Orcas are sinking sailboats in a game that’s ‘gotten way out of hand,’ experts say

A group of killer whales seems to have taken a page straight from the movie “Jaws.”

In a bizarre episode of life imitating art, orcas were seen attacking a yacht off the coast of Spain on May 4, according to Live Science. The animals rammed the hull and shook the rudder before the Spanish coast guard rescued the ship, towing it to a port where it later sank.

The incident is the third case in recent years of a vessel sinking after a seemingly orchestrated orca attack, according to the outlet, citing a study that found the whales’ aggressive activity appears to be increasing.

In the wake of the sinkings, a few theories have been put forward that attempt to explain the orcas’ bewildering behavior.

Some have suggested the animals acted out of revenge, enlisting others to charge ships following a “critical moment of agony,” while others believe stress could be a factor.

But two experts contacted by McClatchy News suspect neither of these theories holds water, and something more innocuous is at play.

Revenge or stress?

“We know they’re highly social and capable of complex emotion, so I wouldn’t rule out that they can feel anger or revenge, but I just haven’t seen any evidence that that’s what’s going on here,” Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, a nonprofit in Washington, told McClatchy News.

Wieland Shields, who has researched orcas for over two decades, said that the whales have had numerous negative interactions with humans that could have motivated revenge.

In Washington, for example, fishermen used to shoot the whales, and their young were taken and brought into captivity. Yet in none of these instances did the whales respond with aggression toward humans, she said, noting there are no documented cases of wild orcas attacking people.

Andrew Trites, the director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, also disagrees with the revenge hypothesis, saying that it’s unlikely one whale could relay its negative experience to others and then collectively act on it.

“I’ve also heard people say ‘this is due to stress and they’re acting out because there’s too much underwater noise and there’s overfishing,’” Trites told McClatchy News.

“But if that was the case, they’re acting out against the wrong vessels,” he added. “It’s almost entirely sailboats that are being targeted. Sailboats are not making much noise. Sailboats are not catching fish.”

A game that’s ‘gotten way out of hand’

The most plausible explanation is that the orcas are simply playing a game — albeit one that’s “gotten way out of hand,” Trites said.

“Something we see in many killer whale populations around the world is cultural transmission or social learning of different behaviors, whether it’s a hunting technique or sometimes they get these fad or game-like behaviors,” Wieland Shields said.

A single whale likely interacted with a vessel, found it fun or stimulating, and others then mimicked the behavior, according to Wieland Shields. Something about the ships’ rudders in particular appears to have captured their attention.

A similar phenomenon was documented in Canada after a young male named Luna was separated from his pod, Trites said. He would rub up against boats, grab their rudders and dismantle them. He seemed to derive some pleasure from it.

But while it may be fun and games for the whales, the humans onboard the ships certainly feel differently.

“I’ve got no doubt that if you’re on a boat and surrounded by five or six killer whales, one would feel under attack,” Trites said. “I can appreciate the terror those folks must have felt.”

Fortunately, the aggressive behavior is not likely to spread to other pods of whales, Trites said, noting that the populations do not intermingle.

As to how much longer the behavior will continue within the pod, which numbers about 40 whales and dwells off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, it is hard to say, he said.

But like all fads, it should eventually come to an end, according to Wieland Shields.

“The games are popular for a while,” Wieland said. “They kind of come out of nowhere; all the whales are doing it, and then it suddenly stops for no apparent reason. And so hopefully for people’s sake and for the whales’ sake, that’s what ends up happening here.”

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