Killer whales have been caught vandalizing sailboats in southern Europe, and scientists are unsure what causes this unusual behavior. The young sea mammals attacked boats (some of which had people on board at the time of the incidents) and tore off pieces in what is called a “temporary cultural fashion”. Here’s what’s going on with the teenage hooligan orcs.
Norwegian medical student Ester Kristine Storkson, 27, was sleeping on her father’s 37ft sailboat off the coast of France when a group of young killer whales attacked, “crushing the boat”. Storkson told NPR. “They [hit] us several times… giving us the impression that it was a coordinated attack. I said to my father, ‘I don’t think clearly, so you have to think for me.’ Luckily, he’s a very calm and centered person, and he made me feel safe by speaking softly about the situation.”
After 15 minutes, the orcas gave up their attack and swam away, leaving Storkson and his father to assess the damage. They lowered a GoPro into the water and found the orcas had damaged the boat. “About three quarters of [the rudder] was broken and metal was bent,” says Storkson. Luckily, there was enough rudder left to get to safety in the French coastal city of Brest, but they had to cut short their journey to circumnavigate the globe.
Orcas reportedly sank two boats off the coast of Portugal last month, but the Storkson incident is seen as an aberration. “I really don’t understand what happened there,” said Renaud de Stephanispresident and coordinator of CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. “It’s too far. I mean, I don’t think [the orcas] would go up there for a few days and then come back.
Why do orcas specifically attack rudders? One theory is that they really enjoy playing with them. “What we think is that they ask to have the propeller in the face”, by Stephanis says. So when orcas encounter a rudder that won’t turn, “they get a little frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder.”
Scientists believe this is typical of what happens when teenagers have too much time (and too little responsibility) at their disposal. “It’s a game,” says de Stephanis, who thinks things will change when juvenile males have to start hunting for food as part of the pod. “When they…have their own adult life, it’ll probably stop.” The boat attacks are reminiscent of a time in the 1990s when young killer whales were swimming with dead salmon on their heads. “They killed fish and swam with this fish on their head”, said Jared Towers, director of Bay Cetology in British Columbia. “We don’t see that anymore.”