Photograph by Tony Wu / NaturePL
The trailer for the 1977 horror thriller Orca establishes its stakes with pure dramatic flourish. A disembodied voiceover accompanied by footage of fins knifing through water offers mostly true facts about the incredible whales: Orcas have highly developed brains, transmit cultural dialects, and retain close-knit family structures in insular pods.
“And like human beings,” the narrator booms, “they have a profound instinct for vengeance.”
Fantasies of orca revenge have captivated us in recent months, dominating the news cycle and social media (at least until some billionaires died by implosion on a Titanic viewing trip in the deep sea). In an unusual and spreading behavior that started in 2020, orcas living around the Iberian Peninsula have been ramming sailboats in hundreds of documented interactions, sinking three vessels in the process.
If memes and news coverage are any indication, the orcas, sick of humanity’s breach of their home, are revolting. And people are delighted: The whales are anticapitalist. They’re iconic labor organizers. Don’t ask them about the missing submersible. We’re joining the orca war, on the whales’ side.
Sure, most scientists, including those studying this population, agree that the orcas don’t have a vendetta—despite how badly we want to believe it. Some researchers speculate that an older female orca, White Gladis, may have begun targeting boat rudders as a trauma response after being struck by a ship or trapped during illegal fishing; but many have also proposed that messing with boats is a new game among social animals (like in 1987 when, inexplicably, several pods from the Pacific Northwest started wearing dead salmon hats). Those in the know have cautioned against and outright decried ascribing resentful motivations to whales. But in the spirit of magical thinking, we persist.
“Revenge narratives are very attractive,” said Tim Jensen, author of Ecologies of Guilt in Environmental Rhetorics and a professor at Oregon State University. “We are compelled by them.” And though our story about orcas may not be true, our environmental wrongs certainly are. These orca attacks come at a moment when knowledge of—and concern about—climate change is at an all-time high. Still, policy interventions move slowly. Inaction and denial imperils countless species, including our own.
To be pushed out of apathy, maybe we need punishment. Maybe the orcas can ram our metaphorical hull.
Popular human response to this new orca behavior might say more about our preoccupations than those of the marine predators.
Whale revenge narratives are nothing new—just look at the plot of Orca. A thinly veiled attempt to sail in Jaws’s wake two years after the blockbuster phenomenon, the movie follows an indebted fisherman who, setting out to capture and sell an orca, harpoons a pregnant individual, causing her to miscarry and die on his boat deck. Her witnessing mate vows to take down her human murderer.
Although the ensuing chase defies science, the set-up mirrors real human transgressions—namely, the capture of baby whales to become performing attractions at SeaWorld theme parks. The 2013 documentary Blackfish told this story and portrayed the subsequent plight of orcas in captivity, and its acclaim led to lawsuits that will effectively end orca captivity at SeaWorld.
But human impacts extend beyond whales in swimming pools. Different orca ecotypes around the world eat an array of fish and mammal species, and many of these—like chinook salmon or Atlantic bluefin tuna—have been depleted by fishing. Mammal-eating orcas are also at high risk of exposure to toxic chemicals that amplify up the food chain, including mercury, PCBs, and DDT. Boat traffic causes underwater noise pollution and deadly ship strikes; boats can also hinder whales surfacing to breathe and fill their air with exhaust.
Among all those offenses, a pod of orcas ramming into a fast-moving boat feels like a message: Don’t take my food. Don’t hit me. Get out of here, or at least slow down.
According to Esmeralda Urquiza-Haas, a researcher who authored the 2015 study “The mind behind anthropomorphic thinking” in the journal Animal Behaviour, how we ascribe feeling or motivation to creatures depends on what we know, or believe we know, about a given species. A behavior like jabbing a boat is immediately recognized as aggression, accurately or not, through reactive processes. Larger questions of why are influenced by cultural context.
“We have a theory about what makes [people] angry and we apply that theory to other animals as well, depending on how similar we believe they are to us,” she said.
If a boat represents excess and infringement to a human observer, wishful thinking turns orcas into anticapitalist climate warriors.
Further, stories about orcas abound—and unlike portrayals of, say, bloodthirsty sharks, these tales revolve around complex emotions. Blackfish depicted orcas’ psychological wounds and tight-knit social structure; in the fictional film Free Willy, an orphaned boy heals through friendship with an orca he eventually frees from an amusement park; several nature documentaries focus on the whales, including The Whale’s following of a young orca separated from his pod.
Artistic interpretations exert such influence in part because much about these intelligent, emotional creatures remains mysterious to us.
“That whole world is…right there on the other side of that air-water interface, but it’s just so far away,” marine mammalogist Jeff Jacobsen mused. “It could take so long to get at what’s really going on.”
If believing that whales are trying to tell us something about capitalism’s destruction can lead to changed human behavior, I’m grateful to these orcas.
Jacobsen, who’s based in California and specializes in whale acoustics, spent a decade observing orcas in the Northern Vancouver islands. He’s seen orcas undulating in place to force a hiding salmon out of a fissure, carrying around a strand of bull kelp between two individuals, splitting a seabird Lady and the Tramp-style, and swimming under a research boat to lift it slightly from the water. Like many scientists, he hypothesizes that Iberian orcas are playing with boats.
“The nature of these things is that they’re hyperactive kids,” he said. “They’re intensely social. They have fads and behaviors they’ll do for a few years, and then they’ll switch off to something else.” Popular human response to this new orca behavior, then, might say more about our preoccupations than those of the marine predators.
In his book on environmental guilt, Jensen posited that the Anthropocene framing that human activity is inherently hurtful to other species can lead to individuals feeling misplaced shame over simply being people.
“It attributes the agency to humans as one large group,” he explained. “Instead of, say, a very specific form of culture premised upon an economic system that requires infinite growth on a finite planet.”
We assign individuals a “totally disproportionate amount” of “accountability and retribution for collective actions,” he feels. Then, those out-of-whack proportions foster a latent sense that we can’t do anything to slow climate change or mitigate environmental impacts on other species.
Rather than internalizing shame, he argues that feeling guilt over the environment can be productive.
“It turns out that grief is a specific form of love,” he said. “Well, it’s possible that we can also look at guilt as a specific form of care. We feel [guilt] because we harm something that we actually care about. Which means guilt directs us to what we care about, but we’re so eager to get rid of it as a feeling—understandably—that we actually move [away] from where it’s pointing us.”
What would it look like to honor the parts of ourselves that, feeling guilty for human impact on the orcas’ lives, celebrate when they sink boats? Perhaps advocating for maritime policy that limits noise pollution and ship strikes. Or engaging in ethical seafood consumption and learning about sustainable fishing practices. Perhaps supporting research institutions that enhance our knowledge of ocean ecosystems and explore climate solutions. Maybe joining the “orca uprising” means unionizing your workplace!
Collective protest resonates in a hopeless place. By that token, reading the orca-boat interface as a space of defiance might not be all bad. If believing that whales are trying to tell us something about capitalism’s destruction can lead to changed human behavior, I’m grateful to these orcas. The beautiful thing is also the true thing: they’re just being whales.