Ask a Scientist: What you REALLY should do when you’re encountering an Orca


This summer, New Zealand is experiencing an unusual series of opportunistic in-water encounters with wild killer whales. Opportunistic encounters with marine wildlife are all ‘unplanned’ and they occur by chance, for example, during a participation in water sports. This is an extraordinary situation as encounters of this type have been comparably rare in the past with Norway being the only country worldwide where commercial swim-with programmes with free-ranging killer whales are offered. Due to a lack of legally binding regulations.

My very first research was dealing with this particular topic. I wanted to know how killer whales react on close approaches of divers and snorkelers. These ventures were established in the late 90s in the northernmost part of Norway, within the Arctic Circle. However, no one before attended to explore these operations in a scientific context. But information on animal behaviour are important to know before we let people getting close to potentially dangerous wildlife. One might argue that there hasn’t been one case in world where a wild killer whale have attacked a human being. A popular statement that is repeated widely on social media. Yet this does not mean that this will be a remaining circumstance. With more encounters there will also be a higher probability for potential incidents. In fact, any large and highly mobile predator can be a threat to our personal health and safety. No matter whether it is a shark, a dolphin, a barracuda or a seal.

So, the good news is that we didn’t find any threatening behaviours in our study (phew!). These are behaviours like head orientation towards you with an open mouth, hectic head and body movements, jaw clapping, spread flippers and when the animal is rushing towards you, often accompanied with an open mouth. So a rule of thumb is: When you are able to count their teeth, get out of there! ;) In addition, sexual behaviours can be dangerous for us as well. When you are seeing a huge whale penis coming towards you, the same advice as above will apply…

Threatening and potentially dangerous behaviour is not necessarily aggressive. Play behaviour, e.g. when the animal is grabbing your extremities, can get very uncomfortable for us, too. Not only because of broken bones but also because cetaceans are much more skilled in holding their breath. An incident with a wild short-finned pilot whale off Hawai’i that occurred in the early 90s portrays the danger of close approaches towards wildlife. The swimmer was grabbed and pulled down by the male. In this case, however, the female swimmer has initiated physical contact with the animal prior to the incident. So whatever you do: Do.not.touch! It could save your life.

Why? Touching initiated by swimmers has been identified as catalyst for negative responses of various dolphin species.

I want to highlight that the absence of threatening behaviour patterns in our research has to be seen with caution. Aggression is a critical part in cetacean societies and was found in wild as well as orcas being held in human care being directed towards conspecifics and other dolphin species during the establishment of the very first behavioural catalogue on killer whales in the late 1970s.

Have you ever noticed the scars on their skin? They are pretty helpful to identify individual animals but also show that they are not the ‘gentle giants’ many people think they are. Researchers have found that animals which are getting used to people (they are habituated to their presence), show the same kind of behaviour towards swimmers they address to conspecifics in their social groups. That means: When the orcas feel familiar with us, they also lose their natural wariness and may become more foolish. Fooling around with a killer whale? Probably not the best idea.

Yes, they are extremely smart and they probably know that we are not very tasty. However, animal attacks are not always occurring because we are potential prey items but rather because they feel threatened, transforming an attack to an actual defense. Competition can also be a cause and unfortunately we are not able to tell them that we are actually not very interested in delicious stingray treats (aren’t we!?).

Should we be afraid? No. But as with any other wild animal we need to respect their boundaries and their wild nature and therefore should refrain from behaviour that can elicit negative responses. Getting close for the ultimate selfie or video for Instagram is one of them ;)

Staying calm is never wrong, however it is good to remember the following:

-Do not actively approach an individual or a group of orcas

-When the animal appears to be hectic by displaying sudden movements, calmly approach the next boat or beach

-Refrain from initiating any physical contact with the animal

-Keep your camera away. You need to stay focused and aware knowing where the animal(s) are and observing what[nbsp][nbsp][nbsp][nbsp][nbsp]

[nbsp]kind of body language they display

-After the encounter, let other people know where you have seen the animals (e.g. in online sighting networks)

-Enjoy. You’ve been really lucky.


I've got one thing left that is to close this entry with a pun: