While killer whales are somewhat naturally feared by humans—they are, after all, huge, tremendously powerful, and merciless predators—the mythology around them has always been exaggerated, since no orca on record has ever harmed a human being in the wild. This is why when sailors near Galicia off the coast of Spain began reporting that their boats were being attacked by orcas this summer, scientists and observers alike were perplexed.
A Spanish scientist, however, may have at least a partial explanation: Some members of the same orca pod, according to his report, may have been wounded by Strait of Gibraltar fishermen who launched harpoons at them when the whales came close to their boat. The orcas could be retaliating not so much out of revenge, but as a defense against a perceived threat.
The Spanish researcher, Victor J. Hernandez, told EFE News that fishermen using sailing vessels and illegally fishing for the tuna that were the orcas’ prey reportedly harpooned killer whales that had approached their boat in July. The injuries were reported by a whale-watching operation that was familiar with the orcas.
“In August they encountered killer whales that had injuries,” Hernandez told NIUS España. “Two adults had harpoons to the head and another had wound marks on their back, probably produced by propellers.”
He believes that the crew of a fishing sailboat was responsible. “Some are engaged in illegal fishing. They are sailing with the baits in place and it is believed that the killer whales would approach the baits, and [the men] were scared and injured them with harpoons. Or maybe they just did it out of bad faith, but the fact is that they injured several.”
Over the next couple of months, a number of sailboats reported being attacked by the pod—over 40 incidents in all. The orcas attacked the boats’ rudders primarily, sometimes tearing them off and leaving the craft adrift, requiring a tow into shore for repairs.
“I don’t frighten easily and this was terrifying,” skipper David Smith told the BBC after he endured an attack that lasted two hours. “It was continuous. I think there were six or seven animals, but it seemed like the juvenile ones—the smaller ones—were most active. They seemed to be going for the rudder, the wheel would just start spinning really fast every time there was an impact.”
“They go for sailboats, they have fixation,” Hernandez told NIUS. “I would not say that it is revenge, but defense. They associate it with a danger, they see it as a threat and when they see it again, they defend themselves.”
A working group investigating the attacks reported that while they may have been terrifying, no one was actually injured by the whales: “In no instance has anyone been harmed by the direct activity of the orcas—although there has been some risk in some of the situations involving long-lasting or nocturnal activity.”
The only killer whales ever recorded to have harmed humans have been captive orcas—particularly Tilikum, the subject of the documentary Blackfish, who was responsible for three deaths: two of his trainers and a man who snuck into his tank at Sea World one night. A number of other orcas have caused severe injuries to their trainers.
There was one incident off the Galapagos Islands in the Pacific Ocean in 1971 involving a group of orcas who attacked a 43-foot sailing vessel for no apparent reason, ramming its hull multiple times and causing it to sink. The family aboard the boat reported no further attacks when they retreated to their lifeboat, but they then had to endure 37 days adrift at sea before being rescued. The incident was never explained, but neither has it been repeated, to anyone’s knowledge.
Scientists trying to explain the Spanish orca attacks warn that these are highly intelligent animals with extremely complex emotional lives, and their reasons for participating in these incidents are probably not simple either.
“‘Attack’ has so many connotations, and it means they intend to harm,” observes neuroscientist Lori Marino, who has studied orca and dolphin intelligence. “There is a concern that if this is perceived as an attack, people will start to feel threatened and so, in self-defense, attack the orcas.
“But it’s important to note that even in the cases where it seems like they are dismantling boats, they are not injuring humans. If they wanted to, they could do a lot more damage, but they have never harmed humans in the wild,” Marino told the U.K. site Unilad.
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