Arctic boaters have no need to fear boat-ramming orcas: scientist

Increase in reported cases of orcas interacting with boats off coast of Spain and Portugal puzzles researchers

By Madalyn Howitt, Nunatsiaq News - July 10, 2023
Orcas may be capsizing boats off the coast of Europe, but Arctic killer whale researcher Steve Ferguson says boaters in Nunavut should not worry they’ll be targeted by orcas, like the ones seen here in Pond Inlet in 2018. (Photo by Maha Ghazal, courtesy of Steve Ferguson)

Scientists are stumped by a curious wave of killer whales capsizing boats off the coast of Europe.

Since 2020, there has been a rise in reports of killer whales, or orcas, interacting with and damaging small sailing vessels and yachts off the coasts of Portugal and Spain.

The culprits in most of the attacks seem to come from one pod of three juvenile orcas, named black Gladis, grey Gladis and white Gladis in the official orca record.

The whales have sunk at least three boats, according to a recent report from Live Science.

Various theories have been floated: possibly a matriarch whale teaching other whales in her pod how to knock over boats; attempts at playful behaviour gone awry; chemicals from boat paint antagonizing orcas; or, simply more boats in the ocean leading to more run-ins with whales.

Scientists say there’s no need to sound the alarm about Arctic killer whales sinking boats in Nunavut.

“I don’t think there’s any risk there. We’ve had no indication of any negative interactions with boats,” said Steve Ferguson, a research scientist with Fisheries and Oceans Canada who studies Arctic marine animals.

He’s part of a team of orca researchers working to learn more about the roughly 160 whales in Nunavut’s waters.

Highly intelligent and social animals, orcas live in pods and can learn behaviours from each other, Ferguson said.

There is only one well-documented instance of a wild orca attacking a human — a surfer who was bitten 50 years ago in California.

For this reason, Ferguson doesn’t believe orcas in Europe are deliberately trying to harm people by capsizing their boats, although some researchers have suggested a matriarch whale may have bumped into a sailing boat, capsized it, and then taught other whales in her pod to do the same.

“It does seem to be that the grandmothers are leaders in the communities, and so if it was something like that it does kind of make some sense that they might be teaching others,” Ferguson said.

“They could see their environment being overtaken by humans and maybe creating some conflicts for them.”

Another theory floated by Marine Industry News in February suggested black antifoul, a type of paint applied to the bottom of boats, may be agitating orcas who are now going after boats that use the paint.

The whales that visit Nunavut typically swim through Lancaster Sound into Eclipse Sound, and around Pond Inlet and Arctic Bay, Ferguson said. A few arrive further south, coming through the Hudson Strait into Hudson Bay and Foxe Basin.

From tracking those whales and from interviews with local Inuit elders and hunters, scientists have determined that around 160 whales come to Nunavut every year, Ferguson said, which is not a big number considering how large the Arctic is.

While Inuit hunters in the past used kayaks that would have been easy for an orca to capsize, speedboats typically used today in hunting are larger and faster than killer whales, who can grow to more than nine metres long and weigh anywhere from 3,600 to 7,200 kilograms.

“The things that have happened off of Spain or Portugal with sailing vessels, are vessels that would be slow enough that the killer whales could interact,” Ferguson said.

There’s still a lot that researchers want to know about orcas, like where they go when they’re not in Nunavut.

“That’s the mystery question that we have to solve,” Ferguson said.

Orcas from the North Atlantic have been spotted in the Mediterranean before, and scientists believe some orca whales in Nunavut may travel south to the Caribbean.

“It’s pretty long distances, but other whales make those kinds of migrations every year,” Ferguson said.

So, if an orca could swim from Arctic Bay to Aruba, is it possible that Nunavut’s orcas could be spending their summer vacations capsizing boats off the coast of Europe?

“We’ve seen some of those photos. They’re not our whales,” Ferguson laughed.

However, “it’s possible,” they could swim there, he said. “We just need the evidence.”

Located in Iqaluit, Nunavut, Canada, Nunatsiaq News is dedicated to covering affairs in Nunavut and the Nunavik territory of Quebec since 1973. It has been a partner to ArcticToday and its predecessors since 2016.

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