Badass Orcas Making Headlines: Don Your Bullsh*t Detectors. Video at 6
Sailboat Sinkings Probably Not Prelude to Worldwide Whale Uprising
The orcas-gone-rogue story has finally landed in the mainstream American press. As I used to tell my reporters only half kidding: “Once is an accident; twice, a coincidence; three times, a trend.”
Well, the orcas finally did it, they sank a third sailboat off the Spanish coast, making this officially a trend. What’s more, the culprits have names and a narrative, thus making the story irresistible to news editors who had previously ignored it. (Loose Cannon first reported on orca attacks on Nov. 1, 2022.)
It’s made for some entertaining headlines, often reflecting the degree to which the media outlet has managed to butcher the facts:
Orcas are ramming yachts off the Spanish coast – Is the whale world rising up? The Guardian asked.
Orca Attacks on Boats May Be Fueled by Revenge, Newsweek proclaimed.
The article goes on to quote a scientist who says no such thing.
Orcas are sinking sailboats in a game that’s ‘gotten way out of hand,’ experts say.
That’s the Yahoo News take. This the cetacean version of Grand Theft Auto, and sooner or later the kids will get bored with it and move on to other entertainment.
Solidarity! Orcas Are Sinking the Rich.
This one from the “iconic, feminist” news outlet Jezebel is my favorite because it embeds a basic misunderstanding.
This is a European story and so our go-to sources for information are the Brits, who call any cruising sailboat a “yacht.” American lay readers see the same word, and they do not picture the 45-year-old boat in which I now type, nor any of the vessels at my marina.
Eat the Rich
Yacht implies Russian oligarchs, Hollywood A-listers and Tech CEOs. Yes, orcas, please do eat the rich. Be like those mountain lions chowing down on ridiculously fit California joggers.
Here’s a pretty good account of the “trigger event” that brought the orca story to our shores, translated from a German sailing mag:
Three orcas (Orcinus orca), also known as killer whales, struck the yacht on the night of May 4 in the Strait of Gibraltar, off the coast of Spain, and pierced the rudder. "There were two smaller and one larger orca," skipper Werner Schaufelberger told the German publication Yacht. "The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side.”
Schaufelberger said he saw the smaller orcas imitate the larger one. "The two little orcas observed the bigger one's technique and, with a slight run-up, they too slammed into the boat." Spanish coast guards rescued the crew and towed the boat to Barbate, but it sank at the port entrance.
Days earlier, a pod of six orcas assailed another sailboat navigating the strait. Greg Blackburn, who was aboard the vessel, looked on as a mother orca appeared to teach her calf how to charge into the rudder. "It was definitely some form of education, teaching going on," Blackburn told 9news.
Reports of aggressive encounters with orcas off the Iberian coast began in May 2020 and are becoming more frequent…Assaults seem to be mainly directed at sailing boats and follow a clear pattern, with orcas approaching from the stern to strike the rudder, then losing interest once they have successfully stopped the boat.
According to the Cruising Association of Europe, there have been dozens of rammings, and they are now happening more frequently. In June 2022, the group launched an online reporting platform for boaters to record interactions with the orcas, also known as killer whales. The online form records the date, route of passage, sea state, wind speed, boat speed, whether day or night, cloud cover, distance from land, depth, bottom color and type of rudder. Skippers are asked to describe the interaction and any precautions taken to avoid it.
‘Critical Moment of Agony’
Cruising Association is collaborating with Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA), a group of Spanish and Portuguese scientists who have been studying the behavior of the Orcas for some years. Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and GTOA representative, shared a theory with Live Science website:
"The orcas are doing this on purpose. Of course, we don't know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day,” López Fernandez was quoted as saying.
He suspects that an orca they call White Gladis may have suffered a "critical moment of agony that flipped a behavioral switch”—maybe a collision with a boat or entrapment by fishing nets.
"That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat," López Fernandez said. "We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives."
Hence, the compelling media narrative. Behavior by White Gladis spreads to Black Gladis and Gray Gladis—all Iberian orca that interact with vessels are characterized as “Gladis.”
Although the Portuguese scientist has tried to keep the conversation about orca “interactions” on an evidendiary even keel, the tabloid press is enjoying a killer day with their whale story. Social media is even more ridiculous with one extreme in a state of kumbaya while the other proposes that offending orca be put down like rabid dogs.
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The Cruising Association recommends that skippers shift engines into reverse when orcas approach, if possible, which seems to discourage rudder ramming. In calm conditions they further suggest dumping sand off the stern and making loud noise in the cockpit by banging pots and pans or whatnot.
Trawler people needn’t be too worried. Orcas have shown little interest in stinkpots, perhaps for their lack of low hanging fruit—a spade rudder, that is.
Meanwhile, in the American Northwest, orcas are plentiful and regarded with reverence. Folks there are no doubt grateful that these otherwise intelligent marine mammals don’t have the wherewithal to develop worldwide social media of their own.
Thanks for injecting some sense into this discussion. I spent 30 years working as a marine mammal biologist (but never studied orcas). I don't have the foggiest idea why these whales have suddenly decided to sink sailboats. But I agree with you that many of the theories being advanced in the media are complete BS. Here are some recent remarks from someone who actually does know quite a bit about these animals, and his opinions are right in line with what you wrote. https://phys.org/news/2023-05-killer-whales-boats-expert-qa.html?fbclid=IwAR000MXGlaOJkPLiEcCsn-IK6VWqwkLU7TITA-Wt4a2M8Bss-z9qn8TqnOU
Might be time to consider a trawler!
We went to the dark side about 20 years ago.