On the evening of 4 May 2023, three orcas (orcinus orca), otherwise known as killer whales, attacked and sunk a Swiss-flagged yacht in the Gibraltar Strait. The same day, crew on the British-flagged Mustique radioed the Spanish Coast Guard for help after four orcas ripped off its rudder and pierced the hull. Last month, two Dutch racing yachts were attacked by orcas during the final leg of The Ocean Race. These are among hundreds of orca-boat encounters that have been documented along the coastlines of Spain, Portugal, France and Morocco since May 2020.
According to a 2022 study published in Marine Mammal Science, Alfredo López Fernandez, the article’s co-author and representative of the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GT Orca Atlántica), a traumatic sailboat encounter experienced by one orca may have triggered a shift towards more defensive behavior from the critically endangered Iberian sub-population of matriarchal orcas. Some experts even suggest that a senior female orca known as Gladis Blanca or White Gladis was badly injured during a collision with a racing boat – and that this has sparked coordinated responses from orcas throughout the northern hemisphere.
Currently, there is no inter-species maritime forum where the orcas’ views could be presented in human-accessible verbal language, which is what led me to wonder what White Gladis might wish to tell us if an opportunity were to present itself. Here is my interpretation.
From White Gladis, on World Orca Day (14 July)
Did you always plan to celebrate World Orca Day and Bastille Day on the same day?
What you do among yourselves on land is your business. However, you need to understand that when you are in the ocean, you are guests in our world. And lately you have been coming to greet us not with pretty algae garlands, but with guillotines.
The high-performance carbon-fiber twin rudders with which you are now equipping your yachts – at a starting price of €120,000 each – are deadly in their silence. No sea mammal can hear or sense their swift approach. One minute we’re just sunbathing and minding our own business; the next minute we’re being sliced in half. And at which police station are we supposed to report this?
The next thing you must understand is that we are pacifist beings, not given to violent retaliation. We have been interacting with you and your craft for millennia, and usually we leave you alone. However, your recent hit-and-runs are not going unnoticed. Fortunately, my own run-in with the racer did not kill me, but I nearly lost a fin and as an elder, I had to alert the pod so that our remaining members didn’t get themselves chopped up. The boat did not even stop. Did the humans on board even know or care that I was there?
Word gets around quickly among orcas. We are social creatures.
You ask why is it that we seem to be targeting only sailing yachts right now? Are we going to keep attacking your craft, even though there are fewer than 40 of us in the western Iberian Atlantic? And will we sue for intellectual property rights when you release the next Hollywood blockbuster about the impending war between homo sapiens and the delphinadae family?
Your scientists have come up with all sorts of explanations about our cognition and behavioral patterns, our motivations, even our parenting styles. So you speculate that perhaps the current ‘wave’ of human boat-tipping is just an adolescent orca fad. Observing that our youth are usually accompanied by an older orca on these rudder-rupturing missions, you speculate that perhaps we are only side-ramming boats and dismantling their rudders because that is how I was injured. And you wonder if there is some mysterious meta-strategy behind our sinking of sailboats in European waters.
Perhaps you are right about youthful reactivity. You will forgive our younger members for being so vigilantly protective of their elders. In their fierce enthusiasm, they are not so different from you, are they?
But we are not indiscriminate. We are surgical. We aim directly for your crafts’ rudders, like a blow to the knees – though your catamarans do not bleed as we do. And we know which craft harm us and which do not. After all, boats that move at such lethal speeds are not the ones that transport human refugees to safer places, or bring food and medicine to those who most urgently need them. Sailboats that skim the ocean with dagger-sharp keels and centerboards are largely piloted by those who enjoy the pleasure of killing for sport in an anything-goes playground built for their own amusement.
As a mother of three, I know that this is not only about me. I am hardly the only orca who has suffered because of you. This is about all of us. Including you, dear humans. We hope that ten years from now, on Bastille Day 2033, there will be some of us left to celebrate World Orca Day with you. We will certainly let you know when we decide to commemorate World Human Day.
In the meantime, if force is the only language you understand, expect us at the next teachable moment.
Eirene Chen is a Paris-based American specialist in global forced displacement, a whale-watcher and prodigal writer exploring the intersection of voluntary and involuntary migrations among human and non-human sentients in the anthropocene.
Call to Action:
- Biodiversity Resources: The International Union of the Conservation of Nature (IUCN) says there is insufficient data to add orcas to the IUCN Red List of critically endangered whole species. UK-based supporters can join citizen action-research at Orca and Orca Aware Project.
- Maritime Regulation Resources: Each country has its own regulations for monitoring how the yachting industry interacts with marine animals. World Sailing and the Royal Yachting Association UK can signpost interested readers on how to address marine mammal encounters in cruising and competitive contexts. People sailing in the Gibraltar Strait are encouraged to download the GT Orcas mobile app and check the GT Orca Atlántica website to prevent unnecessary collisions with orcas.
- Celebrate World Orca Week from 10-16 July 2023: Regardless of where in the world you are located, visit World Orca Day to take up the orca protection challenge in your country and connect with like-minded groups.