Juvenile Orcas Learn a New Fad — Sinking Boats

  • Teens playing dangerous and possibly lethal games isn’t limited to humans.

Dang kids and their fads, am I right? It seems every week there’s another stupid and possibly life-threatening stunt they just have to try out.

This seems like uniquely human behavior, but it may not actually be so. According to scientists, young orcas seem to have started a fad of their own.

Namely, they’re sinking boats.

Orca attacks on boats have been steadily increasing over the past three years for seemingly no rhyme or reason. Scientists believe this is simply learned behavior.

If young orcas see another whale attack a ship, they simply think that’s the latest rad and tubular orca thing to do. So, they go on to harass ships themselves — and perpetuate the cycle.

Really, it’s the orca equivalent of teens seeing something on TikTok and deciding to do it themselves. Only, an orca weighs a few tons more than your average teen and can cause a bit more damage to a boat.

Dang whippersnappers.

“Got the camera, Jake? This’ll get so many likes!”

Premeditated Attacks

The orca aggression started ramping up in May 2020, according to a June 2022 study published in Marine Mammal Science. Since then, marine authorities have recorded more than 500 orca-ship interactions.

“The reports of interactions have been continuous since 2020 in places where orcas are found, either in Galicia or in the [Gibraltar] Strait,” Alfredo Lopez Fernandez, the study’s co-author and a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, told LiveScience.

The latest attacks came earlier this month. On May 2, six orcas attacked a sailboat passing through the Gibraltar Strait.

According to Greg Blackburn, who was on the boat, the attack seemed premeditated. He said a mother orca appeared to be teaching its calf how to rush and break a ship’s rudder.

“It was definitely some form of education, teaching going on,” said Blackburn.

Two days later, another attack occurred. This time, however, the victimized ship sank.

Three orcas charged a yacht in the Start on the night of May 4. The ship’s skipper Werner Schaufelberger said the killer whales appeared to intentionally target the rudder.

“There were two smaller and one larger orca. The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side,” he recalled.

The Spanish coast guard rescued the yacht’s crew and towed the ship to the port of Barbate. Unfortunately, the ship sank at the port’s entrance.

In total, orcas have sunk three boats in the past three years. That’s not many, considering the number of attacks, but it’s still concerning.

Begun with Vengeance

But why are orcas attacking ships? How did this phenomenon get started?

If you were to ask Lopez Fernandez, he believes there’s a simple reason — revenge.

Orca experts believe that the trend of attacking ships may have begun with a single female orca. They suspect that this unknown whale either collided with a ship or got trapped in illegal fishing equipment.

Whatever happened to the marine mammal, it resulted in a “critical moment of agony” that triggered a “behavioral switch.” In plainer words, the orca completely lost its s***.

“That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” explained Lopez Fernandez.

But why would the orca be female? Here, the answer lies in the prevalence of boat-attacking behavior.

If it had been a lone male orca, it would likely carry out its spree of vengeance on its own. But a female orca may have had a calf that observed its mother’s behavior.

“Oh, so that’s what you do with ships,” the young whale may have thought. “Got it, Mom!”

Just a Fad — Maybe

From that original duo, the behavior then began spreading among other easily influenced juvenile orcas. The whales are very intelligent and readily learn behaviors from their fellow orcas.

Lopez Fernandez doesn’t believe adult whales are intentionally teaching their kids to maim boats, though.

“We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young. Although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives,” he explained.

He also thinks that although the original whale was probably out for blood, the ongoing behavior isn’t necessarily aggressive. Instead, it may have become a form of play to the orcas.

The attacks definitely aren’t without their risks. According to Lopez Fernandez, four orcas have died since 2020 from injuries they received while ramming boats.

If there is a silver lining to the situation, it is that the attacks may eventually end on their own. Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington, thinks that boat ramming is a fad.

In other words, it’s behavior that was started by a couple of individuals. As time goes on, more orcas pick it up — until they eventually get tired of it and stop.

Just like human fads. We can only hope orca teens move on to the next big thing as quickly as our youths.