During our family’s September visit to Alaska, I posted about hitching a ride with two hunters from Anchorage. As we traded stories, they told me of a truly harrowing adventure they’d shared with a native Alaskan friend.
Their friend had spent his entire life at sea. One day when they were out together on the water, a pod of orcas began ramming the bottom of their boat. The attack continued for about 45 minutes.
My hunter acquaintances called it the scariest 45 minutes of their lives – particularly since their captain was visibly scared. They didn’t know, however, that their experience was far from an isolated incident.
Just days before I hitched the ride with them, the UK’s Guardian’s Susan Smillie reported on a series of similar attacks in the Straits of Gibraltar, thousands of miles away:
“In the last two months, from southern to northern Spain, sailors have sent distress calls after worrying encounters. Two boats lost part of their rudders, at least one crew member suffered bruising from the impact of the ramming, and several boats sustained serious damage.”
What would drive families of orcas half a world apart to exhibit such violent behavior? Perhaps they have something to tell us – and no other way to get our attention!
The Spanish maritime authorities interviewed for the article speculated that “It is too early to understand what is going on, but it might indicate stress in a population that is endangered.”
Their speculation is well-founded. This week, a team of 20 American and Canadian researchers released a study documenting stresses afflicting the entire orca population.
They found that killer whales are dying from various causes, including nutritional deficiencies, blunt trauma from boats, and even fishing-hook induced sepsis. Human activity is responsible for killing young and old orcas alike.
The seas don’t contain an unlimited supply of fish; the study pointed to the “consequences of reduced prey availability” as a significant concern. Reduced prey is caused by overfishing, resulting in some dead orcas showing clear signs of starvation.
With the world’s human population fast approaching 10 billion, we’re eating more fish than ever. The study’s authors call for recovery efforts to address the problem of transit-shipping lanes or “commercial and recreational fishers” near small, endangered orca families.
The deaths of the fishes on our plates are inextricably linked to the collapse of the oceans. We’re are exhausting a seemingly inexhaustible resource. In doing so, we’re threatening the very top of the food chain – killer whales.
Is it possible that by thumping and bumping our boats as they whistle frantically to one another, the orcas may be trying desperately to communicate with us?
To them, we’re an alien species engaged in persistent efforts to steal their world’s resources. What should we do? Continue our destructive behavior – or try to live in harmony?
The underwater world is begging for our attention. We must stop overfishing before it’s too late for the orcas and the planet!