Killer whales generally pose no threat to humans, but any encounter with a huge wild animal has its risks

People on a boat watching an orca swim towards them.

Killer whales are curious animals that will approach your boat.Portland Press Herald / Contributor / Getty Images

  • Killer whales have struck, and in some cases sunk, ocean-going vessels near Spain and Portugal.

  • In general, killer whales in the wild pose no threat to humans.

  • But boat encounters are still dangerous and swimming with a huge wild animal can be risky.

Despite the ominous name, killer whales aren’t really something humans should fear, at least not in the wild.

Killer whales have had a moment thanks to a critically endangered orca subpopulation that has targeted and, in three cases, sunk boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal.

The encounters have sparked tongue-in-cheek memes portraying orcas as revolutionaries fighting against the environmental destruction caused by humans.

But orca experts say the animals are most likely just engaging in playful behavior, not staging a revolution.

In general, killer whales pose no great threat to humans.

In the case of the boat encounters near the Iberian Peninsula, no humans were harmed. In fact, there are no documented cases of an orca intentionally harming a human in the wild.

Hanne Strager, a Danish biologist and whale researcher, said people off the Norwegian coast have been swimming in close proximity to killer whales for decades.

“Killer whales don’t seem interested in people at all. They’re interested in food, which for them in that area is herring,” Strager, who co-founded the Andenes Whale Center in Norway, told Insider. “I think they just think humans are something weird, certainly not food, and not something that bothers them.”

This is exactly why killer whales don’t attack, they don’t see people as food.

“When you look around the world, different types of populations have specialized in eating different types of prey,” said Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, adding that some orca populations eat primarily fish, while others eat marine mammals.

“They stick to what they know, and humans have never been a part of their diet,” he told Insider, noting that Iberian orcas eat mostly bluefin tuna. Trites added that he thought it would be unlikely for an orca to mistake a human for a seal given the brainpower of whales.

Members of the Iberian population who target the boats also don’t seem to be interested in humans, Strager noted. Encounters typically involve the orca approaching the boat from behind and striking the rudder, sometimes until it breaks and the boat is immobilized.

A crew member who was on a ship sunk by whales told Strager that as soon as the boat started sinking, the orcas lost all interest in it and left. They don’t seem interested in what’s aboard ships, just the ship itself.

Strager and Trites are among the experts who think the most likely explanation for the behavior is that orcas are playing. Strager likened it to the way a human might play with bubble wrap by popping it. In other words, orcas may simply see boats as big toys.

Human deaths caused by killer whales all have one thing in common

Four human deaths caused by orcas have been recorded along with hundreds of cases of killer whales attacking humans, but only in captivity.

Three of those deaths involved the same wild-caught orca, called Tilikum, which was the focus of the 2013 documentary “Blackfish.” Tilikum was involved in the deaths of a trainer at a park in Canada, a trainer at SeaWorld Orlando and a man believed to be trespassing at the Florida park.

However, Strager said it’s impossible to draw conclusions about wild orcas based on the behavior of captive orcas, since they are in such an artificial environment.

While orcas have not been documented to attack humans in the wild, that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re safe to swim in, both Strager and Trites said. As with any large wild animal, there is inherent danger, just as there would be if a human approached a herd of elephants.

And even if the orcas aren’t trying to attack people, boat encounters are still dangerous, as is a sinking boat in the ocean with or without the presence of an orca.

The researchers also expressed some concern about the perception that orcas are attacking people.

“If we become so frustrated with their behavior that we think they no longer deserve to be protected, then it’s a risk to whales,” Strager said, noting that the orca population near the Iberian Peninsula is in grave danger.

Read the original article on Business Insider

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