by Jörn Selling
A name that I do not use as a matter of principle
Orca is the more appropriate name for these majestic hunters, who, as far as known, do not attack people in the wild. Nevertheless, the question comes up again and again from our guests and course participants. Anyone who researches this will come across two attacks in the wild; humans were most likely confused with prey by young animals. Then there are the attacks in captivity, that are not surprising and which I fully understand. And finally a strange case that happened in 1972 at the Galapagos, where an Orca pack sunk the wooden sailing boat of the English family "Robertson", who then had to survive 38 days at sea in a rescue dinghy until they were picked up by Japanese fishermen.
When we were contacted by the journalist Susan Smillie of the Guardian on the 7th of August about collisions of Orcas with ships, I thought it was about the conflict between them and fishermen in the Strait of Gibraltar. It turned out, however, that in July and August, sailing boats in the Strait of Gibraltar had been attacked by Orcas, the last attack being off Galicia on the 11th of September. When I heard about this from Susan, I did not doubt it because I knew the Galapagos story. From the videos, photos and reports of the crew that we received on a basis of trust before the publication of heir great article, it was clear that they were proceeding in a coordinated and planned manner, as they do when hunting for bigger prey.
In the Skype interview I pointed out that the Orcas are finding it increasingly difficult to get their favoured prey, as we humans leave them very little. Also, their learned technique to catch the tunas from the fishing lines was and remains dangerous, because the fishermen defend themselves, lately with electro-shockers which they use to paralyze the tunas while they are still in the water.
Two Orca females (Toni, the matriarch and Lucía) have each lost a pectoral fin, most likely by fishing gear, either lines or drift nets, the latter still used by Moroccans, although banned in the Mediterranean by Europe and internationally proscribed. The younger female "Lucía" lost her newly born calf between 2014 and 2015 in addition to her pectoral fin, if not during the same incident, then perhaps while struggling with her fresh injury. In any case, her baby was not with her in 2015. Although it is known that their calves have a low chance of survival in the Strait of Gibraltar even under normal conditions and therefore a link between calf deaths and fishing remains speculation, Lucía proved in 2017 that she is quite capable of raising a new calf, even with a missing pectoral fin.
The underwater noise from shipping does the rest, as do the sports fishermen who sail through the whale and dolphin groups, in the vague hope and superstition that tuna are below them. They cut cleanly through the dorsal fins of the Pilot Whales with their fish-hook lines deployed at the stern. I wouldn't be surprised if they also pass through Orca groups, although this has never happened before in our presence, but it has happened to the Pilot Whales.
Now the question arises why the Orcas attacked the ships
Was it aggression or play? We can only speculate.
If aggressive, it occurs to those who are on their side like me, that there could be parallels to Frank Schätzing's book "The Swarm". In the book, microorganisms colonise the animals' brains and control their behaviour in order to turn against humanity. That it is possible for microorganisms to influence behaviour is sufficiently proven, for example in the case of rabies. There is also the suspicion in humans that fungi, toxoplasma and our microbiome in the intestine have an influence on our behaviour. In autopsies of some coastal whales, the cause of death was found to be an infestation with toxoplasma, a germ that does not occur naturally in the sea and which could come from waste water (for example from washing out cat toilets). Under certain circumstances, the pathogen can also cause death in humans, but in most cases it only nests in us and is suspected of making some infected people more daring and aggressive. However, it is not known whether toxoplasma could also influence the behaviour of dolphins (family, of which Orcas are the largest members) or whether it is basically fatal. The waste water in the Strait of Gibraltar is inadequately treated, while that of Tarifa has only started to been treated two years ago.
The Orcas here are, after those off the UK, the most highly contaminated with PCBs in European waters, which bioaccumulates in their prey. They have high PCB levels that markedly exceed all known marine mammal PCB toxicity thresholds. The western Mediterranean Sea and the south-west Iberian Peninsula are global PCB “hotspots” for marine mammals.
They have reasons enough to become increasingly hostile to us
The fact that we hardly let them have any tuna is compounded by the underwater noise. It is remarkable that the attacks started after the lockdown. It was much quieter in May and June in the area, especially off Barbate and Trafalgar where two of the attacks took place, 50-60 km north of the shipping lane in the Strait of Gibraltar. Although cargo vessels continued to operate in the Strait, but to a lesser extent, fishermen and other recreational craft were not allowed at all out on the sea. The two pods which hunt mainly off Barbate and Trafalgar, may have had an unprecedented calm environment that allowed them to better locate the tuna with their sonar system. Could they have been irritated by the resumption of shipping traffic? An injured calf was sighted among the attackers, was that injury cause - or consequence of the attacks? Are they defending their ressources?
One reason for playful behaviour with a serious background is to train their calves
Mammal-eating and opportunistic Orcas (to be distinguished from fish-eating ones) have training sessions in which the pack chooses a victim (whale calf, sea lion, or something else big enough) to teach their calves to hunt large prey. Sometimes they bite the fins of the prey to turn them immobile, but it is more popular to ram the prey. They have been known to bite the rudders of sailboats, but most of the time the boats have survived without damage. In this case, some rudders were partially destroyed by ramming. The killer whales may be able to sense that the rudders are steering the boat. We have often seen Orca calves in particular swimming on their backs under our stern, looking at the propulsion and steering techniques of the boat, once in a group of three. However, the Orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar are fish-eaters.
Will these incidents end, as it happened to be the case in the Pacific, or will there be more that allow us to determine the reason?
In the meantime, they have launched further attacks on sailing boats off Galicia. Smaller and medium-sized sailing boats that do not sail too fast seem to be particularly attractive (article in German) to them. Do they have acquired a taste for it, are they rowdy youngsters? As a precaution, the Spanish coast guard has declared the area a restricted zone for such boats.
The first thing to do is to identify them
Different conclusions may have to be drawn depending on whether they are part of the same pod or whether all members of the small population in the Strait are involved. It is said that at the end of the summer "our" Orcas follow the tunas towards the Sea of Biscay. In this case, they could be some of "ours", and the timing would fit the beginning of the attacks off Galicia on the 11th of September, although the first groups already appeared there in August, whilst we were still watching some of them in the Strait of Gibraltar.
In any case, they have managed to attract our attention. We would like to help them not to be seen as perpetrators but as plagued animals that behave peacefully towards us humans despite everything we have done and are still doing to them. They seem to have no interest in attacking us, otherwise they would have finished off the Robertsons. It would be a good idea to ban electric stun units in the area and compensate fishermen for the tuna they are losing to them, as well as farmers in Switzerland who lose farm animals to the wolves, in order to reduce hostilities. It would also be good if everyone would rethink their consumption of tuna, because where there is great demand and the big money beckons, ugly things happen. As a farewell a video which proves the peacefulness of them towards us.