Stop calling the killer whale encounters with boats 'attacks'

  • Killer whales near the Iberian Peninsula have been striking boats since 2020.

  • No doubt the encounters feel like attacks to the boaters, but experts say that may not be accurate.

  • The orcas are probably just playing so calling them "attacks" might be misleading.

"Killer Whale Attacks!" sure makes for a great headline, but it may not be quite accurate when used to describe the encounters between orcas and boats that have been taking place near the Iberian Peninsula in recent years.

Hundreds of these encounters have been documented off the southern coasts of Spain and Portugal since 2020.  Researchers say they typically follow a similar pattern: an orca approaches a boat from behind and strikes its rudder repeatedly, sometimes until it is broken and the boat is immobilized. Most encounters end with minimal damage and no humans have been injured in one of these interactions.

But in at least three cases the killer whales have managed to sink sailboats, prompting talk of an "orca uprising" in which the whales were finally fighting back.

"Undoubtedly the people on board these little boats feel attacked," Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia in Canada, previously told Insider. Still, he thinks it's unlikely that "attack" is an accurate description of what's going on.

Despite one theory about a "traumatized" killer whale seeking revenge on boats, Trites and other experts have said they believe the orcas are most likely just playing. They appear to be picking up and mimicking the play behavior of other killer whales, suggesting it is being positively reinforced, or that they are getting pleasure or some sort of benefit from it.

Trites said he was also concerned that framing the encounters as "attacks" could lead to misunderstandings about killer whales, not dissimilar to the fear of great white sharks inspired by a certain Hollywood movie that changed many people's impressions of the ocean forever.

Other experts, as well as a ship captain whose boat was targeted by an orca, have worried that the "attack" framing could lead scared boaters to take matters into their own hands and start shooting whales, which feeds into another potentially misleading aspect of describing these interactions as "attacks" — in all likelihood, the whales are more likely to get injured or killed in these encounters than the humans.

So, instead of using the word attack, which implies aggressive and violent action, it might be more accurate to simply describe the literal behavior that the orcas are engaging in: such as striking, ramming, targeting, or hitting boats.

Read the original article on Business Insider