Experts say orcas attacking boats are just being “playful”

Media should not assign a negative cause for the recent attacks as this may result in retribution, argue marine scientists in an open letter.
Loukia Papadopoulos
Representational image of a boat surrounded by orcas.jpg
Representational image of a boat surrounded by orcas.

Alessandro De Maddalena/iStock 

In May of 2023, Interesting Engineering reported on the Orca attacks on ships asking if the animals were training their young to go after vessels. We may finally have an answer.

Over 30 marine scientists, characterized as “experts in the biology and behavior of cetaceans,” worldwide have signed a new open letter stating that the mammals are just being “playful” and that the narrative of attacks should be greatly discouraged as it puts them at risk of human retribution.

Public interest

“There has been intense public interest in the interactions between orcas (referred to hereafter as the Iberian orcas) and marine vessels along the coast of the Iberian Peninsula (Spain and Portugal) and in neighboring waters. We are concerned that factual errors related to these interactions are being repeated in the media, along with a narrative—lacking a basis in science or reality—that the animals are aggressively attacking vessels or seeking revenge against mariners,”states the letter.

The authors note that these interactions began in July of 2020 and involved 11 juvenile Orcas and four adults. They described 20 percent of the attacks as severe and stated that five vessels sunk as a result of these events.

Despite these facts, the authors insist that the animals mean no harm.

“Despite the damage to vessels, we believe characterizing the interactions as ‘attacks’ is misleading. While some parts of the vessels infrequently have teeth marks on them, the predominant damage to rudders and keels are due to strikes or rams with the head or body. The whales are not ripping the rudders apart, as they might if this were hunting behavior. While the behavior may be frightening (and costly) from a human perspective, from the whales’ perspective, it seems to be somehow gratifying,” explain the authors. 

Playful behavior

The statement goes on to describe the behavior as simply “playful” and not hiding any ill intention towards humans. Science, the authors argue, cannot yet fully account for these interactions but people should not be quick to judge and make assumptions that may result in harm to the animals.

“Science cannot yet explain why the Iberian orcas are doing this, although we repeat that it is more likely related to play/socializing than aggression. However, it is unfounded and potentially harmful to the animals to claim it is for revenge for past wrongs or to promote some other melodramatic storyline,” write the authors.

Finally, the letter concludes by saying that the seas belong to marine life and that humans should adapt to their territory rather than expecting the animals to behave differently. This, the authors argue, is essential to the survival of marine species and the overall well being of the animals.

“We should not punish wildlife for being wild. We need to keep cool heads when wild animals exhibit novel behavior and we must put greater effort into adapting our own actions and behavior to the presence of wildlife,” the authors note.

These are wise words from a knowledgeable group of experts reminding humans that they share the planet with other species that have their own motivations that may be misunderstood and misinterpreted.

Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
Add Interesting Engineering to your Google News feed.
message circleSHOW COMMENT (1)chevron
Job Board