Killer whales are not our friends

In recent months, orcas have started ramming boats in the waters off the Iberian Peninsula. The animals have already sunk three and damaged several more this year. After one recent incident, in which a catamaran lost both rudders, the boat’s captain suspected the attackers had become more stealthy and efficient: “Looks like they know exactly what they’re doing,” he said. Scientists have documented hundreds of orca boat incidents off the Spanish-Portuguese coast since 2020, but coverage of these attacks is currently increasing, thanks in part to a creative new theory about why they’re happening: Revenge of the Whales. Now that is a story!

“The orcas do this on purpose,” Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, told Live Science last month. “Of course we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior due to trauma as the origin of all this is gaining strength for us every day.” López Fernandez, co-author of a 2022 paper on human-orca interaction in the Strait of Gibraltar, speculates that a particular female known to scientists as the White Gladis may have suffered a “critical moment of agony” at the hands of humans. attacked a boat in retaliation and then taught other whales to do the same.

However true that claim may be, White Gladis and her kin have quickly attained folk hero status on the internet. “What marine biologists are calling revenge for a traumatic experience may be part of a larger mobilization for balance,” says poet Alexis Pauline Gumbs tweeted before calling orca whales “revolutionary teacher moms.” Media professionals and scientists express their solidarity with their “Orca comrades‘ and support for ‘Orca Saboteurs.” A common graphic shows a pod smash a boat from below, with the words “JOIN THE ORCA RIOT” above it (you can even buy it in glitter sticker Yet all this fan base and projections tend to overlook important facts: First, these orcas are likely to exist play with the boats attack and secondly, if one insists on judging killer whales by human standards, it is clear that they are not heroes but sadistic idiots.

The recent incidents, none of which have resulted in human injury, are simply the result of curiosity, Monika Wieland Shields, co-director of the Orca Behavior Institute in Washington, told me. A juvenile might have interacted with boats this way, she said, and then this habit spread to the local orca community. Such cultural trends have been observed before: in the Pacific Northwest, orcas have played with buoys and crab pots for years; In the late 1980s, a group of orcas began portaging there salmon hats. Is ramming boats the new attract fish? Shields believes the theory makes more sense than López Fernandez’s appeal to orca trauma. White Gladis shows no physical signs of injury or trauma, Shields told me, so any “critical moment of distress” is purely speculative. Also, humans have given orcas ample cause for revenge for hundreds of years. We have entered their waters, kidnapped their young, and murdered them in droves. And yet there is not a single documented case of orcas killing humans in the wild. Why should they only react now?

And although recent events may fit the history of these orcas anticolonial Warriors, you can’t just selectively humanize animals. What about all the other “evidence” we have of orca cruelty or even malice? Scientists say they hunt and slaughter dozens of sharks, removing the livers from each and leaving the rest of the carcasses to rot uneaten. Orcas kill for fun. You’ll push, pull and spin around live prey including sea turtles, seabirds and sea lions. Some even risk going to the beach to catch a baby seal – not to eat it, but simply to torture it to death. Once you start applying human ethical standards to apex predators, it gets dark fast.

Perhaps the uprising was inevitable. After all, humanity has a long history of carrying whales of higher importance. Moby Dick is, among other things, a symbol of the sublime. The biblical whale – or is it a big fish? —devouring Jonah is an instrument of divine vengeance, a means of punishing the wicked, much in the same way some did to boatwrecking orcas. The whale 52 Blue, known as the world’s loneliest whale because it speaks at a frequency inaudible or at least incomprehensible to its brethren, has become a canvas for all shades of human grief and fear.

Orcas in particular have long been the object of fear and sympathy, sometimes with an explicitly anti-capitalist tinge. The classic from 1993 Free Willy It centers on a devious park owner’s plan to profit from the bond between a child and a young killer whale. And more recently the documentary from 2013 blackfish chronicles SeaWorld’s real-world exploitation of captive orcas. The tale of “Orca Rebellion” fits right into this line. In this day and age of environmental catastrophe, Shields told me, it’s tempting to think that nature can fight back and that the bad guys will get their just rewards.

But projection and anthropomorphization are just shortcuts to superficial sympathy. Orcas are really capable of intense grief; They are also capable of tormenting seal pups as a hobby. They are intelligent, emotionally complex beings. But they are not us.

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