The Takeaway From Orca Boat Strikes: 'It's a Game'

With full bellies, bored juveniles find fun in the risky play of bumping boats: study
By Arden Dier,  Newser Staff
Posted May 28, 2024 11:16 AM CDT
The Takeaway From Orca Boat Strikes: 'It's a Game'
In an image from video, an orca moves along the rudder of a vessel in the Ocean Race on June 22 as the boat approached the Strait of Gibraltar.   (The Ocean Race via AP)

Killer whales known to ram and sink boats off the Iberian Peninsula aren't bent on destroying humans. Rather, they're likely bored teenagers who find ship rudders incredibly entertaining, according to a new report from more than a dozen orca experts who sought to explain hundreds of boat strikes in recent years. The leading theory: "Orcas just want to have fun," as the Washington Post puts it. Many of the more than 670 boat strikes since 2020 were attributed to about 15 male juveniles and teens, ages 5 to 18, who were found to slowly approach and bump ship rudders in a kind of play. "They don't understand that they can damage the rudder and that damaging the rudder will affect human beings," says Alex Zerbini of the International Whaling Commission, a member of the working group.

The group attributes the rise in ship strikes to more opportunities for play as the bluefin tuna population rebounds in the area. Orcas that once spent the majority of their time hunting for food now "have all this leisure time on their hands," says Naomi Rose, a senior scientist at the Animal Welfare Institute and another member of the working group. "It's a very dangerous game they're playing, obviously," she tells the Post. "But it's a game." The study doesn't explain how orcas became attracted to rudders. But killer whales are quick learners, known to mimic behaviors. Rose highlights the "salmon hat" fad observed off the coast of Washington state in the summer of 1987. An orca was observed displaying dead salmon on its head before orcas across multiple pods began doing the same thing.

The group found no evidence to support the theory that female orcas encouraged pod members to mess with rudders as revenge for a ship strike, as was initially suggested, per USA Today. Though adult females were observed nearby during boat strikes, "they seem to be just sort of keeping an eye on their kids, who are doing the actual playing," Rose tells the Post. Researchers say some methods of deterrence, like flares, might endanger orcas but are unlikely to stop their play. "The more dangerous it is for the orcas, the more thrill they seem to get out of it," says Rose. The group instead suggests sailors hang weighted lines from their boats and attach flowing pieces of material to a rudder so that it resembles a jellyfish, which orcas avoid, to deter interactions. (More orca stories.)

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