Endangered Orcas and Humans: Threats, Interactions, Captive Orcas and Sunken Boats

Home | Category: Toothed Whales (Orcas, Sperm and Beaked Whales)


Kwakiutl orca
Humans have utilized orcas for food and inspiration. Their body parts have been sources of valuable materials. Hunters and fishermen once targeted orcas. Historical threats to orcas included commercial hunting, and culling to protect fisheries from orcas. In various parts of the world, they have been used for oil and meat. Meat was also sometimes used for fertilizer and bait. But for the most part orcas have not been as directly impacted by human exploitation as other whale species have. [Source: NOAA, Emily Burnett, Animal Diversity Web (ADW) /=]

In the old days orcas were viewed as dangerous man-eaters and a competitor to fishermen, who routinely shot at them. A 1973 U.S. Navy manual warned that killer whales “will attack human beings at every opportunity.” In reality there has only been one documented account of wild orca attacking a human being: an orca once grabbed a surfer but quickly let go.

The trend now is to view orcas in a more favorable light. A biologist in New Zealand told National Geographic that orcas routinely came up to her to point out where sharks or rays were lurking and said she knew lobster divers who felt a nudge from behind and turned around to find an orca staring them in the face. In the Pacific Northwest people love orcas. In Vancouver you can tune into live recordings of whales on ORCA-FM.

Associated Press: People have taken many steps in recent decades to help the Pacific Northwest's endangered orcas, which have long suffered from starvation, pollution and the legacy of having many of their number captured for display in marine parks. They've breached dikes and removed dams to create wetland habitat for Chinook salmon, the orcas' most important food. They’ve limited commercial fishing to try to ensure prey for the whales. They've made boats slow down and keep farther away from the animals to reduce their stress and to quiet the waters so they can better hunt. So far, those efforts have had limited success.[Source: Gene Johnson, Associated Press, March 21, 2023]

Sometimes orcas become very attached to people. In Nootka Sound, 250 miles north of Seattle, an orca given the name Luna because quite attached to people in the area. He followed boats around, showed up at docks, seeking handouts and affection. He let people touch his tongue and fetched sticks. A cook on one boat told Smithsonian magazine, “He breached, did tail flips, blew raspberries and squirted water at us, Sometimes he’d go right down the side of the boat, flapping his flipper at us.” In the end Luna became too friendly and was killed by a tugboat propeller.

Websites and Resources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Fishbase fishbase.se; Encyclopedia of Life eol.org; Smithsonian Oceans Portal ocean.si.edu/ocean-life-ecosystems ; Monterey Bay Aquarium montereybayaquarium.org ; MarineBio marinebio.org/oceans/creatures

Orcas and Indigenous People

Orcas feature prominently in the art, history, spirituality and religion of indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. The Haida regarded orcas as the most powerful animals in the ocean, and their mythology tells of orcas living in houses and towns under the sea. According to their myths, they took on human form when submerged, and humans who drowned went to live with them. The Kwakwaka'wakw regarded orcas as the ruler of the undersea world, with sea lions serving as slaves and dolphins their warriors. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Maritime Archaic people of Newfoundland also had great respect for orcas, as evidenced by stone carvings found in a 4,000-year-old burial at the Port au Choix Archaeological Site. The Ainu people of northern Japan often referred to orcas in their folklore and myth as Repun Kamuy (God of Sea) and asked to bring good fortune and whales to their shores. They held funerals for beached orcas similar to funerals for other animals such as bears. The Siberian Yupik people believed that orcas changed into wolves in winter, and wolves changed into orcas in the summer. They and orcas are believed to have worked together to drive and corral walrus. Reverence for orcas was expressed orca-shaped boat and a wooden carvings of them hung from the hunter's belts. Small sacrifices such as tobacco or meat were tossed into the sea for them.

Swimming with Orcas in Norway Fjords

Popular orca-watching places include the coast of British Columbia, Argentina’s Valdes Peninsula and Australia’s Bremer Bay. Around 3,000 orcas visit Norway’s fjords each year. Some people travel to these fjords to swim and dive with them. Pete McBride wrote in Smithsonian magazine: Norway has no laws against swimming with dolphins and whales. (The country’s whaling laws are also notoriously lax.) This makes Norway an alluring destination for orca lovers Jacques de Vos organizes tours to orca sites. “Before de Vos would let me swim with the orcas, I spent a day on board learning about their behavior. He tested my swimming ability, watching me carefully as I dove and climbed back into the boat, weighed down with diving gear. I listened to his instructions: Don’t swim aggressively toward the orcas. Move calmly and let them come to you. Don’t splash your flippers loudly on the surface or make jerky motions. [Source: Pete McBride, Smithsonian magazine, October 2021]

“I never knew how powerful an orca’s sonar pulse could be until I got into the water and felt one reverberate deep in my chest, like the bass at a rock concert. The sensation was so weirdly moving I hooted through my snorkel, because when a six-ton orca swims directly at you and pings you with his echolocation device — trying to identify who and what is swimming in his Arctic hunting waters — you realize you are in a completely alien world.

“I swam alongside this 25-foot-long male for a few moments. We looked each other in the eye before he surfaced for a breath. His six-foot dorsal fin broke the water just meters in front of me, and I glimpsed the snowcapped peaks on each side of the fjord before he accelerated back down into the darkness with one swoosh of his fluke. Through my wetsuit hoodie, I faintly heard a click and a high-pitched whistle.

“Two female orcas appeared about 20 feet below me, corralling herring into a bait ball. The pair seemed unbothered as I dove down to get a closer look. They started pushing the herring toward me as if I had arrived to help. Suddenly, the male re-emerged from the depths. As he glided next to me, his pectoral fin, nearly the size of my entire body, slid under my stomach. We eyed each other again before he rolled left and swept his dorsal fin, the size of a small plane’s tail, just over my head. The strafe felt more playful than territorial, like an orca high-five — a moment of connection with an enormous intelligent being in a place where sound is sight and the noisy natural glory of nature still reigns.

When I got back to the surface, I noticed fins all around. Then I caught a flash of white — the humpback baritones had arrived, coming in to steal the orcas’ lunch. In an instant, herring flashed and scattered as a humpback, mouth ajar, scooped up the majority of the bait ball in a single gulp. It looked like a submarine passing just below my flippers.

Captive Orcas

Lolita, one of the oldest whales in captivity, at the Miami Seaquarium

Associated Press reported: In the 1960s and 1970s, dozens of Pacific Northwest whales were caught for display in marine theme parks. The whale-capture industry argued that there were many orcas in the sea, and that some could be sustainably caught. At least 13 orcas died in the roundups, and 45 were delivered to theme parks around the world — reducing the southern resident population by about 40 percent. The brutality of the captures began to draw public outcry and a lawsuit to stop them in Washington state. Today only 73 southern residents remain, according to the Center for Whale Research on Washington state's San Juan Island. That’s just two more than in 1971. Of those captured, only one — 56-year-old Lolita, at the Miami Seaquarium — survives. The Seaquarium announced last year it would no longer feature Lolita in shows.[Source: Gene Johnson, Associated Press, March 21, 2023]

The documentary film "Blackfish" highlighted the aggressive behavior and poor treatment of Tilikim, a nearly six-ton male orca, to show the cruelty — and the dangers — of keeping orcas in captivity. According to National Geographic: “When Blackfish was released in 2013, it drew a swift and decisive reaction from the American public. Hundreds of thousands of outraged viewers signed petitions. Companies with partnership deals, such as Southwest Airlines, severed ties with SeaWorld. Attendance at SeaWorld’s water parks slipped; its stock nose-dived. Amid the outcry SeaWorld promised changes to its program. [Source: Natasha Daly, National Geographic, June 2019]

In January 2017, SeaWorld shut down its orca show, or least sort of did, after its star whale in Florida Tilikum died at the age of 36.. NPR reported: The theme park's San Diego location is delivering its final One Ocean show, ending the series of orca performances that elicited outrage after the 2013 documentary Blackfish. [Source: Colin Dwyer, NPR, January 8, 2017]

In 2015, SeaWorld CEO Joel Manby announced that the signature orca performances would abandon the traditional tricks and stunts in favor of a more informative show, in a more natural setting. In its place, SeaWorld introduced Orca Encounter, a series of shows it describes as a more educational experience. "No longer a theatrical show, this live presentation will have the feel of an engaging documentary centered on the orca's natural behaviors, physical attributes, intelligence, social structures and unique relationship with mankind," according to a statement from the park.

Many of the theme park's critics don't buy that the changes will have a significant effect, however. "The trainers aren't safe, and the whales aren't happy," Gabriela Cowperthwaite, the director of Blackfish, told CBS News. "They're still just doing manic circles around concrete swimming pools." In 2016. SeaWorld said that it would be ending its program of breeding in captivity. The Associated Press reported that SeaWorld still had 11 orcas, rangin in age from 2 to 52 years old. The park announced in December that when it opens a new park in Abu Dhabi, in 2022, it will do so without orcas entirely.

John Hargrove worked as an orca trainer many years at SeaWorld. He suffered numerous broken bones and nearly destroyed his sinuses. But he said in an interview. “I owe those whales.w. “They gave me so much in my life and my career.” Over time. though, he believed the whales’ physical and emotional well-being were incompatible with captivity. slipped, He wrote of whales slipping “into the dark side” as a result of being bored and restless, confined to unnatural social groups and forced to perform tricks for food that trainers withheld as punishment, Hargrove was featured in the documentary "Blackfish".“[Source: Jerry Adler, Smithsonian magazine, March 2015]

Keiko and Free Willy

As of 1999, there were 51 orcas in captivity. Many of them were captured in the 1960s and 70s. Keiko, the orca in the 1993 film “Free Willy”, was accidently caught in fishing net off of the southern coast of Iceland in 1979 when he was two. He spent most of his captive life in a cramped tank in Mexico City and was returned to that tank after the shooting of the film was over. In the tank he developed lung infections and lesions.

Many American schoolchildren were outraged that Willy was not freed. In 1996, the Free Willy Keiko Foundation was founded and $7.5 million was raised, with Warner Brothers and cell phone billionaire Graig McCaw donating large sums. Keiko was moved to Newport Oregon, where he regained health and weight. In 1998, a 5-ton Keiko was lifted in a nylon sling into a special water-filled cargo container and flown to Iceland in a U.S. Air Force C-17 transport plane at a cost of $370,000. He was released in waters off Vestmannaeyjar, where he was placed in a soccer-field-size, mesh-sided sea pen to make sure he was prepared for ocean life before being released into the open sea. Some scientists said Keiko was unable to return to open sea. He is too used to being hand-fed fish by humans and didn’t have the skill to catch fish on his own. He also had no experience interacting with other orcas and probably couldn’t even communicate with them due to his many years in captivity.

Scientist tried a tough love method of weaning Keiko from human care. He was allowed to play with his favorite blue ball but when he showed up for fish hand out he was either ignored or turned away. The tough love rules have included no eye contact unless Keiko was being taught something to further his development, no massages and hand feeding of fish. Keiko either ate dead fished piped into his pen. He had little interest in trying to catch the salmon released into his pen.Later he was placed in larger free-ranging netted-off area in Klettsvik Bay. The plan was for him to eventually be released into the sea there and be adopted by a passing pod of orcas. In the meantime he was a tourist attraction. Keiko had an unsuccessful migration from Iceland to Norway in 2002, seeking out regular human company, and a year later apparently died of pneumonia at the age of around 26. It is somewhat ironic that Keiko is being rehabilitated at such great expense in a nation that still practices whaling and kills whaling. Many Icelanders feel that money spent on Keiko would be better spent feeding the poor or some such thing.

Orcas Kill and Injure Humans at Sea World

In February 2010, an orca named Tilikum attacked her trainer, Dawn Brancheaum pulling her by the hair and toying with her before pulling her underwater and drowning her, at Sea World in Orlando, Florida. According to witnesses in a Time magazine account the whale “rose out of the water to snag Brancheau by her pony tail, yanking her into the water for two brief but shocking episodes. After grabbing her hair he toyed with her underwater as she struggled to use trainer signals to calm him down and get him to release her. He knocked her about and, according to some reports, had her by the waist, her blood spreading through the clear water, in full sight of members of the public. She was alive at the end of the first take down after Tilikum let her go. But he watched as she tried to get to safety and then grabbed her again and held her for another several minutes under water, this time apparently killing her. He then settled at the bottom of the pool, keeping her in his mouth. She apparently stayed there until the staff at Sea World managed to beach him and move him to a separate pen.” After Brancheau’s death, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration prohibited trainers from performing in the water with orcas. Trainers began carrying emergency compressed air and special rising floors were installed in that could lift the trainers quickly to the surface.

In November 2006, Kasatka, an orca at Sea World in San Diego attacked one his trainers Ken Peters. The Time account of this event goes: “It occurred amid the set up for the “rocket hop,” a stunt in which the whale virtually catapults the trainer into the air from an underwater start, allowing the human to make a spectacular arc through the air before diving into the pool. Kasatka decided instead to drag...Peters under by his left foot, first for half a minute, and then after allowing him back up briefly for air, for more than a minute. Only Peters cool ministrations and his fellow trainers use of hand signals and underwater sound prevented tragedy as a large audience watched, stunned.” Peters suffered a broken foot

In June 1999, an orca tried to bite a trainer during a show before hundreds of spectators at Sea World in San Diego, but the trainer escaped injury by quickly jumping out of the water. A spokesman said the show ended a few minutes earlier than usual after the five-thousand-pound whale tried to "nip" the trainer. The spokesman said the 23-year-old female whale will be allowed to participate in shows but trainers won't go in the water with her until officials find out what caused her behavior. [Source: AP]

An orca show at SeaWorld in San Antonio was cut short after an orca named Ky turned on trainer Steve Aibel. The whale slammed Aibel underwater repeatedly as other trainers rushed to the side of the tank. Houston resident Justin Lecourias was among the spectators who witnessed the attack. He told San Antonio radio station KRIV that the whale seemed out of control. "The whale would come up and the guy would go under before he hit him so I guess it wouldn't hurt him that much and then one time he didn't come up for quite a period of time and that really freaked me out then, " Lecourias said. Aibel, who has been a trainer for a decade, wasn’t injured, but said he was caught off guard by the rough treatment. He's still not sure what prompted Ky's behavior, but he says Ky is near breeding age and may have just been feeling his adolescent hormones.”

Orca (Old Tom) and whalers

Endangered Orcas

Orcas are protected by the Endangered Species Act (ESA, U.S. Fish and Wildlife): According to the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN) red list there is insufficient data about orca populations to assess their status. The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES) places them in Appendix II, which lists species not necessarily threatened with extinction now but that may become so unless trade is closely controlled. /=\

All orca populations are protected under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA). Only two populations receive special protections under federal law:The Southern Resident population is listed as endangered under the Endangered Species Act. Ranging from central California to southeast Alaska, it is the only endangered population of orcas in the United States. Long-term commitments across state and national borders are needed to stabilize the Southern Residents’ population and prevent their extinction. The Southern Resident orca is one of NOAA Fisheries' Species in the Spotlight. This initiative includes animals considered most at risk for extinction and prioritizes recovery efforts. [Source: NOAA]

Scientists estimate the minimum historical population size of Southern Residents in the eastern North Pacific was about 140 animals. Following a live-capture fishery in the 1960s for use in marine mammal parks, 71 animals remained in 1974. Although there was some growth in the population in the 1970s and 1980s, with a peak of 98 animals in 1995, the population experienced a decline of almost 20 percent in the late 1990s, leaving 80 whales in 2001. The population census at the end of 2016 counted only 78 whales, and several deaths in 2017 brought the total of this struggling population to 76.

In recent decades, several populations of orcas have declined and some have become endangered. The population of AT1 Transients, a subgroup of Transient orcas in the eastern North Pacific, has been reduced from 22 to 7 whales since the 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill. In 2004, NOAA Fisheries designated this group as depleted under the Marine Mammal Protection Act (MMPA) based on the results of the status review (PDF, 25 pages). [Source: NOAA]

Threats to Orcas

Threats to orca populations include food limitations, chemical contaminants, disturbances from vessel traffic, noise and oil spills. In addition, although live capture of orcas for aquarium display and marine parks no longer occurs in the United States, it continues to remain a threat globally. [Source: NOAA]

Lack of Food: Overfishing and habitat loss have decreased the amount of prey available to some orcas. Without enough prey, orcas might experience decreased reproductive rates and increased mortality rates. This threat is especially important for Southern Resident orcas because some populations of their preferred prey, Chinook salmon, are also threatened or endangered.

Contaminants enter ocean waters and sediments from many sources, such as wastewater treatment plants, sewer outfalls, and pesticide application. Once in the environment, these substances move up the food chain and accumulate in top predators. Orcas accumulate these contaminants in their bodies because of their long lifespan, position at the top of the food chain, and blubber stores. These pollutants can harm orcas’ immune and reproductive systems. Despite modern pollution controls, chemical contamination through the food chain continues to threaten orcas. These controls have reduced, but not eliminated, many contaminants in the environment. Additionally, some of these contaminants persist in the marine environment for decades and continue to threaten marine life.

Orca caught in Lillebaelt

Oil Spills: The 1989 Exxon Valdez oil spill in Prince William Sound was strongly correlated with the direct loss of individuals. However, oil spills can also have an indirect impact on orcas by impacting the abundance of prey species. In addition, the bioaccumulation of certain pollutants such as PCBs in the food web can be seen in apex predators like orcas — and particularly among the transient population.

Disturbance from Vessels and Sound: When vessels are present, orcas hunt less and travel more. Noise interference from vessels, as well as from industrial and military activities, interrupts orcas’ ability to use sound, which in turn disturbs their feeding, communication, and orientation. Increased vessel noise causes Southern Resident orcas to call louder, expending more energy in the process. [Source: NOAA]

The number of orcas that live off Washington state declined by 20 percent in the 1990s. The losses have bee attributed to the disruption of their navigation system by boats, overfishing of orca prey (namely a 90 percent decline in salmon populations), toxic chemicals and pollution which may be damaging their immune systems, and the capture of member of the group for aquariums. The whales in turn have been eating seas otters, not their natural prey, because their normal food sources are not available. Environmentalist say their situation can be improved by increasing salmon runs and reducing industrial toxins.

Orcas are regarded as most toxic mammals in the Arctic. Orcas taken from a fjord in Arctic Norway were found to be full of PCBs and a flame retardant used in carpets. Pacific Northwest orcas are among the most PCB-contaminated mammals yet recorded. PCBs are blamed for disrupting the reproductive, neurological immune and endocrine systems of mammals.

Orca Attacks Boats Around Spain

In the summer of 2020, orcas attacked a number of sailboats off the coasts of Portugal, Spain, and Morocco. Between July 2020 and May 2023, there were been 744 reported encounters, 505 of which involved contact between the animals and the ship, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA). One in five interactions prevented boats from sailing on and three ended in vessels sinking. Many of the interactions ended with the orcas losing interest in the boat once they'd broken its rudder. The incidents were near or not so far away from Strait of Gibraltar, which connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, has been referred to as "orca alley" due to the large number of orcas in the area. [Source: Business Insider; Live Science]

Reports of aggressive encounters with orcas off the Iberian coast began in May 2020 and became more frequent, according to a study published June 2022 in the journal Marine Mammal Science. According to Live Science: Assaults seem to be mainly directed at sailing boats and follow a clear pattern, with orcas approaching from the stern to strike the rudder, then losing interest once they have successfully stopped the boat. [Source: Sascha Pare, Live Science, May 19, 2023]

"The reports of interactions have been continuous since 2020 in places where orcas are found, either in Galicia or in the Strait," said co-author Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica, or Atlantic Orca Working Group. Most encounters have been harmless, López Fernandez told Live Science. "In more than 500 interaction events recorded since 2020 there are three sunken ships. We estimate that orcas only touch one ship out of every hundred that sail through a location."

A 2020 report said: “We are not even certain whether the incident occurred accidentally or intentionally. “We cannot rule out that a sailboat could have been involved in the aversive incident or that the orcas identify sailboats as more accessible boats and with larger rudders than others.” Sailors have reported “coordinated attacks” by a group of orcas sometimes lasting up to an hour, in which the animals take turns to ram the hulls of yachts, bite the rudder and make boats spin around. Sixty-one percent of the 33 reported incidents between July and September 2020 were attributed to one group of three orcas called the Gladys trio, leading researchers to suspect maybe they were always to blame for all the attacks. Of the 33 attacks, six took place in the Strait of Gibraltar area, five were in Portuguese waters and 22 were off the coast of the northwestern Spanish region of Galicia, where yachting was banned off a stretch of coastline on avoid orca confrontations. [Source: James Badcock, The Telegraph., October 7, 2020]

Orca Sink Boats Around Spain

Three boats were sunk by orcas. Live Science reported: Three orcas struck a yacht on the night of May 4, 2023 in the Strait of Gibraltar and pierced the rudder. "There were two smaller and one larger orca," skipper Werner Schaufelberger told the German publication Yacht. "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." Schaufelberger said he saw the smaller orcas imitate the larger one. "The two little orcas observed the bigger one's technique and, with a slight run-up, they too slammed into the boat." Spanish coast guards rescued the crew and towed the boat to Barbate, but it sank at the port entrance. [Source: Sascha Pare, Live Science, May 19, 2023]

Two days earlier, a pod of six orcas assailed another sailboat navigating the strait. Greg Blackburn, who was aboard the vessel, looked on as a mother orca appeared to teach her calf how to charge into the rudder. "It was definitely some form of education, teaching going on," Blackburn told 9news. Business Insider reported: Blackburn thought his boat was hitting rough waves when the thumps began on May 2, 2023 as he sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar near Tangier, Morocco, according to 9News. But as the jolts continued, and the rudder seemed to resist his steering, Blackburn looked down and saw a giant black animal in the water, with the characteristic white oval and underbelly. Two orcas were repeatedly ramming his boat, and soon two more whales joined in. "There's not a lot you can do at that point," Blackburn, a sailor from the UK, told 9News. "After reading reports and knowing what has been going on, just thought we were in for a ride now." [Source: Joshua Zitser, Morgan McFall-Johnsen, Business Insider, May 10, 2023]

A pair of notable orca attacks occurred in July, 2022 when a pod of orcas attacked a sailboat off the coast of Portugal and, just hours later, targeted another vessel in the same area, according to reports. The first incident, which local media described as "very much worse than usual," saw orcas ram a small sailboat carrying five people approximately seven miles off the coast of Sines, Portugal. Orca attacks have sometimes immobilized sailboats, but local media said that, in this instance, it caused so much damage that the vessel started to sink. The five crew members, who were on vacation, per The Sun, made it onto life rafts and radioed for help. A nearby fishing vessel was able to rescue them, according to a statement by the Portuguese Navy. Unusually, another orca attack took place nearby just a few hours later. Newsweek reported that the second orca attack involved a small sailboat with two passengers aboard. The passengers, who were sleeping at the time of the attack, were traveling from Lisbon to the Algarve, per the local media outlet Portugal Resident.

While the vast majority of the attacks do not cause boats to sink, the encounters can still be terrifying, as one British couple on vacation in Morocco 2023 discovered. The couple told The Times how they had considered escaping on a life raft after a pod of orcas attacked their yacht during a sailing trip off the coast of northwestern Africa. Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell were on an already-bumpy ride when the crew spotted the orcas on May 2, 2023 in the Strait of Gibraltar. The couple was awoken from a nap by crew members shouting: "Orcas! Orcas!" as a pod of orcas began banging into their 46-foot boat, per The Times. Morris, a business consultant, said, "I couldn't believe it when I saw them... We were sitting ducks....We were petrified. It wasn't until afterward that we talked about being very scared because it was hard to distinguish the turbulent weather from the movement of the whales. [Source: Isobel van Hagen, Business Insider, May 20, 2023]

Orcas Rip Rudder Off Boat and Follow it All the Way to Ports

In late May 2023, a group of orcas nearly sank another sailboat — the "Mustique" — in the Strait of Gibraltar and followed the vessel all the way to port — marking the first-known case of orcas stalking a boat — after destroying its rudder. "They didn't leave after the rudder was removed," April Boyes, an experienced sailor who was aboard the Mustique, told Live Science. [Source: Sascha Pare, Live Science June 6, 2023]

Live Science reported: The crew first spotted the orcas around 9:30 p.m. local time as they were sailing through the Strait of Gibraltar. "It didn't take long for them to start hitting our rudder and the force of this would spin the helm violently and you could feel the vibration through the deck," Boyes wrote in a blog post. After breaking the rudder, the orcas seemed to lose interest and swam away. But 20 minutes later, the pod returned and began circling the boat. "After an hour of the orcas continuing to hit the rudder it was evidently now completely destroyed and water started to flow into the boat," Boyes wrote. The crew alerted the Spanish coastguard, which towed the boat to the port of Barbate. But even then the orcas lingered. "The orcas continued to follow the boat until we got inshore," Boyes wrote.

Spanish officials and researchers from the group Conservation, Information and Research on Cetaceans (CIRCE) plan to use satellite trackers to monitor six orcas that have been involved in attacks. One orca has already been tagged, government representatives said in a statement. "Thanks to the GPS of the killer whales and prediction models, we have some variables that allow us to predict where these animals are going to be," Renaud de Stephanis, the president of CIRCE, told the Spanish broadcaster RTVE. "100% of the attacks that have occurred since March until now could have been prevented simply by people being informed."

But some experts think the measure could backfire. "Many of us have reservations because we think that satellite tagging is not going to be of any use in relation to interactions, if not to aggravate the situation, because it is done by shooting and the killer whales will surely not find it very funny," López Fernandez told RTVE.

De Stephanis also recently suggested that sailors could deter orcas by gluing anti-pigeon spikes onto the rudder. "We believe that one solution to reduce the impact, which is cost-effective and highly effective, would be to install anti-pigeon spikes cut to 3 cm [1.2 inches] on the back of the rudder," he wrote in a Facebook post on June 2. "The system should be easy to install (using Velcro or underwater glue) and easy to remove."

Why Did Orcas Attacks Boats Around Spain?

After the orca attack began 2020, scientists came up with different theories: The orcas could be acting out of curiosity, mischief, or territoriality. The spike in aggression towards boats was a recent phenomenon, López Fernandez said. Researchers think that a traumatic event may have triggered a change in the behavior of one orca, which the rest of the population learned to imitate. "The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course, we don't know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day," López Fernandez said. [Source: Sascha Pare, Live Science, May 19, 2023]

Orcas are social creatures that can easily learn and reproduce behaviors performed by others, according to the 2022 study. In the majority of reported cases, orcas have made a beeline for a boat's rudder and either bitten, bent or broken it. "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," López Fernandez said.

Orcas appear to perceive the behavior as advantageous, despite the risk they run by slamming into moving boat structures, López Fernandez added. Since the abnormal interactions began in 2020, four orcas belonging to a subpopulation living in Iberian waters have died, although their deaths cannot be directly linked to encounters with boats.

The unusual behavior could also be playful or what researchers call a "fad" — a behavior initiated by one or two individuals and temporarily picked up by others before it’s abandoned. "They are incredibly curious and playful animals and so this might be more of a play thing as opposed to an aggressive thing," Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington and at the non-profit Wild Orca, told Live Science.

Could a Traumatized Orca Be Behind the Boats Around Spain?

A traumatized orca called White Gladis may be behind the rise in orca attacks on boats in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists believe. According to Live Science: Experts suspect that a female orca they call White Gladis suffered a "critical moment of agony" — a collision with a boat or entrapment during illegal fishing — that flipped a behavioral switch. "That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat," López Fernandez said.

Experts believe the behavior was copied by other orcas. The Telegraph reported in 2020. “Members of the international working group for Atlantic orcas say they have been able to confirm that three juvenile orcas from the same pod are responsible for the ramming attacks that have damaged a series of boats.Of the three orcas, which the scientists have collectively named Gladys, a study of photographs taken over the summer period has revealed that two sustained injuries to their flanks, which is not the kind of habitual damage the animals’ dorsal fins sustain by accidental brushes with fishing lines. [Source: James Badcock, The Telegraph., October 7, 2020]

“The injuries to white Gladys and black Gladys, named due to differences in their dorsal fin colouration, appeared between June 20 and August 3. The vast majority of the incidents took place after this time, leading researchers to suspect there is a connection and that the orcas are retaliating aggressively to the pain they ensured. “Since that event a series of behaviours have been triggered when the orcas are in the presence of yachts, which culminate in a preventive action to stop it moving by manipulating [the rudder],” the report reads.

Orcas Learn How to Steal Fish from Commercial Fishing Lines

A study published in the journal Biology Letters in February 2022 that analyzed years of data involving two different orca populations near the Crozet Islands in the Indian Ocean detailed how orcas dine on fish that people have caught in lines or nets. The Huffington Post reported: “Since the 1990s, the region has been a hotspot for commercial fishing of the Patagonian toothfish — a fish often marketed under the name “Chilean sea bass.” The toothfish are caught on longlines along the bottom of the ocean floor, meaning that one big fishing line is baited with many hooks and each hook nabs an individual fish. [Source: Hilary Hanson, Huffington Post, February 6, 2022]

“As the lines get drawn up from the deep water, they essentially become “the open ocean equivalent of the conveyor belt in a sushi bar,” as Luke Rendell, a Scottish biology lecturer uninvolved with the study, put it in a piece for The Conversation. “The researchers looked at data from 2003 to 2018 and noted that incidents of orcas eating the fish off the hooks, referred to as “depredation,” gradually increased over time. This seemed to be due to individual orcas picking up the behavior from one another. One of the orca populations the scientists studied was first reported feeding off of fishery catches in 1996. By 2014, all 80 to 100 orcas in the group had started doing it.

“In addition to the ease of snatching fish off of a fishing line, another reason contributing to the behavior catching on could be overfishing. In the 2000s, as the population declined, it became more difficult for orcas to catch toothfish themselves, but they then encountered “increased and predictable” opportunities to pluck their prey off of fishing lines. Overall, the researchers were struck by how thoroughly commercial fishing had changed the orcas’ behavior over time. “This study is illustrative of how human activities, by altering the availability of resources in ecosystems, may lead to new behaviours (sic) spreading across individuals of species capable of innovating in response to changes in their environment,” they wrote.

Studying Orcas

Scientist identify individuals orcas by the shape and size of their dorsal fins, scaring on the fins or saddle areas, and coloring patterns. Pods are identified by a letter and individuals are given a letter and number. D-14, for example, is whale no. 14 from pod D. After studying whales in the Pacific Northwest, scientists have put together photo-ID catalogs to identify individuals and worked out family trees with births, deaths, pairings and social changes in each pod. In some ways the studies are closer to an anthropological study of new culture than a study of animals. Orcas captured and placed on the decks of ships in rough seas can get very seas sick.

Orcas recognize human trainer even after not seeing them for several years. During the peak spring research season, when scientists spend 16-hour days on the water, Black said she and her colleagues have noticed that the orcas "are checking us out, just like we're checking them out.'' The whale have also shown an interest Black's Labrador retriever, Andy. When the dog peers over the side of the boat, she said, orcas swim by, turn sideways and look up at Andy but when. But when Andy drops his Frisbee into the water, his invitation t play, the orcas swim away indifferently.

Black described a "goofy" teenage male, dubbed "Star Fin,'' that was obsessed with the researchers' 22-foot inflatable skiff, often coming up and playfully nudging it with his nose. Researcher Sarah Graham said that once when she leaned over the side of the skiff, an orca slowly rose up vertically -- "spyhopping'' -- to inspect her, Black recounted. "It came right to her, stopped right beneath her hand and looked up at her.''

Inbreeding and Efforts to Help Pacific Northwest Orcas

Research published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution in March 2023 suggests that orcas in the Pacific Ocean Northwest are so inbred that they are dying younger and their population is not recovering. Female orcas take about 20 years to reach peak fertility, and the females may not be living long enough to ensure the growth of their population. Associated Press reported: While that news sounds grim for the revered orcas — known as the “southern resident” orcas — it also underscores the urgency of conservation efforts, said Kim Parsons, a geneticist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's NOAA Fisheries who co-authored the study. The population is not necessarily doomed, she said.“It’s not often inbreeding itself that will result in a shortened lifespan or kill an individual,” Parsons said. “It's really that inbreeding makes these individuals more vulnerable to disease or environmental factors. We can support the population by supporting the environment and giving them the best chance possible.” [Source: Gene Johnson, Associated Press, March 21, 2023]

The struggles of the charismatic population of orcas that frequent the waters between Washington state and the Canadian province of British Columbia have been well documented — including in 2018, when one grieving mother carried her stillborn calf for 17 days in an apparent effort to mourn or revive it. The southern resident population comprises three clans of whales known as the J, K and L pods. They are socially distinct and even communicate differently from other orca populations, including the nearby northern residents, which are listed as threatened and which primarily range from Vancouver Island up to southeast Alaska.

Prior studies have suggested that inbreeding was a problem, including a 2018 study that found just two males had fathered more than half the calves born to the southern residents since 1990. For the new research, NOAA geneticist Marty Kardos, Parsons and other colleagues sequenced the genomes of 100 living and dead southern residents, including 90 percent of those alive now. Those whales had lower levels of genetic diversity and higher levels of inbreeding than other populations of orcas in the North Pacific, they found.

The capture of the whales decades ago, as well as the geographic or social isolation of the animals, likely explains the inbreeding, the researchers said. Meanwhile, conservation efforts have helped other North Pacific orca populations thrive. The northern resident orcas have increased from about 122 animals in 1974 to more than 300 by 2018. Like the southern residents, they only eat fish, primarily salmon — unlike many other orcas, which eat mammals such as seals. The Alaska resident orca population is estimated to have doubled from 1984 to 2010. According to the researchers, the southern residents would likely be on a similar trajectory if not for their elevated levels of inbreeding.

Inbreeding has also afflicted other populations of isolated or endangered animals, such as mountain lions in California, gorillas in Africa and bottle nose dolphins off western Australia. In some cases, scientists may be able to improve the gene pool in one population by capturing and introducing animals from another. That's not the case for orcas, which are massive and free-swimming. Further, the southern residents already have opportunities to interbreed — they just haven't done so, Parsons said. “We really have to leave it to those whales to mate with whom they choose and support the population in other ways,” Parsons said.

Image Source: Wikimedia Commons, NOAA

Text Sources: Animal Diversity Web (ADW) animaldiversity.org; National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) noaa.gov; Wikipedia, National Geographic, Live Science, BBC, Smithsonian, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, Reuters, Associated Press, Lonely Planet Guides and various books and other publications.

Last Updated June 2023

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