After Orcas Sink Another Yacht, Researcher Says They're Probably Just Playing

Following news of the latest boat sunk by orcas in the waters near the Strait of Gibraltar, a killer whale researcher is warning that the incidents may be misunderstood.

News outlets (including HuffPost) have used the word “attack” to describe a spate of events in which orcas have damaged vessels in the waters around Morocco, Portugal and Spain. But Monika Wieland Shields, co-founder and director of the nonprofit Orca Behavior Institute, argued the term is misleading in an MSNBC opinion piece published Thursday.

“When I watch the videos of these so-called attacks, I see something completely different,” Shields wrote.

Rather than an act of aggression, “it looks like another behavior we often see killer whales engage in: play.”

On Tuesday, a group of orcas slammed into the hull and damaged the rudder of a 50-foot sailing yacht off the coast of Morocco. The people aboard were rescued and the vessel was left to sink. It was the fifth time orcas have sunk a boat in the region in recent years, The New York Times reported. There have been dozens of other incidents of damage, though no human deaths.

Shields said “from the whale’s perspective,” it makes sense that they often go after rudders.

“Rudders move and, when humans try to regain steering control, show resistance,” she wrote. “It’s probably more like a game of tug-of-war than a maliciously motivated attack.”

Orcas are highly intelligent and social animals, which means they have “a unique capacity for amusement and playfulness,” she wrote. It also means that new behaviors and fads spread easily among social groups. For example, during a brief in a period in the late 1980s, many orcas near Washington state began wearing dead salmon on their heads, like hats.

Shields’ view is in line with what other orca experts have theorized.

“What I think is probably happening is it’s a playful behavior,” Dr. Deborah Giles, science director at research and advocacy group Wild Orca, said last year. “It’s a social behavior.”

However, one non-playful possibility has gone particularly viral. Biologist Alfredo López Fernandez suggested in a 2022 paper that it all may have started after a female orca known as “White Gladis” had a traumatic encounter with a boat, then began to act in a defensive manner towards other boats.

That theory helped fuel online support for “team orca,” with many people on social media casting the killer whales as revolutionaries fighting back against human destruction of the natural world.

While Shields doesn’t buy the White Gladis theory, she thinks it’s worth examining why people find the idea of an orca uprising so compelling.

“We recognize that we have done enough to the world to deserve orcas attacking us in response,” she wrote.