really a big deal. It’d be like us snapping a Pop-Tart in half.– Justin Gregg

Trendy new game or violent attack?

Like any fad, Gregg predicts the orcas will emulate this behaviour for a while, but eventually it will fizzle out. When he first clicked on one of the viral “orca attack” videos, he said he was surprised at how “not violent” the encounter was.

“They’re sort of lazily swimming up toward the rudder, and they sort of bump against it and it snaps in half,” said Gregg. 

“They’re enormous animals. So for them, snapping off a killer rudder is not really a big deal. It’d be like us snapping a Pop-Tart in half.”

Deborah Giles, the science and research director at conservation group Wild Orca, suspects the orcas are simply having a bit of fun, playing with the yachts like enormous bathtub toys. 

“They’re interacting with the keels that stick down into the water,” she said.

Giles prefers the term “interacting” over “ramming” because the latter implies aggression, and she says orcas have never been known to be hostile or aggressive towards humans in the wild. 

“[They’re] just downright curious,” she said, likening these interactions to a cat rubbing up against a person’s leg. 

“I’ve literally seen body-surfing killer whales in the wake of these large ships. They’re curious animals and they like interacting with their environment.”

A whale hits the rudder of a boat.
An orca hits the rudder of a boat on June 22, 2023, near the Strait of Gibraltar. (Brend Schuil/Team JAJO/The Ocean Race)

Mistaking playfulness for violence

Giles is concerned about the possibility of harmful deterrents being used to stop the orcas from damaging expensive vessels. 

She points to the Portuguese government’s efforts to minimize these interactions in harmless ways. 

One of the non-lethal deterrents they’re currently testing involves oil pipes. When hung from the sides of boats and banged on, these eight foot steel pipes are meant to make a sound the orcas actively avoid because it reminds them of being deterred from a spill area.

Another approach people can use if faced with orca-boat contact, said Giles, is stop the forward motion of the boat by turning off the motor or lowering the sails. This will cause the orcas to lose interest and swim away.

“Hopefully enough time goes by where they’re just not getting that positive reinforcement from whatever it is that they’re liking with this interaction,” said Giles.

Gregg said he fears people might start hating orcas if they don’t understand the reality of the situation. 

“Hopefully people realize that they are not dangerous and that this behaviour is most likely just play,” he said.


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