Call me Ishmael, for I’m about to tell a tale of p*ssed-off animals and the lesson we humans should take away—or at least consider—from events I’m about to describe. It begins with the story of White Gladis, an Orca whale who appears to have a bone to pick with sailing ships.
I doubt anyone can really understand what goes through the mind of a killer whale on the rampage, although scientists are willing to speculate. The two leading theories suggest Gladis was being curious and playful, or she had vengeance on her mind.
I wonder, however, if there isn’t a possible third explanation for the attacks. Could it be that the whales are drawing attention to themselves as a warning—expressed in anger—that human activity is turning the oceans into a deathbed? But more on that in a moment.
Alfredo López Fernandez, a marine biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, leans towards vengeance. He considers it likely that a female orca suffered a traumatic moment of agony in a collision with a boat and now views such vessels as a threat.
To understand the recent incidents of whales attacking and sinking boats off the Iberian Peninsula in context, it’s necessary to know something about orcas. The distinctive black and white whales are highly intelligent mammals belonging to the dolphin family. Females like Gladis average between 16 and 23 feet long and weigh anywhere from six and ten tons.
Orcas are apex predators feeding pretty much on anything they want to, from fish to sea lions, and have a complex social order. They live in multi-generational pods led by a female. White Gladis is the alpha female of her pod.
Whales communicate by distinctive audible signals, including underwater pulses, clicks, and whistles. In fact, whales “communicate with such sophistication that pods form their own dialects and parents teach their young hunting methods that are passed along for generations.” Their communication helps them to hunt in coordinated groups.
Fernandez suggests Gladis has “taught the aggressive behavior to other adult orcas, whose children have begun imitating the behavior.” It fits the reality of the events.
The attacks by Gladis and her pod have been well executed. While the younger whales go after tillers, the grande dame uses her head and bulk to attack amidships. The attacks have left boats either adrift or sinking.
According to the Washington Post—
Pods of killer whales have done serious damage to boats in the region about a dozen times already this year.
Whales have threatened boats for centuries—although not as much as humans have threatened them through the ages. Whale hunting dates back to at least ninth-century Norway. In 1820 an enraged whale wrecked a ship—the Essex—in the Pacific Ocean. The attack set sailors adrift for two tortuous months.
The Essex incident was the basis for Hermann Melville’s Moby Dick. According to the National Ocean Service, the name of Ahab’s whale was inspired by real-life events. In 1839, Melville read a story about an albino sperm whale with a taste for whaling ships. The whale of the tale was killed off the coast of Chile near Mocha Island and will be forever known as Mocha Dick.
You can hardly blame whales—mythical or otherwise—for wanting to defend themselves (and their pods) against harpoon-crazed hunters. The recent series of attacks by the orcas off the coasts of Gibraltar, Spain, and Portugal began in 2020.
Spanish and Portuguese marine biologists who follow the activities of orcas near the Iberian Peninsula have recorded a string of attacks over the past several years. In 2020, 52 assaults were chronicled with the numbers growing to 197 in 2021 and to 207 in 2022.
No one on any of the attacked sailboats has been reported as having their harpoons at the ready when any of the recent attacks occurred. So why did Gladis and her pod do it?
Notwithstanding the knowledge and experience of experts like Fernandez, I can’t help but wonder if there’s another possible reason for Gladis’ aggressiveness. Could it be—
The lady knows what we know about the causes and consequences of climate change but is tired of waiting for humankind to do what needs to be done about it.
If it were so, then the attacks of the orcas are perhaps an attempt to warn us that we are not doing enough, fast enough, to combat climate changes already underway, e.g., rising oceans and mass extinctions. Events that will soon change the world we know in ways we would be wise to avoid. Too far-fetched, you think?
Orcas are far from stupid. Whales and dolphins are considered the ‘brainiacs’ of the sea. Their brains contain specialized cells called spindle neurons associated with advanced abilities. These include recognizing, remembering, reasoning, communicating, perceiving, adapting to change, problem-solving, and understanding. Traits–all—that are being exhibited in the recent attacks by Gladis and her pod.
The intelligence of whales, dolphins, and sea lions is such that Russia and the US train them to be an integral part of their security efforts. The US Navy has trained dolphins and sea lions “since the Vietnam War to search for objects and patrol restricted waters.”
According to Lauren Aratani, it’s no surprise that countries like the United States and Russia have turned to marine mammals to carry out searches in water.
The natural senses of whales, dolphins, and sea lions beat out the capabilities of any machine or computer created by humans.
A fugitive beluga whale from the Russian navy, dubbed Hvaldimir, has been cruising the coasts of Norway and Sweden since 2019. The name is a pun on the Norwegian word for whale—hval—and that of the Russian president.
Hvaldimir was familiar enough with humans that Norwegian biologists could detach his equipment harness. [There was no equipment attached.] With no way to communicate with his Russian handlers, Hvald is thought to be cruising for a mate—or perhaps he just enjoys freedom?
Between the two options of play and vengeance, I vote for vengeance. Whales don’t strike me as the kind that can’t distinguish between playing with a sailing ship and sinking it.
There is a third theory to consider. Who better to know the state of Earth’s oceans than whales? Carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels are warming waters and threatening the ecological balance needed to maintain healthy seas.
According to NOAA Fisheries, “Whales are particularly vulnerable to the effects of climate change.” The cause of that vulnerability is food insecurity. Beluga whales must now dive longer, deeper, and more frequently to find food. The resulting increased stress can reduce their ability to reproduce.
Whales breathe the same air as humans and land mammals. Are the increasing concentrations of air borne pollutants impacting the health of Gladis and her pod? Are the unprecedented attacks on sailboats by way of a warning that the death of the oceans threatens us all?
Whether White Gladis and her pod are singularly p*ssed because of a harmful past collision, or their aggression has a deeper meaning, is anyone’s guess.
In any event, the problem isn’t with what whales might be saying.
What then are these tales of White Gladis and Hvalimir about? They’re about whether we—humankind—are smart enough to see, listen, and act on the growing body of research and all the signs in nature that confirm the causes and consequences of a changing planet.
Carl Safina, an American ecologist and respected author about the relationship between humans and the natural world, has called the coda of the sperm whale “the loudest sound in the living world.”
The real question, then, is anyone listening?
Lead image The Essex, the ship Moby-Dick is based on, was sunk by a vengeful whale. Image courtesy of the Camden Public Library