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On the night of May 4th, the skipper Werner Schaufelberger was sailing the Swiss yacht Champagne toward a Spanish port town on the Strait of Gibraltar when he heard a loud rumble. His first thought was that the boat had hit something, but he quickly realized that the vessel was under assault—by a group of orcas. “The attacks were brutal,” Schaufelberger told the German magazine Yacht. Three orcas, the large black-and-white dolphins also known as killer whales, worked in tandem; a large orca rammed the boat from the side while two smaller ones gnawed at the rudder until it was destroyed and the yacht was taking on water. Schaufelberger radioed for help, and the Spanish Coast Guard sent a helicopter and rescue cruiser to collect the four people on board. None were injured. The only casualty was the Champagne itself, which sank while being towed toward land.
The orcas that sunk the Champagne are part of a small group, thought to number fifteen altogether, that have been having run-ins with boats in and near the Strait of Gibraltar since 2020. That was the third vessel that they had sunk in a year. It wasn’t the last. The orcas have continued their disruptions—with encounters happening almost every day in May and June—and coverage in both traditional and social media has bloomed. One sailor said that the orcas had playfully thrashed his boat around “like a rag doll,” removed the rudders, and left him marooned for days. Another, Captain Dan Kriz, described an encounter with the same group of orcas that had rammed his boat three years earlier: they had honed their strategy, he reported, working more quickly and quietly than they had before. On Instagram, a video of the orcas tailing Kriz’s boat showed two of them tidily detaching both rudders. “Check the rudder in its mouth! This is crazy!!” the caption exclaimed (posted only after the crew was safe on land). In those summer encounters, the damaged vessels stayed afloat. In late October, several orcas spent the better part of an hour ramming and otherwise roughing up a yacht called the Grazie Mamma II, off the Moroccan coast. Everyone on board was safely rescued, but the Grazie Mamma II sank.
Why were the orcas doing it? Alfredo López, a researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, which studies the region’s killer whales, told Scientific American that the Iberian orcas might simply be playing with the boats, or trying out a new fad. According to orca experts, pods of the animals have their own distinct and evolving culture, and often adopt group behaviors that seem to have no purpose other than imitation or play. In the summer of 1987, a female orca in the Pacific Northwest was spotted swimming with a dead salmon perched on her head. Soon, orcas throughout Puget Sound were sporting their own “salmon hats,” including individuals in other pods. And then they stopped, the hats falling out of vogue as mysteriously as they’d begun. The Iberian orcas’ interactions with boats could be just another passing trend. Or—according to a hypothesis much more narratively satisfying, though by no means confirmed—maybe the orcas were exacting revenge. A particular adult female, dubbed White Gladis, was involved in many of the incidents, with others who were mostly juveniles. Some speculated that White Gladis had been injured by a boat or by fishing equipment, and was attacking the vessels because she had learned to see them as a threat.
As news of the encounters came out this summer, the Internet latched on. Pun enthusiasts called it a wave of orca-nized crime. Would-be marine biologists picked up on the theory that the behavior was a response to trauma. Iberian orcas are critically endangered—there are likely only about forty individuals left. It was easy to imagine the boat attacks as acts of defense by a group facing existential threat. Others took their interpretations further, weaving a story of marine mammals motivated by liberatory politics and class consciousness. Fans labelled the orcas’ behavior as anti-colonial protest or anti-capitalist direct action, and pledged solidarity with the ocean’s saboteurs. A world away from the Strait of Gibraltar, at the Minnesota State Fair, a crop-art contest got so many political-orca entries, one observer noted, that “ ‘Let orcas eat the rich’ was literally an entire subgenre.” It was a tidal wave of cheeky projection: the orcas were comrades, applauded for a revolutionary uprising, striking a blow for climate justice one yacht at a time.
This isn’t the first time humans and orcas have tangled in the Mediterranean. In the first century, Pliny the Elder wrote about an orca that swam into the harbor at Ostia, the ancient port of Rome. Emperor Claudius ordered the harbor closed off with nets, trapping the orca so that soldiers could fight it, in a maritime gladiator spectacle that the scholar described watching firsthand: “Boats assailed the monster, while the soldiers on board showered lances upon it.” In the sixth century, a whale called Porphyrios, who may have been an orca, sank boats around Constantinople for decades. He so harassed Byzantine seafarers that the Emperor Justinian made it his mission to kill the beast. (The policy failed, but when Porphyrios beached himself while chasing dolphins, locals hacked him to pieces on the shore.)
But such incidents have always been rare—the regularity of the Iberian orcas’ behavior is part of what makes it so strange. Several orcas kept in captivity and trained to perform at marine amusement parks have attacked their human trainers. (Tilikum, one of several orcas at SeaWorld that performed as Shamu, and the subject of the documentary “Blackfish,” killed three people.) But no wild orca has ever killed a person. Deborah Giles, a biologist who studies the orcas of Puget Sound, told NPR that in the many years those whales were being hunted—with methods that included herding by helicopters and small explosives—they never turned on humans or boats. A group of orca experts published an open letter this summer attempting to correct the characterization that the incidents were attacks. “We urge the media and public to avoid projecting narratives onto these animals,” the scientists wrote. The orcas, they stressed, were not operating as a ruthless marine-mammal mafia. Whatever may be behind the strange and novel behavior, “it is unfounded and potentially harmful to the animals to claim it is for revenge for past wrongs or to promote some other melodramatic storyline.”
Can you blame us, though? We love charismatic megafauna. And orcas, in particular, have rizz. When a crew tried, this autumn, to deter a group of orcas from approaching their boat by blasting heavy metal underwater, the plan backfired—and the orcas chased the boat down because, you can only assume, they love metal. Orcas occupy a sweet spot in terms of how humans see wildlife: they’re captivatingly alien, but the presence of trained orcas in film and amusement parks has taught us to think of them in relation to our own culture—often as a symbol for nature reacting to human overreach. When such creatures start ramming the boats associated with the rich, it’s natural to want to connect the dots.
Recall what else was happening at sea early this summer, at the same time that melodramatic orca story lines reached a fever pitch. On June 18th, a small group of ultrawealthy individuals perished in the Titan submersible disaster in the depths of the North Atlantic. On June 14th, more than six hundred people from South Asia and the Middle East trying to reach Europe drowned when an overcrowded boat capsized in the Mediterranean Sea. There was a moment when some ugly truths were starkly outlined: who has to take serious risks to escape danger, and who is so used to being safe that they can court danger in the name of adventure. To look at the news in June was to think about safety, and the terrors of the ocean, and extreme division between the haves and the have-nots.
Like any catastrophe, the climate collapse will have its gallows humor, and the fascination with the orcas—like the surge of interest in the Titan disaster—mined a vein of real discontent. Global wealth inequality is at Gilded Age levels. The ten richest men on earth doubled their fortunes during the pandemic. A new study reports that the wealthiest ten per cent of Americans are responsible for nearly half of the national carbon emissions. The air is smoky, the storms are crazy, and the superyacht industry is booming as never before. A fed-up endangered species seems an apt avatar for economic and environmental anxiety combining and turning to rage.
The truth, of course, is that nature cannot do the work of saving us from ourselves. Shamu’s distant cousins aren’t staging a rebellion. The ruling classes won’t be eaten by large dolphins. By all indications, the rich are going to continue to fly in private jets as rising sea levels and natural disasters force others to leave their homes. Some may have even attended the year’s COP summit, which offered a panel on environmentally sustainable yachting. ♦