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  • Writer's pictureBecky Faulks

No, Orcas are not Taking Revenge

Orcas have never been known to kill a human in the ocean, but they could be forgiven if they were

Photo by Dick Martin on Unsplash


What with the recent spate of orcas attacking boats in the so-called 'orca uprising', many people are questioning why they are behaving this way and what can be done. In the Strait of Gibraltar, a small group of orcas have been occasionally disabling boat rudders since 2020. Is this due to an earlier injury to their matriarch, people are wondering? Could it be revenge? Dr Deborah Giles, science and research director at Wild Orca, thinks not.  

‘It’s possible that the disabling of rudders is also a fad,’ she explains. ‘Orcas may be imitating behaviour they’re witnessing, and it’s spreading between family groups.’

This hypothesis comes after a killer whale was seen wearing a salmon as a ‘hat’, which was quickly mimicked by other orcas and then discarded after a season. According to the Atlanta Orca Working Group, which tracks this particular pod of orcas, there were 207 reported interactions between orcas and boats in 2022, many of which were harmless.

‘We do know that if orcas were trying to sink boats, they would have done so. You only have to witness their incredible coordination when hunting – i.e., swimming in formation to knock a seal off an ice flow – to know that they can solve problems and predict their actions. Yet they’ve never been known to injure or kill any human in the ocean. So no, orcas are not taking revenge, but given that they are one of the most contaminated mammals on the planet, perhaps they could be forgiven if they were.’

But what of the boats that have sunk? The Atlanta Orca Working Group confirmed that, of the 207 interactions, four resulted in boats sinking before they could return to port, leading sailors to share advice with one another about how to cope in such a situation. It's understandable that sailors may want to be prepared, but online rumours are also rife, and Dr Giles has expressed fears that the public may try to take the situation into their own hands. Andrew Trites, Professor at the University of British Columbia, explains more.

‘Nobody knows why this is happening,’ he told New Scientist. ‘All the reports coming in have been from non-scientists, non-specialists, people that are terrified.’ He added that although orcas are highly intelligent, this doesn’t necessarily mean they are capable of revenge. Whatever the case may be, it seems that one thing is certain. Orcas, in general, seem to be benevolent creatures towards humans, and only by understanding the motivation for their behaviour can we elicit an appropriate response. Humans need to ascertain what the cause may be, and not place the blame on the whales.


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