Killer whale behaviour off the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula, where pods have been ramming boats, have inspired some on social media to “orca-nize” discussions on animal rights and environmental protection as well as create art.
In May, a pod of orcas repeatedly rammed a yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar, damaging it enough to require Spanish rescuers to come to the aid of its four crew members. It was the 24th such incident registered this year by Spain’s Maritime Rescue service.
For Hawli Pichette, a Mushkego Cree visual artist from Treaty 9 territory, the behaviour inspired her to create a piece dedicated to the killer whale.
“I’m definitely siding with the whales on this one and I think many people are finding more than just humour in the situation,” Pichette said.
“It’s such a powerful visual to see an intelligent species like orca whales collaborating and continually perfecting their strategy, whatever their reasons are.”
Pichette said people should be humbled by the reminder that nature can fight back.
“We need to respect territories we share, whether it’s land or water, because we aren’t as far up on the food chain as we like to think as a species,” Pichette said.
Social media content creator Birdie Sam, who is Eagle Killer Whale clan from Tlingit Nation, has a large following on TikTok. They are using the hashtag #teamorca on their social media and merchandise.
“It’s bringing together a lot of portions of the internet that typically have a lot of things to argue about when it comes to capitalism,” said Sam.
They said the killer whale is displaying “completely rational behaviour.”
“They want to make their water safe,” Sam said.
Sweetwater Nannauck, of the Tsimshian Nation, is a knowledge keeper and activist in Seattle who started Idle No More Washington.
She said teachings about her clan, the Killer Whale, showed her whales remember people — and how they were treated by them — for generations.
“The old Tlingit believes that the keet [killer whale] really heard and understood the talk of humans,” she said.
“Just as the keet rewards kindness and courtesy, they will also punish cruelty and disrespect. The people believe that the keet have an awareness of each other and will band together to accomplish revenge.”
She recounted a story about fishermen in southeastern Alaska catching a 12-foot killer whale in their nets and clubbing it to death because it was a dangerous animal.
The next day, she said, the water was alive with killer whales.
“They were not travelling along peacefully … they were charging hither and yon and [in] savage fashion,” Nannauck said.
“The channel boiled with the power of their movements. They were hunting for their lost comrade.”
The fishermen were met by the charge of keet in formation, she said, forcing them to return to docks, and fishing couldn’t happen again until the orcas left — several days later and as suddenly as they arrived, she said.
Reacting from trauma
The attacks off the Iberian Peninsula were documented in a recent study titled Killer whales of the Strait of Gibraltar, an endangered subpopulation showing a disruptive behavior, co-authored by Alfredo López Fernandez.
Since 2020, López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and a representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group) and his team, recorded 744 sightings and interactions with orcas.
In 505 of those interactions, he said orcas responded to the presence of boats by approaching, and sometimes even touching them.
He believes a pod leader known as White Gladis is reacting out of trauma from an earlier encounter she had with a boat.
In an email, López Fernandez said in some interactions there isn’t any physical contact, but physical contact with ships causing serious damage occurs in nearly 20 per cent of interactions.
There are several killer whale populations in Canada; the Northeast Pacific southern resident killer whale population is listed as endangered. According to Fisheries and Oceans Canada, their main threats are a decline in prey, physical and acoustic disturbances and contaminants.
Vessels in the southern B.C. coastal waters between Campbell River and just north of Ucluelet must stay 400 metres away from killer whales, and 200 metres away from them in all other Canadian Pacific waters.