Yacht-attacking orcas are just typical teenagers

Orcas in the Iberian Peninsula have been attacking boats for years. Hundreds of yachts and fishing vessels have been rammed or had their rudders smashed, and several have been sunk. The reason behind the attacks has been a mystery. Now a multi-year study of the orcas' behavior has been published, concluding that the apparent attacks are just young orcas playing. The recent abundance of bluefin tuna in the region has led to less time hunting for food and more time devoted to play. There also appears to be an element of "orca see, orca do."

The animals are known to be sensitive to trends, with scientists having observed odd new behaviors spreading through a pod like a TikTok challenge, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Perhaps most famously, in 1987, a female orca in the Pacific Ocean near Puget Sound was observed carrying a dead salmon on her head; within two months, killer whales from her pod and two others were also wearing 'fish hats.' But it was all a fad.

"Different populations often have distinct dietary specialisations that are maintained by cultural transmission, and these 'ecotypes' typically have a variety of persistent behavioural traditions that are related to their divergent foraging," the authors wrote. "Some populations may also develop unusual and temporary behavioural 'fads' and other idiosyncrasies that do not appear to serve any obvious adaptive purpose. Understanding the recent boat interactions by Iberian killer whales may benefit from an examination of such ephemeral traditions in other well-studied killer whale populations."

New Atlas

When Wally the Walrus was inadvertently sinking boats off the coast of County Cork in Ireland, he was given his own pontoon. Perhaps an orca playground could be constructed to keep these mischievous teens occupied. I'm kidding, but I also think it could be amazing.