HomeOutdoorsNews‘Traumatized’ orca suspected of teaching others to attack ships

‘Traumatized’ orca suspected of teaching others to attack ships

by Caitlin Berard
Orca leaping out of the water
(Photo by Musat via Getty Images)

The world is filled with all manner of commanding creatures, but under the sea, none come close to the orca. The true apex predators of the ocean, the celebrated cetaceans hunt down everything from great white sharks to blue whales. Luckily, however, they largely ignore the humans who venture into their domain – until now.

Since 2020, there have been dozens of reported attacks in the Strait of Gibraltar, otherwise known as “orca alley.” In these assaults, pods of orca work together to ram boats, oftentimes doing serious damage to the rudder and occasionally capsizing them entirely.

For years, this increase in interest left scientists stumped. Now, however, they suspect one traumatized orca may be behind the shift.

The animal in question is a female dubbed White Gladis. Researchers believe she was either struck by a ship or the victim of entrapment in fishing gear. Regardless of the exact scenario, it caused a “critical moment of agony” for the orca, causing her to see ships as targets.

“That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica, or Atlantic Orca Working Group, told Live Science.

“The orcas are doing this on purpose,” he continued. “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.”

The majority of orca encounters remain harmless

Though it’s true that orcas are harassing ships at a higher rate, the vast majority of encounters remain harmless. They still don’t approach humans when they’re swimming or diving, nor do they frequently sink, or even interact with, ships.

“In more than 500 interaction events recorded since 2020, there are three sunken ships,” López Fernandez explained. “We estimate that killer whales only touch one ship out of every hundred that sail through a location.”

Now, some reports state that orcas are deliberately teaching their young to attack ships. Scientists, however, don’t believe this to be true.

The truth is that they are highly social and collaborative creatures. White Gladis’ reaction to trauma may have taught others to act similarly, but only because – like hunting, traveling, and playing – orcas do everything as a group, including attacking ships.

“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,” López Fernandez said.

And though the behavior is undeniably spreading, scientists aren’t convinced it’s out of malice. Many believe it’s equally likely that the cetaceans are using ship chasing as a game.

“They are incredibly curious and playful animals. So this might be more of a play thing as opposed to an aggressive thing,” explained Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington and at the non-profit Wild Orca.