What happens when another powerful carnivore threatens humans in a place where they are the masters?
In the waters off the coast of Spain and Portugal, hundreds of unsettling encounters between humans and killer whales have been reported by sailors since the summer of 2020. Interactions is the word researchers use, because they don’t always end badly.
Sometimes the animals shove boats forward quickly, or spin them around. Other times they bite or strike the rudder, leaving the sailors unable to steer. No one has been killed or injured, so far. But at least five boats have sunk.
And the encounters seem to be getting more frequent.
For years killer whales were seen as entertaining and adorable. Like the star of Free Willy or Spot in The Little Mermaid. At marine parks like the ones run by SeaWorld, the planet’s biggest predator was held captive and trained to perform acrobatics.
For decades there were sell out events where the apparent bond between human trainer and orca was at the heart of the show. Each orca had a name, and the trainers could be seen stroking and kissing the animals.
Then in 2010, Dawn Brancheau, a trainer at SeaWorld, was dragged underwater and scalped by a male orca named Tilikum, in front of a horrified crowd. Blackfish, a documentary made after Brancheau’s death, asked whether the orcas might be driven to extremely abnormal behaviour – perhaps, psychosis – by being held in captivity.
The reality is that orcas may be playful, but they’re also some of the planet’s most efficient killers. They are pack hunters with strong social bonds, smart and agile enough to catch prey as tiny as a shoal of herring or as vast as a blue whale. Some orcas have even adapted to hunting Great White sharks, tearing out their livers.
SeaWorld has ended its orca breeding programme, and though they still keep some orcas in captivity, the company says these will be the last generation it holds.
Public understanding of orcas has primarily been shaped by captive animals and seeing orcas on the big screen. But that is changing.
It is in their habitat – not ours – that a new dynamic is forming.
Theo Wakefield lives with his partner in southern Spain. When he isn’t working, he likes to be out on his boat, Periwinkle, a 32 ft yacht. In late September last year, Theo was out on Periwinkle, with a crewman named Pál, when the whole boat “seemed to bounce as if it went over a speed bump”.
Theo had heard stories about other boats being attacked by orcas. But he never expected it to happen to him. Now in the dark of the night in the middle of the sea at least four enormous orcas had surrounded Periwinkle.
From their sizes, Theo calculated that out of the ones he could see there were two bulls, and a cow with her calf. The two big ones were as long as his boat. They violently buffeted Periwinkle, in a series of attacks that last three and a half hours, from half past midnight till four in the morning. Theo rode out the onslaught, until the orcas finally left. As dawn broke it became clear how much damage the killer whales had done – the boat’s rudder was broken.
I’ve spoken to a number of other sailors who have told me similar stories. The first recorded cases of orcas attacking boats began around three years ago. Since then, there have been around 200 a year. So far this year, there have been 172 of these encounters, with 45 resulting in serious damage.
Before 2020, there were a handful of interactions between orcas and boats, but since that year a pattern started emerging from sailors’ accounts, almost all from the same stretch of water from Gibraltar to the Bay of Biscay.
Marine biologists have nicknamed the orcas that interact with boats “Gladis”, after one of the early Latin names for the species – orca Gladiator.
They believe at least eleven juvenile orcas and four adult females are attacking boats. All of them are part of a small and critically endangered population of Iberian orcas – there are probably fewer than 40 left in total.
One of the most active orcas is an adult female that scientists call Gladis Blanca (white Gladis) while another, a juvenile female, has been called Gladis Negra (black Gladis). The younger female has been observed with a laceration to her head and a wound to her dorsal fin. It’s possible that she got these from a collision with a vessel.
One theory that might explain the orca’s behaviour is that they are trying to stop a collision happening again.
A preferred theory among conservationists I spoke to is that orcas are engaging in play.
It’s possible that they are using boats to practise hunting tuna, as the rudder is like a protruding fin. Although we might never know exactly why this is happening, orca experts are sceptical about the idea that the animals are being aggressive or taking revenge.
Unfortunately, there’s a growing body of evidence that suggests some sailors are attacking orcas to get them away from their boats. In one video it looks like a boat off the coast of Spain is shooting at orcas, or perhaps tossing firecrackers into the water.
What’s strange about this behaviour is that it is so persistent. In the days of industrial whaling, when millions of whales were slaughtered, a whale would sometimes attack boats – but it happened much more rarely than these encounters.
And as the number of confrontations between orcas and humans rises, the risk of death – either to orcas or humans – is also increasing. Humanity’s response to a serious threat from the natural world is usually to eradicate it.
Across Europe, large carnivores like brown bears and wolves have been hunted to extinction. We’ve come to understand that orcas aren’t here for our entertainment, and don’t thrive in captivity. But we’re still thinking of them in human terms, as creatures that want to take revenge, or – as a popular Twitter meme puts it – taking part in an uprising against people.
The challenge for humanity now is to accept a wild creature’s wildness.