mysteries of the deep

Are the Orcas Exacting Their Revenge?

Can you blame them? Photo: Yekaterina Shtukina/Yekaterina Shtukina/TASS

Orcas have very large and very powerful brains. They grieve, they can replicate human speech, and it appears they possess “the cognitive capacity for deception” and revenge. Is it possible that, given the litany of manmade offenses — climate change, which drives them further and further north in search of food; noise and chemical pollution, which may weaken their immune systems and dampen their fertility; SeaWorld — humans have lobbed at killer whales, they would put their typically peaceable heads together and decide to do a coup? Let us consider the evidence.

Since roughly July, orcas have been banding together to menace boats off the coast of Portugal and Spain, smashing into their sides as if to tip them, The Guardian reports. According to one witness, who weathered an hourlong orca onslaught in the Strait of Gibraltar, the battering felt “totally orchestrated.”

“The noise was really scary,” 23-year-old biology graduate Victoria Morris told The Guardian. “They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat. And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other.” Like they were working together.

Despite their imposing name, killer whales tend to be friendly toward humans, and will — according to The Guardian’s sources — typically treat passing boats playfully, swimming alongside them and occasionally latching onto rudders as a fun game. But over the past two months, they have been bullying delivery ships, breaking off parts and occasionally injuring those onboard, in the waters off the Spanish town of Barbate. Yacht owner Beverly Harris recalled how, on the night of July 22, her motor-powered boat came to a sudden stop in eerily still, uncannily dark water.

“I scrambled for a torch and was like, ‘Bloody hell, they’re orcas,’” Harris said. Apparently, the orcas proceeded to spin the boat around every time she and her partner tried to correct course. “I had this weird sensation, like they were trying to lift the boat.”

Still, the researchers The Guardian consulted attributed the orcas out-of-character behavior to stress rather than animosity. The orcas of the Gibraltar Strait are endangered; like their comrades in the Pacific Northwest, they have a hard time raising calves, quite possibly due to the impact of ship traffic and a sorely depleted food source. In Gibraltar, orcas hunt bluefin tuna, a fish humans also value, to the extent that fishermen antagonize and injure orcas in an effort to preserve their haul. Over the past six months, however, human activity in Gibraltar — and in most parts of the world — dropped off, a respite many wild animals seem to have appreciated. It’s possible that the orcas are not excited to see people return, The Guardian reports; it’s also possible that, given their astounding intellect, the whales are simply becoming “pissed off.” And if they were, could you blame them?

Are the Orcas Exacting Their Revenge?