January 16, 2024

The Revenge of the Orcas

Several years ago, I wrote a blog about orcas, who are often referred to as “killer whales, “although, confusingly, they are actually a species of large-bodied dolphins. They’re just whale-sized denizens of the ocean. In fact, they are the largest species of dolphins in the world. They can range in size from 23 to 32 feet and can weigh up to 6 tons!  

In my blog, I told a number of stories about how these orcas who appear to have a kind of telepathy had helped to rescue people whose boats had got into trouble or whose owners had become lost and disoriented in the fog. Typically, a group of orcas would suddenly appear and somehow “knew” where the owners of the boats lived and would escort them to their ports and safety. There was even an instance when a pod of orcas all at once stopped feeding and swam to a location where they found a woman who was drowning and saved her life. (It later turned out that the woman had attempted suicide.) Indeed, such stories are well known among marine biologists who have studied the behavior of orcas.

This is perhaps one of the most paradoxical things about killer whales. Despite the fact that they have been hunted down and savagely slaughtered by humans for many years, not only do they not respond in kind, but only with kindness itself. As the naturalist and ecologist Carl Safina, who has studied orcas extensively, remarks, “The fact is, killer whales seem capable of random acts of kindness.” However, I don’t think that’s quite accurate. Their acts of kindness are not random; they are targeted and deliberate. Furthermore, as deadly as these orcas can be in hunting down their prey, there has never been a recorded instance of orcas in the wild harming, much less killing, a human being.

But perhaps this is changing. Consider, for example, the following case that comes from a recent article in The New Yorker:
On the night of May 4th, the skipper Werner Schaufelberger was sailing the Swiss yacht Champagne toward a Spanish port town on the Strait of Gibraltar when he heard a loud rumble. His first thought was that the boat had hit something, but he quickly realized that the vessel was under assault—by a group of orcas. “The attacks were brutal,” Schaufelberger told the German magazine Yacht. Three orcas, the large black-and-white dolphins also known as killer whales, worked in tandem; a large orca rammed the boat from the side while two smaller ones gnawed at the rudder until it was destroyed and the yacht was taking on water. Schaufelberger radioed for help, and the Spanish Coast Guard sent a helicopter and rescue cruiser to collect the four people on board. None were injured. The only casualty was the Champagne itself, which sank while being towed toward land.
This not an isolated incident either. These attacks, which started in 2020, have continued and, if anything, have become more numerous as well as more vicious. The orcas involved in these deliberate assaults near the Strait of Gibraltar comprise a group about fifteen individuals who generally work as a team. They seem to have sunk three boats (and attacked others) in 2020, and according to the article in The New Yorker, 
The orcas have continued their disruptions—with encounters happening almost every day in May and June … One sailor said that the orcas had playfully thrashed his boat around “like a rag doll,” removed the rudders, and left him marooned for days.
A captain of a boat reported an original attack three years ago, and said that recently they had honed their strategy and had detached both of his ship’s rudders. In late October, several of these orcas spent more than an hour battering another yacht off the Moroccan coast. Eventually, the crew had to be rescued.

It is as if these orcas have become a kind of seafaring mafia, and as one wag put it, they are now engaged in orca-nized crime.

Why is this happening now? Why have the orcas, at least in this area, turned savage whereas before they seemed benevolently disposed toward humans and, as I said, were known to rescue them from perilous situations. But lately, they seem to be willfully and maliciously causing these dangerous and indeed life-threatening rampages. How come?

Various authors and lay persons have already proposed several theories, and there is not as yet any consensus on the matter, certainly not among experts. However, it is hard to avoid speculating on the matter, and what I will offer here is only my own hypothesis.

To begin with, it’s known that a particular adult female, dubbed White Gladis, was involved in many of these incidents, with others who were mostly juveniles. Some have suggested that White Gladis had been injured by a boat or by fishing equipment, and was attacking the vessels because she had learned to see them as a threat. That’s at least a plausible possibility.

But perhaps more telling is the fact that these Iberian orcas are critically endangered. It appears that there are only about forty of these orcas still alive. I don’t know how many have already died, but we can guess who is responsible for what is assuredly a sharp reduction in their ranks. 

Even when I was writing years ago about the orcas in the Pacific Northwest, it was already clear that their numbers were in precipitous decline owing to various factors, but certainly the toxicity of the oceans and the navy’s use of punishing sonar were among the main causes. And it is now well known, and I’ve written about this, too, that our oceans are full of crap, plastics, fishing nets, and all sorts of debris that are harmful to marine life. We human beings are very good at poisoning our environment, including the oceans. Now the alpha-predator of the planet, we also have a talent for extinguishing most varieties of megafauna, and the climate change crisis we are all experiencing will only accelerate that dreadful and lamentable trend. 

Orcas are very smart creatures. They have to live in the marine environment most of us only see from the surface. They can tell which way the sea winds are blowing and smell the rotten stench that is beginning to pervade their waters, to say nothing of the dangerous debris that they now must encounter and try to evade. And surely, being the savvy and telepathic animals that they are, they know who is responsible, so that when pleasure-loving yachtsmen, who may be oblivious to all the undersea dangers orcas have to confront daily, come with their boats, what can they expect? And who else can the orcas attack, anyway? So it’s easy to imagine the boat strikes as acts of defense by a group facing existential threat. In short, all this may well represent the revenge of the orcas. 

Although this is my own provisional interpretation, I am far from alone in suggesting it. And while this is a serious matter, regardless of its cause, it can also be the fodder for a kind of playful whimsey as the author of the article in The New Yorker points out: 
A world away from the Strait of Gibraltar, at the Minnesota State Fair, a crop-art contest got so many political-orca entries, one observer noted that “‘Let orcas eat the rich’ was literally an entire subgenre.” It was a tidal wave of cheeky projection: the orcas were comrades, applauded for a revolutionary uprising, striking a blow for climate justice one yacht at a time.
Still, until recently, such incidents have been rare, and so far as I know, they have been narrowly localized to the Iberian area. Nevertheless, they could signal a disturbing trend that we should be alert to monitor. After all, although no orcas in the wild have been known to kill human beings, several orcas kept in captivity and trained to perform at marine amusement parks have attacked their human trainers. One named Tilikum actually killed three people. When aroused and mistreated, they can turn deadly.

All the same, in the interest of balance, I have to mention that some marine biology experts have been warning against the dangers of anthromorphizing the behavior of orcas. No matter what may underlie the attacks, these experts aren’t buying the kind of interpretation I have proffered in this blog: “It is,” they write, “unfounded and potentially harmful to the animals to claim it is for revenge for past wrongs or to promote some other melodramatic storyline.”

And yet … As the author of The New Yorker article, concludes:  
Can you blame us, though? We love charismatic megafauna. And orcas, in particular, have rizz … Orcas occupy a sweet spot in terms of how humans see wildlife: they’re captivatingly alien, but the presence of trained orcas in film and amusement parks has taught us to think of them in relation to our own culture—often as a symbol for nature reacting to human overreach. When such creatures start ramming the boats associated with the rich, it’s natural to want to connect the dots.
Well, you know how I connect them. What about you?  Let me know….

1 comment:

  1. Brian Anthony KraemerJanuary 17, 2024 at 12:26 AM


    How I love the things you write! I would like to respond by quoting a passage from Dr. Larry Dossey's profound 2013 book entitled "One Mind." On pp. 64-65, "Accounts of dolphins protecting humans go back to ancient Greece, and they're still at it. On August 28, 2007, surfer Todd Endris, 24, was attacked by a 12- to 18-foot great white shark off of the Marina State Beach near Monterey, California. Without warning, the shark hit him three times, mauling his right leg and shredding his back. Suddenly a pod of bottlenose dolphins appeared and formed a protective ring around him keeping the shark at bay, providing time for Endris to get to shore. First aid by a friend kept Endris alive until he was evacuated by helicopter to a hospital, where a surgeon stitched him back together. Six weeks later, although still in rehab, Endris was back in the water He credits the dolphins with saving his life.

    Similar events have been reported from all over the world, such as Ocean Beach near Whangerei, New Zealand, in October 2004. Veteran lifeguard Rob Howes, 47, and three female lifeguards were on a training swim 100 meters from shore when a pod of seven bottlenose dolphins swam rapidly toward them and herded them together. The dolphins began behaving 'really weird,' Howes said, 'turning tight circles on us, and slapping the water with their tails.' When Howes drifted away from the group, he saw a ten-foot-long great white shark a short distance away.

    When the shark started moving toward two of the young women, one of whom was Howe's daughter Niccy, 15, the dolphins circled protectively around the four lifeguards for another 40 minutes, creating a screen of confusion around them---'just a mass of fins, backs and human heads,' Howe reported. The furious activity attracted the attention of a rescue boat. As it neared the swimmers, the shark left. 'Dolphins are known for helping helpless things,' said Dr. Rochelle Constantine of the University of Auckland School of Biological Science. 'It is an altruistic response and bottlenose dolphins in particular are known for it.'"

    Similar good Samaritan behavior has been observed in many other species. My own father was rescued by one of our dogs who saw that he was about to be attacked by a bull. Our family dog raced into the field and threw himself against the bull giving my dad time to escape danger. I get tears in my eyes in sharing the story because it was such a meaningful experience to my father who told the story with much gratitude. My dad made his transition into further realms on June 24, 2023, at age 87, only three months shy of 88.

    Human beings consistently place ourselves above all other animals to the extent that most humans don't even think of ourselves as animals. I have heard even famous and learned people refer to "humans and animals" rather than "the human animal" and "non-human animals." Our arrogance is irritating. I hear people arguing over whether "animals" go to heaven and sadly (ridiculously really) many conclude that the answer is no. They insist that only humans are created in the "image and likeness of God" and the "animals" are obviously here for our consumption. If there is any species that strikes me as the most arrogant, and thus the least divine, it's the human species.

    I hope orcas continue to be kind and loving and protective regardless of what humans are doing. I also trust that everything is working out as it should, that mercy and truth are lovers and we all are invited into their Oneness. :-)