The number of interactions between killer whales and humans has increased alarmingly in recent years.
Videos circulating on the internet show the large marine mammals swimming around sailboats or medium-sized craft, pushing and even turning them, sometimes resulting in damaged rudders and sunken ships.
This behavior, called disruptive, was first noticed in 2020. Since then, there has been a remarkable 298 percent increase in encounter frequency between 2020 and 2022, as reported by the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA), a group of Hispanic and Portuguese marine scientists trained to understand the new behavior.
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The GTOA reported 52 interactions between July and November 2020 in the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar and Galicia (NW Peninsula), including the coast of Portugal. The new behavior reached 197 interactions in 2021 and 207 were recorded in 2022.
The interactions have raised important questions about the dynamics between these majestic marine creatures and our own species.
Are Orcas Revolting Against Humanity? A cetacean expert thinks not.
On Monday, CTVNews.ca spoke with Thomas Doniol-Valcroze, head of the Cetacean Research Program at Fisheries and Oceans Canada in Nanaimo, BC, to explain the reasons behind the increase in interactions, examine the types of encounters and the implications for both people like orcas.
WHY ARE WHALE-MAN INTERACTIONS INCREASING?
GTOA found 21 different instances of historical data on orca-human interactions, from the attack on the shipwrecked Essex in 1820 to several incidents in Vancouver between 2003 and 2018, and even an attack by a surfer.
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While there is no doubt that these interactions have suddenly increased over the past three years, Doniol-Valcroze said this behavior has not yet been explained.
“There is not really consensus. There’s just a range of different hypotheses,” he told CTVNews.ca.
The theories range from the orcas being stressed, teaching each other this “self-defense technique,” to just them being playful, the BC scientist said.
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“I’m more willing to think this has something to do with play. I mean those animals are big dolphins after all and they are definitely interested in boats,’ he said. “They are curious animals.”
Doniol-Valcroze said he doesn’t think these kinds of interactions will stop any time soon.
“If it’s really a game, and if they like it, they’ll just do it more and more.”
He also added that it would be interesting to see if this disruptive behavior will become less frequent as the young individuals grow or if they will teach this to new generations.
While these are still somewhat harmless interactions, “you wouldn’t want this behavior to spread in the population, but it has the potential to do so.”
SHOULD BOATERS IN CANADA BE CONCERNED?
The cultural transmission of behaviors in killer whales can be passed from one group of killers to another, Doniol-Valcroze explains.
In British Columbia, there are several populations, such as the northern and southern resident, that prey on fish, and there are also Bigg’s killer whales, called transient killer whales, that prey on other marine mammals.
“There’s behavior that we’ve seen transfer from one group to another, but we haven’t seen that happen in different populations,” the BC scientist said, explaining that populations between killer whales in Canada and those in Europe do not interact with each other, making transfer of behavior unlikely.
WHAT’S DIFFERENT ABOUT THESE ATTACKS?
The videos show some individual whales, mostly juveniles, from the Iberian killer whale population – a unique subpopulation of killer whales that lives in the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. In these episodes, animals deliberately approach the boats and target the underwater moving parts, such as the rudder.
“They’re still wild animals, and they’re very big and strong, so it doesn’t take much to smash a sailboat,” the cetacean expert said.
Doniol-Valcroze said the behaviors shown in the interactions between Spain and Portugal are not the normal signs of the killer whales’ hunt: high speed, splashing water, coordinated communication, etc.
In the videos, “they’re pretty calm, they don’t seem agitated, and they certainly don’t go after the people in the boat,” he said.
He added that he’s had similar interactions when surveying BC, where killer whales, belugas and dolphins will follow the survey boats and stick their heads right behind the propellers.
“It’s quite unnerving because you wouldn’t want these animals to get hurt. But they seem to enjoy the feel of the propeller and the flow of the water and the bubbles on it, and that’s pretty widespread,” he said.
“It feels to me like these whales are going to sailboats, and maybe they see that the propeller isn’t spinning, and they want to play with things and try to get things moving.”
WHAT TO DO IF YOU MEET A KILLER WALKA
While there’s no reason for humans to be afraid, Doniol-Valcroze said it’s best to keep your distance from the animal.
“Keep your course and your speed, basically don’t make sudden changes,” he said.
He also added a good rule of thumb: remember these are wild animals that are protected by law and should not be harassed or harassed by humans.
“It’s best to just try not to interfere with anything they do, such as socializing or hunting their prey,” he said.