A man sailing a yacht in the North Sea near Scotland’s Shetland Islands said that an orca repeatedly rammed into his boat earlier this week, exhibiting behavior that’s been recently seen in killer whales farther south.
Retired Dutch physicist Dr. Wim Rutten was alone on a 7-ton yacht on Monday when an orca smacked into the boat’s stern, then circled back to hit it again and again “at fast speed,” he told The Guardian.
The published Guardian interview did not mention any permanent damage to the vessel, just “soft shocks” felt through the hull.
“Maybe he just wanted to play,” Rutten, who was mackerel fishing when the orca showed up, speculated. “Or look me in the eyes. Or to get rid of the fishing line.”
His account bore a striking similarity to dozens of incidents reported this year in waters near Portugal and Spain. Last month, orcas broke the rudder and pierced the hull of a sailing boat near the coast of southern Spain, necessitating a rescue team to tow the vessel to a port. Three weeks prior, also off the Spanish coast, an orca trio rammed into and ultimately sank a yacht. No human deaths have occurred in any of the reported incidents.
Dr. Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist who authored a paper published last year on the phenomenon, believes the incidents originated with a female orca known to scientists as White Gladis. The theory goes that White Gladis had a traumatic encounter involving a boat and started to behave defensively against other boats, and her fellow orcas picked up the behavior.
Not all scientists agree that’s what likely happened, though.
“What I think is probably happening is it’s a playful behavior. It’s a social behavior,” Dr. Deborah Giles, science director at research and advocacy group Wild Orca, told Vice News.
Giles suspects a young orca started playfully ramming boats, and others followed suit.
Aside from the behavior’s origin, another question is whether it’s now spreading to northern waters or is arising there independently.
Orca researcher Dr. Conor Ryan told The Guardian that it’s plausible that “highly mobile” orca pods are spreading the behavior northward.
“It’s possible that this ‘fad’ is leapfrogging through the various pods/communities,” he said.
The incidents have inspired a huge amount of largely supportive jokes and memes about an orca uprising. But Monica Bacchus, marine programs coordinator at National Fish and Wildlife Foundation’s Killer Whale Research and Conservation Program, told Vice that she doesn’t think what’s happening is an actual cetacean revolution. But she does find the phenomenon intriguing.
She said, “It’s always cool to see animals do new things.”