Marine researchers have brought international focus to a series of encounters where orcas exhibit what seems like aggression towards boats near the coasts of Spain and Portugal. Recent evidence points towards the possibility that these interactions stem from playful behaviour rather than any malicious intent. Leading experts caution against potentially harmful actions taken in retaliation against these marine creatures.

The phenomenon revolves around Iberian orcas, a pod comprising 11 juveniles and four adult females. Commencing in July 2020, the incidents have spanned a spectrum, ranging from minor scrapes and tooth marks on boats to more alarming instances of repeated ramming executed by the orcas using their heads or bodies. In certain cases, the extent of the damage inflicted on the boats has been so significant that towing them back to port for comprehensive repairs was necessary.

Reports indicate that at least five boats have sunk since spring 2021 as a result of these encounters.

Over 30 marine scientists worldwide signed an open letter urging caution and a more comprehensive understanding of these incidents. The experts maintain that the behaviour displayed by the orcas is multifaceted and encompasses a wide range of actions, many of which indicate “playful social behaviour” rather than outright aggression. These actions, they argue, should not be hastily labelled as “attacks.”

One hypothesis circulating among researchers suggests that this behaviour could resemble a cultural trend within the Orca pod. Just as human fashion trends come and go, the pod might eventually move on from this pattern of behaviour.

The retaliatory actions against the orcas could threaten the marine community existence.

The open letter penned by over 30 marine scientists worldwide underscores the significance of evidence-based analysis.

“We urge the media and public to avoid projecting narratives onto these animals. In the absence of further evidence, people should not assume they understand the animals’ motivations. The orca is an intelligent, socially complex species, and each population has its own culture—different vocalisations (known as dialects), prey preferences, hunting techniques, even different social structures and migratory behaviours,” the letter states.

The scientists caution that hasty conclusions could have severe consequences, including the unjust penalisation of wildlife for demonstrating behaviour outside human understanding.

Central to their concern is the potential harm inflicted upon these critically endangered orcas due to the prevailing narrative.

The Iberian orcas, estimated to number fewer than 40, are considered a genetically distinct subgroup and are critically endangered. Their diet primarily consists of bluefin tuna, making them integral to the health of marine ecosystems.

Orcas, also known as killer whales, are renowned for their intelligence and complex social dynamics. Classified as the largest of the dolphin family, they thrive in close-knit pods that operate under matriarchal societies. The eldest female typically leads the pod, and male offspring can trace their lineage to the matriarch. These sociable beings display cultural diversity and unique hunting strategies specific to each population.

Orcas have been recorded harming humans in the wild only once, in 1972. These incidents of harm, whether to humans or boats, have largely remained absent from the natural environment, providing a stark contrast to cases observed in captivity.

Incidents of orca harm to humans are predominantly associated with captivity, where these intelligent beings are confined to small concrete tanks for extended periods, primarily for human amusement. This unnatural environment can lead to stress-induced behaviour vastly different from their natural tendency.

The letter underscores the importance of individuals bearing in mind that they are entering the marine domain when out at sea. It emphasises the importance of maintaining composure when encountering unfamiliar actions from wild animals and underscores the necessity of adjusting human conduct to coexist harmoniously with wildlife.