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Here's Why Orcas Have Been Smashing Up Yachts

You have no doubt heard that, in recent years, orcas have been ramming and sinking luxury yachts in European waters, but why? It turns out that it's not an anticapitalist agenda or to do with territory and aggression. The truth is, well, it's child's play.

This orca gave a team competing in The Ocean Race a scare
Credit: The Ocean Race

Thanks to co-ordinated research, a team of biologists, government officials and marine industry representatives have now released their findings on just why one particular Orcinus orca group has developed this destructive streak. And it turns out, orcas - especially the kids and teenagers - just want to have fun. The report reveals that a combination of free time, curiosity and natural playfulness has led to young orcas adopting this 'trend' of boat-bumping, which is not at all surprising for a species that has been known to adopt odd, isolated behaviours from time to time.

In recent years, a dramatic recovery in the population of bluefin tuna in the region has been a win for a group of about 40 critically endangered Iberian killer whales that feed exclusively on the large fish. This has meant they've cut down their time spent foraging, leaving space for other 'hobbies.'

Looking at all the date, the scientists found that the 'attacks' on vessels usually involved a couple of animals at a time, from a core group of 15 that have so far been observed messing with boats. But these 'attacks' are anything but - from the orcas' perspective, at least.

Most of the 15 were male juveniles and teens, the "most curious and exploratory" of an orca population, suggesting that what started as playful head-bumping on boat rudders has escalated as the animals have grown in size. Now that the orcas are larger, their game has become a lot more powerful.

And no orca over the age of 25 - when males are fully grown - has been seen participating in the shenanigans. Scientists suspect younger orcas have seen older siblings playing with their rudder 'toys' and then copied.

The animals are known to be sensitive to trends, with scientists having observed odd new behaviours spreading through a pod, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Perhaps most famously, in 1987, a female orca in the Pacific Ocean near Puget Sound was observed carrying a dead salmon on her head; within two months, killer whales from her pod and two others were also wearing 'fish hats.' But it was all a fad.

European sailors are no doubt hoping that the orcas' new boat bumping entertainment is just a fad too.


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