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30th Jun 2023

This is why White Gladis the orca has started a killer whale uprising and won’t stop sinking boats

Steve Hopkins

‘She preferred to stop the boats rather than keeping her baby safe’

The matriarch of a pod of killer whales accused of ramming boats during an ‘orca uprising’, is thought to have been pregnant when she started trying to sink boats.

A surge of attacks has been reported off the coast of Spain and Portugal since the summer of 2020, and are believed to have been instigated by White Gladis. The incidents have involved marine mammals circling vessels before ramming and wrenching away their rudders.

Scientists now believe the killer whale was pregnant during the attacks. The gestation period for orcas is 15 to 18 months and Gladis is thought to have given birth in 2021.

MailOnline reports, that rather than settling into motherhood, Gladis is thought to have continued her pattern of destructive behaviour. And her calf accompanied her on the missions, potentially learning the behaviour.

Commenting on the development, Mónica González, a marine biologist with the Coordinator for the Study of Marine Mammals, said during a webinar: “She went to the boats with this calf, so she preferred to stop the boats rather than keeping her baby safe.”

Orcas usually look after newborn calves for up to two years after they’re born, providing them with safety and nourishment until they learn how to hunt, and, according to Robert Pitman, a marine biologist at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, are fiercely protective of their young.

While experts aren’t sure exactly what is behind the so-called ‘orca uprising’ experts have speculated that they could be acting out in response to traumatic events.

Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal who is a representative of the Atlantic Orca Working Group, told LiveScience: “The traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact with the boat.”

He told the publication that a “critical moment of agony” made White Gladis aggressive towards boats – and this is now being taught and copied by other orcas.

While it isn’t clear exactly how much influence Gladis has had in the uprising, The Atlantic Orca Working Group has seen a 298 per cent increase in orca-boat interactions from 2020 to 2023. In the last few years, three boats have been capsized as a result of orca encounters and over 100 damaged.

Just like humans, orcas pass down knowledge through the generations, so it has been suggested Gladis taught her calf and pod-mates to attack ships as a protective action, and the message spread. However, Gonzalez explained that younger mammals may engage in the behaviour out of “curiosity or playfulness”.

Biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin previously told CBS News the behaviour “highlights the incredible intelligence” of the whales. 

“What we’re seeing is adapted behaviour. We’re learning about how they actually learn from their environment and then take those skill sets and share them and teach them to other whales,” he said. 

Corwin explained the CBS that there were two theories as to why killer whales were now attacking boats. One, is that it is a type of “play”, the other, that it is the result of a “negative experience”.

Some experts are now concerned that people might take matters into their own hands.

Deborah Giles, the science and research director at Wild Orca, said: ‘I am worried that people will take the situation into their own hands and use lethal or harmful tactics to try and, you know, get the whales to stop or at least, you know, stop an attack at the moment.’

Dan Kriz told Newsweek that his boat was first confronted by a pod of killer whales in 2020 while he and his crew were delivering a yacht through the Strait of Gibraltar, which runs between Spain and Morocco.

“I was surrounded with a pack of eight orcas, pushing the boat around for about an hour,” Kriz said.

The ship’s rudder was so damaged it had to be towed to the nearest marina. 

In April it happened again, near the Canary Islands. But this time, the orcas seemed to know exactly what they were doing, Kriz explained.

Kriz told Newsweek that during the first encounter the crew could “hear them communicating under the boat”, but the second time they approached with stealth.

“They were quiet, and it didn’t take them that long to destroy both rudders. … Looks like they knew exactly what they are doing. They didn’t touch anything else.” 

The attack lasted about 15 minutes, but when the crew started to head for Spain’s coast, they came back.

“Suddenly, one big adult orca started chasing us,” Kriz said. 

“In a couple of minutes, she was under the boat, and that was when we realised there was still a little piece of fibreglass left and she wanted to finish the job,” Kriz said.

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