A pod of transient orcas, known as T124As, surface near Tacoma in May of 2022. (Craig Craker / Orca Network)

A pod of transient orcas, known as T124As, surface near Tacoma in May of 2022. (Craig Craker / Orca Network)

Comment: Orcas may have a message for us; are we listening?

The destruction of a boat off Spain’s coast by orcas raises questions about their frustrations and memories.

By Howard Chua-Eoan / Bloomberg Opinion

The basic model of the Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 519 sailing yacht is more than 50 feet long and costs more than $400,000. Just before midnight on May 4, three orcas took down one of these boats off the coast of Spain, dismantling its rudder and smashing its hull.

Rescuers towed the “Champagne” to port, but the ship sank before it could be docked. It was the third vessel whose loss was attributed to orcas in the waters off Spain and Portugal since March 2020. There have been hundreds of other encounters between boats and what are popularly called killer whales, though only a small percentage have had such drama. There have been no human fatalities.

What’s intriguing, however, are some details from the incidents: the two smaller orcas that went after the Champagne were apparently under the guidance of a larger one; a witness at another encounter described a female orca giving “instructions” to younger males. There is speculation that the “assaults” (if you’re a sailor) or “interactions” (if you’re a scientist) began in 2020 after a female orca codenamed White Gladis was traumatized by an encounter with a boat. The whales — actually the largest species in the dolphin class — are matriarchal, their pods centered around dominant mothers who boss everyone around.

I contacted my friend John Hargrove, a former orca trainer at SeaWorld Parks & Entertainment. Back in 2014, I helped him write “Beneath the Surface: Killer Whales, SeaWorld, and the Truth Beyond Blackfish,” a memoir of his career at the marine park; and an account of why he turned whistleblower and contributed to the powerful documentary “Blackfish.” That film explored the killing of one of John’s colleagues, Dawn Brancheau, a veteran SeaWorld trainer, by an enormous male orca named Tillikum — captured off the coast of Iceland in 1983 — at SeaWorld’s Orlando park. In simple terms, the conditions of captivity were driving the company’s incredibly intelligent and emotional cetacean stars mad. John himself has been the focus of “aggressions” by orcas he otherwise feels are friends.

While captive orcas have killed a handful of people (mostly trainers and one homeless person who crept into a marine park), almost no one has been killed by whales in the wild. One may have involved an orca mistaking a person for a seal, its natural prey.

So why are they targeting the sailboats now?

“These animals love having fun,” says John. He says that, in some of the recent incidents, orcas have disabled rudders and pushed boats far out to sea, “scaring the crap” out of the people in them. “They are both smart and mischievous. But they can have a much darker side to their mischief when they don’t like what’s been happening to them.”

He remembers how SeaWorld orcas would team up to undo (at great expense to the company) the mechanical metal gates that separated the pools from each other. Sometimes, it was done for malice. One whale rammed a gate just as an inexperienced worker was precariously balanced atop it, trying to get the person to fall into the water to be sported with.

Captive orca are, of course, different from their cousins in the wild. They live in pools that are huge by human scale but miniscule when you imagine the breadth and depth of the oceans they were born to roam. They know they are completely dependent on the trainers for food; and often that frustration expressed itself. Only senior trainers — who have built relationships with the orcas through lots of behavioral work and feeding — had the kind of authority the whales heeded. And not always, as was made tragically evident by the Tillikum incident.

Still, the capacity for memory and resentment are the same in both populations. The orca brain seems to be wired for emotion. John speculates that past interactions with human have left bad impressions on orcas in the wild; perhaps even on one particularly influential female in the relatively small and endangered group of killer whales off Spain. “People get so amazed seeing the whales, they end up harassing them as they try to get a closer look,” he says. “That’s stupid.” Orcas are apex predators and not, despite their coloration, the pandas of the sea. “You can’t villainize them for acting like the predators they are.”

Orcas communicate through clicks — which help with echolocation — and whistles. Mothers have a special language with their offspring; and tribes in different parts of the world speak different “dialects.” The alienation some whales felt in SeaWorld can probably be traced to the fact that they were born in different oceans and could not communicate with each other. Nevertheless, orcas have what could well be the building blocks of some kind of language; and, perhaps through that, instruction.

So far, the confrontations are between orcas and boats, not people. John believes that the playful and dark obsession with rudders is not only taught to all the orcas in a family structure but to their friends in other pods. And, he warns, “this type of behavior always escalates. We’ll be reading more about these events.” In the ocean, there are no trainers to keep the orcas in check. The whales can find fish for themselves.

Orca language and sentiment can come together poignantly. John remembers when SeaWorld decided to separate Kasatka — also captured near Iceland in 1978 — and her adult daughter Takara — born in captivity — who had been together for years. As the younger whale was being trucked away from the San Antonio park to Orlando, Kasatka began a series of vocalizations from her pool. An animal biologist who listened to tapes concluded that the sounds were designed to travel long distances: Kasatka was desperately trying to contact her daughter. The mother would never be the same. A few years later, a recording of Takara’s vocalizations in Orlando was played for Kasatka. She circled her pool histrionically, as if trying to find her long lost calf. She soon became too unpredictable for trainers to work with.

Until more detailed incidents are reported, what lies at the heart of the orca behavior off Spain may never emerge. In our book, John recalled a conversation with one of the great experts on orcas, Ingrid Visser of New Zealand.

“If you have a question about orcas,” she told him, “frame it as if you were asking about people.” She said you are likely to reach the same conclusions.

As we wrote in “Beneath the Surface,” whales do remember. Can they learn to forgive?

Howard Chua-Eoan was the international editor of Bloomberg Opinion until April 2023. The former News Director of Time magazine, he now writes about the nexus of culture and business.

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