What’s Up with Killer Whales?

Orcas and Boats

No doubt you’ve encountered memes and news stories about orcas lately. Also known as killer whales (Orcinus orca), these marine mammals are making headlines for recent interactions with boats in the Strait of Gibraltar. Some encounters have resulted in the boats – mainly sailboats and catamarans – being damaged. From magazines and cable news to a multitude of social media platforms, it’s nearly impossible not to encounter a report of killer whales “attacking” boats.

The recent uptick in news about orcas interacting with boats would have you believe that this is a new phenomenon, but there were 207 instances recorded in 2022 and more than 500 encounters between boaters and orcas dating back to 2020, according to the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica. Most encounters are benign, with orcas approaching and investigating boats. However, several boats suffered damaged rudders, and three boats sank due to the interactions (all boat occupants were safely rescued). But despite the heavy attention on this behavior, it isn’t fully understood.

There are two ideas about why we have seen an increase in the encounters between orcas and boats off the Iberian coast. The first is that one of the orcas involved – commonly identified as White Gladis – had an unspecified negative interaction with a boat, possibly being struck by a rudder or entangled by a fishing line that is commonly found at the stern/rear of boats. As a result of this interaction, some believe White Gladis has decided to disable boats as a preventative measure. White Gladis is thought to be the matriarch of a pod. Orcas have a matriarchal social structure – the family unit is led by a female member of the group, usually the most experienced. White Gladis is one of two adults seen participating in these encounters, along with five juvenile orcas.

The second idea is that these destructive and scary encounters are the result of orcas exhibiting play behaviors. The animals may enjoy the fact that the rudders and boats can be moved, or the whales might like the way the water runs off the rudder of motorized boats and are frustrated that the sailboats are moving without engine assistance.

This learned behavior, regardless of its initial cause, can be passed among individuals and create a fad – yes, even other species fall victim to fads. In the late 1980s, a single orca was observed wearing a salmon as a “hat” in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. This phenomenon was picked up by other orcas in the area, lasting a few months before ceasing.

Orcas are incredibly intelligent and social animals, with populations in both the Northern and Southern hemispheres. They belong to the group of mammals known as cetaceans. Cetaceans include whales, dolphins and porpoises, with the orca being the largest dolphin. Even though orcas are easy to recognize, our understanding of them has distinct limitations. But as more research is conducted on the species, we learn more about their biology, ecology and behavior every year.

Officially, orcas are a single species, but they are further classified into “ecotypes.” You can think of an ecotype as a group of like individuals that exist within an animal species. These groups specialize in eating or hunting specific prey and have distinct patterns of movement, behavior and social adaptations that are linked to their dietary preference. With orca ecotypes, they are also genetically different from each other. In fact, some scientists suggest that they may even be different species or subspecies.

Scientists have identified nine distinct ecotypes, but this number may change as science learns more about orcas. The ecotypes different in their morphology (their appearance or shared visual traits) and diet preferences (generally, ecotypes focusing on fish versus mammalian prey items). Five of the nine ecotypes are found in the Northern Hemisphere: three in the Pacific Ocean and two in the Northern Atlantic. The other four ecotypes are found in the Southern Ocean around Antarctica. One of the Southern Ocean ecotypes has two subtypes – large and small – which means that sometimes 10 ecotypes are counted in total. If this all sounds confusing, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) produced an excellent poster that can be accessed through the Australian Marine Mammal Centre – and it will look great on your wall!

All orcas are under threat, despite being top ocean predators. While they are capable of hunting everything from mackerel and salmon to great white sharks and blue whales, orcas are at risk of declining in numbers. Pollutants that flow into the marine environment accumulate as they move through the food web. Essentially, each predator consumes pollutants in its prey, and this is most concentrated at the top of the food web where orcas are. Pollutants can make orcas sick, which can make it difficult for them to breed or survive for their full lifetime.

If you are a boater, please support orca conservation by following this advice from the Department of Ecology in Washington State: “From spill prevention, clean maintenance, invasive species control, and safe sewage disposal to proper navigation around killer whales, boaters have a tremendous opportunity – and responsibility – to protect orcas.”

If you are interested in seeing orcas, make sure to do so responsibly. There are opportunities to see orcas across their global range. Make sure you book your ecotourism experience through reputable outfitters and enjoy the opportunity to see these magnificent animals with everyone’s safety and wellbeing in mind.

Published July 14, 2023 

Justin Birkhoff

Justin Birkhoff is the Mammal Conservation Coordinator for the Global Center for Species Survival.

Learn more about mammal conservation and Justin.