Orca attacks on boats aren't out of revenge, killer whale experts say. They're just having fun.

  • Killer whales have been ramming boats and ripping off rudders in the waters near southern Spain.

  • Insider spoke with three orca experts to better understand why these encounters are happening.

  • All the experts agree that while it might feel like an attack, these orcas just want to play.

European sailors first reported a spike in orca encounters off the coasts of Spain and Portugal in 2020. The interactions have continued to grow ever since and are happening every day, now.

The killer whales are not only ramming boats with their heads and ripping off rudders with their teeth, but they've also managed to sink three vessels so far this year.

"They clearly find a lot of pleasure in these encounters," Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia in Canada, told Insider.

But Trites isn't talking about malicious pleasure, though it may feel like that for the people whose boats are taking a beating. Sailor Werner Schaufelberger described his encounter with orcas in May as "brutal."

"They're probably socializing, yucking it up with each other about their adventures without realizing the terror they're creating in their moments of joy," Trites said.

Trites is one of several orca experts Insider spoke with who all agree the orcas are just having a good time and probably don't have any ill will against the boats or humans on board.

This idea flies in the face of a darker theory that the orcas are attacking boats because of one traumatized killer whale named White Gladis who is taking revenge. And other orcas are imitating her behavior.

However, none of the experts Insider spoke with were convinced this was the case.

"I certainly think orcas are capable of complex emotions," Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute told Insider. "But we just haven't seen anything like that anywhere else in the world. And we have given orcas plenty of reason to want to seek revenge on us."

Tilikum, the orca in Blackfish, has taken the lives of three people.Suzanne Allee/Magnolia Pictures

Shields points to the long history of humans harming the orca population, from shooting them at fisheries to the years of live captures in the '60s and '70s in which humans separated orca offspring from their families to display them in aquariums.

And yet, these situations haven't resulted in wild orcas attacking boats, Shields said. Orcas in captivity have attacked and killed humans, but there are no records of orcas killing humans in the wild.

The orcas are trying to play

According to Shields, orcas' natural curiosity and playfulness are likely the cause for these encounters and not revenge.

Orcas are very social and curious animals that often engage with their environments, Shields said.

In the Salish Sea off the coast of Washington, for example, it's not uncommon for orcas to play with crab traps, dragging them around for a few minutes or hours until they eventually lose interest, according to Shields.

"To me, that's really similar to what's going on in Spain," Shields said. "It's the same type of behavior, they might be thinking, 'Hey, there's this piece of equipment in my environment, I'm going to play with it for a while then move on.'"

Hanne Strager, a mammal marine biologist and author of the book "The Killer Whale Journals: Our Love and Fear of Ocras" agrees that curiosity is the likely cause.

In fact, Strager doesn't classify these encounters as "attacks," or attempts by the orcas to harm people and their property, but rather an example of orca exploration.

Killer whale surfacing from the water, showing its white underbelly.
Cavan Images / Raffi Maghdessian / Getty Images

"I don't doubt that it feels like an attack for the people on the boat," Strager told Insider. "But from the orca's perspective, I don't think it's aggressive. Just because it feels and looks very dramatic to us doesn't mean it is dramatic for them."

Orcas find boats stimulating

Experts agree orcas are definitely targeting sailboats, but probably because there is something stimulating and exciting about "playing" with boats that causes them to repeat the behavior and teach it to others in their pod.

According to Trites, orcas might simply enjoy the sensation of ramming into boats.

"Orcas are very tactile and sensitive to touch," Trites told Insider. "In my research I've been struck by how often they touch each other and run into each other while swimming. It's just like with humans. We need to be touched."

Orcas might also be enticed by a boat speeding through the water and get a thrill out of chasing it, Trites said. In fact, the more people on a boat make a commotion or try to speed away, the more exciting the event is for the animal and the more likely they are to try to ram the boat again, Trites said.

"You can't outrun a killer whale," Trites said. "Just turn off your engine, let your rudder up, and become as boring as possible."

Playful, or not, this behavior could put orca lives at risk

While orca experts have good reason to think the animals are just being playful, ultimately, it's impossible to know what they're thinking.

Two orcas swimming in the water with a rainbow in between them.
Jason Edwards/Getty Images

And this uncertainty has people feeling uneasy, especially as these encounters become more prevalent and potentially dangerous for both people and orcas.

"I think tensions are escalating," Shields said. "And I think it's just a matter of time before a whale gets hurt or gets killed."

With better tracking of these incidents, hopefully, sailors can avoid high-risk areas and after enough "boring" encounters with boats, the orcas will eventually move on, Strager said.

Until then, Trites said it's important to remember these are endangered creatures who likely aren't out to hurt us.

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