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Orcas ramming boats doing some 'teenage roughhousing': UBC researchers


Gangs of killer whales have been causing chaos off the coast of Spain for the past few years, ramming into hundreds of boats, causing expensive damage to some and even sinking three since 2020.

What’s causing orcas to target vessels – bumping into them and tearing their rudders off – remains a mystery, researchers at the UBC Marine Mammal Research Centre have a theory: teenage mischief.

The whales seem to go after sailboats in particular, and specifically their rudders, which led the scientists to think the animals are motivated by curiosity above all. In addition, most of the orcas interacting with boats in the area are juveniles.

“Killer whales are very curious and they love to inspect things and see what’s going on,” Taryn Scarff, a masters student with the research centre told CTV News. “They’re just having some fun, and it’s just some teenager behaviour that’s gotten a little bit out of hand.”

Gotten out of hand, because killer whales are massive and can cause a lot of harm with out meaning to.

“If they were purposefully attacking the boats, they would be a little bit more aggressive in their approach. They seem to be approaching the boats quite calmly,” Scarff said, noting that the whales only appear aggressive because of their size.

“If it was a more planned attack, I would assume they’d be putting more speed into it. But that would also definitely take a toll on their bodies – it would be like us running into a wall over and over,” she continued.

The main theory that emerged when the behaviour among the killer whale population off the Spanish coast began was that one individual whale—the mother within the pod—had a traumatic event involving a sailboat, and she was seeking revenge on the vessels, Scarff explained.

She also began teaching younger whales to do the same.

“They saw mum doing this behaviour and thought it looked really fun and cool so they started doing it,” said Scarff.

The boat-bashing behaviour is now catching on with the young whales in another group, and seafarers' encounters with them are increasing.

That’s because, similar to human teenagers, killer whales have fads. And boat-bumping may just be the hot new thing with the kids in that area.

Another example of an orca fad is when a female in the Pacific Northwest’s Puget Sound wore a dead salmon on her nose, and the trend spread to all three pods in her area. That trend sparked in the 1980s, and died quickly after it appeared.

Like human fads, researchers don’t know how long this one will last.

Scientists are trying to figure out why exactly the whales are ramming boats, and what particularly interests them about said boats, before anyone gets seriously hurt.

A research group specific to the phenomenon has been set up in Spain, and they created an app to track killer whale sightings in hopes there won’t be any more sinkings.

Sea crews can check the app while travelling, and use it like a traffic light. Greens mean no killer whale sightings in the area, yellow means some and red means there have been many, so find a different route.

Scarff notes that current theories about why orcas are targeting boats are purely speculation from researchers at this point, and after three years of research into this phenomenon, there’s more work to do.

“At the end of the day, who really knows other than the killer whales?” she said. Top Stories

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