Boats that follow orca-encounter protocol may escape unscathed — but if an orca's in a particular mood, all bets are off

  • Orcas have been interacting with boats in the Atlantic since 2020, drawing international attention.

  • Scientists have developed guidelines for boaters who come into contact with killer whales.

  • But data shows that if a killer whale really wants to interact with a boat, humans can't do much.

Orcas are having a whale of a time recently, ramming and damaging boats around the Spanish and Portuguese coasts over 200 times since summer 2020.

Advocacy groups have released recommendations for how to act if you come into contact with killer whales while boating. Some of the recommendations include slowing down, turning off the engine, and staying quiet to avoid exciting the orcas.

But following these protocols may not be enough, said Mónica González of the Coordinadora para o Estudo dos Mamíferos Mariño, an organization in Spain known as CEMMA that studies marine animals.

González and her colleagues have been tracking these interactions since 2020. Recently, in a webinar hosted by The Orca Behavior Institute, González said that they noticed sometimes orcas damaged a boat regardless of whether the people on board followed proper protocol or not.

González analyzed accounts from 231 boats that reported physical contact with an orca in the Strait of Gibraltar since 2020. Her team found that 63% of slightly damaged boats didn't follow protocol, compared with 36% that did.

A pod of five orcas swimming in the bright blue ocean. They're near the surface and appear to be diving down.
Five orcas swim in the ocean outside of Mayotte, France.Serge Melesean

But in looking at cases of severe damage, when the boat stopped working, she said they found something different. Roughly half of the damaged boats followed protocol, and the other half didn't. The protocol didn't seem to have an effect.

"In very severe damage, when towing is required, we don't find significant evidence to follow or not follow our protocol," she said in the webinar. "So our protocol runs, but not when we're talking about serious damage."

The orcas, it seems, will continue damaging the boat if they're in the mood to do so, and there's not much boaters can do at that point.

No one is sure why orcas have been ramming boats in the first place. But the leading ideas are curious young orcas or defensive behavior by orcas that have been harmed before, González said in the webinar.

In either case, our own actions may not deter an orca already set on its course.

"Orcas love having fun, but they can have a much darker side to their mischief when they don't like what's been happening to them," John Hargrove, a former SeaWorld employee-turned-orca-activist, told Bloomberg in May.

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