In an unforeseen twist of maritime mayhem, pods of orcas have unleashed a wave of what many are referring to as “boat attacks.”
These marine mischief-makers have taken to flipping, nudging and even playfully bumping yachts and fishing boats, leaving sailors, scientists and sea enthusiasts both awe-struck and a little soggy.
In the past, occurrences of orcas striking boats have been few and far between and largely limited to instances in which the orca was provoked, according to Robert Pitman, marine ecologist for the Marine Mammal Institute at Oregon State University.
Since May of 2020, though, there have been more than 500 different reports of this occurrence.
While many have taken to calling these events “attacks” on boats, scientists believe these encounters are likely a result of curious, playful behavior rather than malicious intent or from being provoked.
“Killer whales are playful, they imitate each other, and interesting behaviors can spread through the pod and then between pods,” Pitman said. “I think this is all a matter of killer whales wanting to have fun.”
Orcas playing is not surprising given their nature.
“Orcas are highly intelligent social predators with an incredible behavioral flexibility and huge behavioral repertoire,” said Mauricio Cantor, behavioral ecologist and principal investigator for The Lab for Animal Behavioural Interaction. “They are able to do all kinds of things, and hammering a boat pales in comparison with their inventive predation tactics and their intricate social lives.”
These marine mammals form tight-knit family units, known as pods, where they forge deep emotional bonds and intricate communication systems. Within these pods, which can consist of several generations, orcas collaborate to hunt, raise their young and navigate through vast ocean territories.
“They have intensely social lives – foraging cooperatively and sharing all their food,” Pitman said.
Why orcas have taken to playing with fishing boats and yachts, scientists are not entirely sure, but it is believed to likely stem from cultural transmission.
“It’s possible that one individual innovated, and others picked up on that — by observing and copying,” Cantor said.
There haven’t been any official means of stopping or preventing this behavior, so far and many advise non-lethal manners should be employed.
“They learn quickly and my guess is a taser or cattle prod judiciously used a few times would quickly change their minds about this behavior,” Pitman said.
Reducing the number of boats (fishing, recreational or otherwise) in areas where orcas concentrate could additionally help, according to Cantor.
“It’s ill advised (and in many places illegal) to get very close to orcas and (other whales or dolphins),” Cantor said. “We are in their habitat; and there are far more of us than them. They could use some space, I think.”
So far, orcas striking fishing boats and yachts has been exclusive to European waters off the coasts of Spain, Portugal and France. But the Pacific Northwest is home to orcas as well, with two subgroups: Northern Residents and Southern Residents.
While orcas reside here, scientists believe this behavior is unlikely to occur in the Pacific Northwest as it has occurred in the Eastern Atlantic.
“There are two ways this behavior could emerge in the Pacific Northwest coast: if one individual orca that exhibits this behavior shows up here; or if a local individual innovates and starts interacting with boats that way,” Cantor said. “The former is extremely unlikely, as these two orca populations are geographically segregated by thousands of kilometers; the latter is hard to predict; perhaps an individual could do that behavior out of curiosity, but who knows.”
Currently, it is unclear for how long the orcas will continue to play with the boats.
“(Orcas) are intelligent, social creatures – they like diversions,” Pitman said. “My guess is this is just a passing fad, and they will lose interest if people don’t find a way to discourage them first.”
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