What’s going on with orcas?

What’s going on with orcas?

In recent months, the tranquil waters of the Straits of Gibraltar have become the backdrop for a series of alarming encounters between orcas and yachts participating in the prestigious Ocean Race. The Ocean Race began in Spain in January and features 11 boats racing around the world along a route covering South America, Brazil, Denmark, the Netherlands, the East Coast of the United States and will conclude in Italy. Reports from ESPN has two Ocean Race teams detailing incidents with the black-and-white predators, including a particularly aggressive encounter where orcas sped toward a racing yacht, collided with it, and damaged the rudders.

Orcas (Orcinus orca), also known as killer whales, are highly intelligent and social marine mammals that captivated world audiences through the Free Willy movie and Blackfish documentary. With their striking coloration and distinctive dorsal fins, these animals are one of the most recognisable marine mammals.

They are actually the largest member of the oceanic dolphin family, and like their cousins, they’ve been shown to exhibit complex social structures, living in tightly-knit matrilineal groups known as pods. A matrilineal society is one in which the female (matriarch), her sons and daughters, and the offspring of her daughters remain together throughout their lives.

Within a pod, individual orcas display remarkable communication skills, using a repertoire of clicks, whistles, and vocalisations to interact and coordinate hunting strategies. Orcas have a diverse diet that includes fish, marine mammals, and even seabirds, and their hunting tactics can vary depending on their location and available prey. They are known for their exceptional swimming speed and agility, and they have lifespans comparable to humans, reaching 50-80 years. Through scientific research, orcas have been found to possess sophisticated social behaviours, cultural traditions, and cognitive abilities that continue to be a subject of study and admiration in the scientific community.

Orcas underwater
Orca in Mayotte. Credit: Serge MELESAN / 500px / Getty Images

But admiration has turned to fear for some, with videos showing the orcas circling yachts as the crew of the two teams resort to desperate measures, such as banging on the hull and lowering the sails, to try to deter the orcas.

“This was a scary moment,” Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said in a press release. “Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team. […] We took down the sails and slowed down the boat as quickly as possible, and luckily after a few attacks, they went away.”

The Mirpuri/Trifork Racing Team also faced a similar ordeal, as confirmed by race organisers, but the boat suffered no damage and the crew members remained unharmed.

USA Today has reported a 298% increase in orca-boat interactions from 2020 to 2023, with more than 500 incidents reported by the Atlantic Orca Working Group. This includes the sinking of three boats and damage to others near the Iberian Peninsula, a mere eight miles away from where the Ocean Race boats incidents happened.

Numerous theories have circulated on social media regarding the recent surge in these attacks, with one prevailing conspiracy suggesting that the orcas are seeking revenge due to increased human activity near their habitats. But Dr Rebecca Wellard, who has been studying the habits of killer whales and other ocean beasts off the West Australian Southern Coast for a decade, believes this narrative is damaging.

“The hype around these encounters and the sensationalism without education is concerning for me. I am concerned it will create fear amongst people, and people will react with this fear, potentially harming these animals. And it’s not just this orca population – people on the water all around the world who have orca nearby are beginning to question what they should do if they encounter an orca.

The hype around these encounters and the sensationalism without education is concerning for me.

Dr Rebecca Wellard

“I have already seen some extreme deterrents [put on] vessels whilst transiting through the Strait of Gibraltar, so the anxiety is already there. With this hype continuing, there is the chance of people in other areas of the world encountering orca, and misinterpreting their inquisitive nature, and taking negative action towards the animals out of fear.”

Wellard believes approaching this situation with education and sensitivity is critical, as this small sub-population of killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar is considered critically endangered on the IUCN Red List and depends heavily on an endangered species of prey, the Atlantic bluefin tuna. “We need to educate mariners on what to do should they encounter an orca in these waters, how best to make themselves less attractive and less interesting to these animals. Don’t entice them by speeding up – you can’t outrun an orca. If you can, raise your rudder, turn off your engine and become as uninteresting as possible.”

So, what do scientists believe is actually happening? “We don’t know enough about the orcas’ motives behind this behaviour to truly know why they are doing this. Killer whales are incredibly intelligent, they live complex social lives, exhibit culture and show learned behaviour – where a suite of behaviours are learned from one individual to another. In this instance, social learning may have occurred where it started with either one or a few individual orcas exhibiting this type of interaction with boats and has now spread to others,” says Wellard, who is also the lead researcher of Project ORCA and has researched cetaceans for over 20 years now.

“I don’t think it is malicious or vengeful behaviour, where one animal is seeking revenge after a traumatic interaction with a vessel. Is this more of a game to these orca – a new fad that this group has created and are exhibiting?”

Don’t entice them by speeding up – you can’t outrun an orca.

Dr Rebecca Wellard

 “One of the theories put out there hypothesises that it could be the response from the female orca White Gladis’ after a ‘critical moment of agony’ from a collision with a vessel or being trapped in fishing nets – and yes, it is possible this behaviour is getting transferred to other conspecifics of her group, but the motive behind this behaviour as revenge seems unplausible to me.”

Wellard says the orcas seem to focus on a specific area of the boat—the rudder—and once the rudder comes off, they largely seem to lose interest.

This suggests a playful and curious engagement with their environment, rather than a deliberate act of aggression. “There are similar instances in the Pacific Northwest where orca have played with items in their environment, such as the anchor chain on a sailboat and crab pots – where they have dragged them around for a short while, before they lose interest.”

Feeling nervous out in the water near an orcas? Wellard says there are plenty of actions one can take to protect themselves, including following government guidelines on wildlife interactions and vessel regulations. “If you see a blow – go slow! All marine mammals need space and respect, so to help reduce disturbing any marine mammal or the risk of collision, reduce your speed in areas of high whale frequencies and remain vigilant during migration season and when there are large groups of birds together,” she concludes. “Respect these amazing animals and take a moment to appreciate how lucky you must be to observe them – they live in a world so different to our terrestrial landlubbing limitations and we have so much to learn from them.”

The Ultramarine project – focussing on research and innovation in our marine environments – is supported by Minderoo Foundation.

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