DeFINitely Hot: Straight out of a novel – ‘Orcastrated‘ killer whale attacks

A couple of days ago, orca encounters off Spain and Portugal made headlines when things turned nasty. A pod of killer whales has repeatedly attacked several boats, causing significant damage to the vessels, which occurred for the first time back in July. Orcas can be frequently seen around the Strait of Gibraltar, and in September, they can be spotted along the shoreline between Portugal and Spain.

At least nine animals were involved in the incidents, which were reported as ‘orchestrated’. Great pun, isn’t it? What is even more astonishing is that people seem surprised since popular opinion is that orcas would never harm people outside of Sea World & Co.

Well, no. What people forget is that orcas are incredibly powerful marine predators. And yes, this fact alone makes them potentially dangerous to people. Just because there haven’t been any incidents so far, doesn’t mean there won’t be any in the future. Especially since more people want to swim with them commercially in northern Norway and Baja California or find themselves in situations where killer whales join their recreational swim, as seen several times in New Zealand over the last couple of years.

When I read the headlines, the first thing that came to my mind was the novel by German author Frank Schätzing, ‘The Swarm’. In the book, humpback whales and orcas are working together to capsize whale-watching boats and then kill the people drifting in the water. While this is science fiction, it became a reality for boaties off the Iberian Peninsula which must have been incredibly scary to watch. The reports also follow incidents of commercial swim-with-whales activities in Western Australia on which my colleagues and I published an online article with The Conversation last week.

What triggered the animals to attack the boats is still unknown, but scientists suggest it is likely only one particular pod to be involved. A possible explanation could be that the animals feel threatened by the boats and take the law into their own flippers. I have witnessed strange whale behaviour off Mauritius where a sports fishing boat was ‘welcomed’ with several fluke splashes towards the vessel initiated by a male sperm whale. In particular, private boaters have a reputation for behaving less considerate around whales and dolphins because they are not familiar with local guidelines on how to approach them to minimise disturbance. If animals get chased or harassed, they may become aggressive towards boats and people. And pissing off killer whales is, evidently, not a good idea.

In general, we need to respect the fact that despite being dolphins and an unrealistic and widespread association with being ‘safe’ animals, killer whales pose a risk to our safety when we enter their habitat. Just like any other large, terrestrial and carnivorous animal. Wildlife may behave in unpredictable ways, as demonstrated, and require to be respected as the wild beings they are. If not, this may get us in serious trouble.

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