Orcas having fun

Orcas off the Iberian Peninsula have been ramming sailboats, and have even managed to sink three boats, according to Live Science. Humans who claim to be experts on orcas think they know the reason why:

“Experts suspect that a female orca they call White Gladis suffered a ‘critical moment of agony’ — a collision with a boat or entrapment during illegal fishing — that flipped a behavioral switch. ‘That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,’ López Fernandez said.”

I’m mildly skeptical of this explanation only because trauma has recently become a popular human explanation for everything. I don’t mean to minimize the effect of traumatic events on humans (or other organisms). But I’m reminded of the mid-twentieth century when, under the influence of Freudianism, sex was the popular explanation for everything. In that time period, trauma was not regularly invoked to explain mammal behavior, so I can imagine mid-twentieth century cetologists explaining orcas sinking boats as somehow being motivated by sex.

NPR reported on the same story, with some additional details, including the fact that orcas seem to like biting sailboat rudders:

“Jared Towers, the director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia, says ‘there’s something about moving parts … that seem to stimulate them…. Perhaps that’s why they’re focused on the rudders….'”

Ultimately, we humans don’t know why orcas are ramming sailboats and biting rudders. (Actually, we really know why humans do many of the things we do.) I suspect this has become a news story mostly because humans who are part of Western cultures get worried when other animals threaten us or make us feel that we might not be the apex predator. This attitude is in part due to the influence of Western religions — both Judaism and Christianity have a sacred text that claims that a deity gave to human beings the right to have dominion over all other living beings. But orcas have not read the Bible, and they didn’t get the memo that humans are in charge.


Carol and I went for a day trip to Cape Cod. The first place we went was Sandy Neck in Barnstable. As we walked from the parking lot to the beach, someone said, “Are you here for the whales?”

About 80 North Atlantic Right Whales have been hanging out around Cape Cod. The Cape Cod Canal has been closed once or twice because one or more whales have entered it — a primary cause of North Atlantic Right Whale mortality is vessel strikes. Since there are only about 370 of these whales left in the whole world, it’s worth closing the canal to keep them safe.

We didn’t see any whales, so we walked up the marsh side of Sandy Neck, where we saw the carcass of a pilot whale that had died on the bay side and had been hauled over to this side to rot. After an hour of walking, we crossed back over to the beach. When the ocean came in view, I got my binoculars and started to scan for whales. Almost immediately, I saw two — no, three of them — just at the limit of visibility, where the ozone started to blur things.

Just as I told Carol, one of the whales breached. Given the visibility and the distance, mostly what I saw was the huge black mass of its body coming up out of the water, the water foaming white around it, and what looked like white patches on one side of the animal’s body — right whales do have white markings on their bellies. Carol got her binoculars up in time to see the huge splash it made when it re-entered the water.

We watched for a while longer. We could see the surging water around the whales, and maybe we glimpsed a sight of the black heads. Then they disappeared. Maybe we saw them for 60 seconds, or even two minutes — not a long time, but a very memorable time.

Travelers’ story

Waiting for the bus to Portland, Maine, I turned to the man and woman standing near by and said, This is the place you pick up the bus to Portland, right? They said it was; and that they were going to Portland, then getting on another bus to go to Bangor, and from there heading on down the coast. They both had eastern New England accents, so I asked them if they were heading back home.

Well, they said, not exactly. They were from Alaska, living in a small town near Juneau.They had been sailing a 34 foot sloop, a live-aboard, but it sank.

It sank? I said.

Well, it was sunk. They had been sailing in among a pod of humpback whales. The whales were all around them, and some of them were breaching, coming completely up out of the water and crashing back down. Usually when the whales started doing that, they moved their boat farther away. But a big bull humpback came up right where their boat was. Drove the keel up through the boat. The whale almost tipped them over, the whale rolled over, they were on its belly, they almost capsized, they could see the flukes up in the air next to the boat, the whale rolled back, so at least they didn’t tip over. The whale was feeling a little stunned, they said.

They had enough time to send off a mayday call. The Coast Guard picked up the call and relayed it to a fishing vessel that was nearer to them. The boat sank in about five minutes. She had just enough time to grab her credit cards and driver’s license, and then they were in the water. Fortunately, the fishing vessel came within ten minutes of the time the boat sank, because the water was cold, in the forties.

So you lost everything? I said. Yup, they said cheerfully, but we’re alive. And you know, he said, it’s hard to see everything go down like that, but then you feel — lighter. Well, I said, you’ll be dining out on that story for the next twenty years. They laughed. We already have, they said, we told some of the Tlinglit in our village, and even they were impressed. They’re water people, and they could relate to us.

I said goodbye to them in Portland. They’re going to sell a house they own beyond Bangor, and buy another boat, and head back to Alaska.