Orcas Are More Emotionally Complex Than We Think

by : Saman Javed on : 28 Nov 2020 17:50
Orcas Are More Emotionally Complex Than We ThinkPixabay

This summer was a peculiar one for sailors off the coasts of Portugal and Spain. While they may be used to spotting orcas swimming in this part of the sea, things took a turn in July when it was reported that a group of orcas had ‘attacked’ a boat.

At first, experts dubbed it a one-off case of rogue behaviour. Yet four months on, there have been more than 40 recorded incidents – which has left scientists absolutely baffled.


Researchers have determined that three whales in particular were involved in most of the incidents; juvenile males named in the official orca record as black Gladis, white Gladis and grey Gladis.

The orcas have been targeting boats off the coasts of the two countries for hours on end, leaving skippers ‘terrified’ as they ram the underside of the vessels, specifically the boats’ rudders.

Erich Hoyt

One woman, said the ‘attack’ felt ‘totally orchestrated’. As another sailor put it, ‘They came to us, not the other way around.’


While the incidents have largely been described as ‘attacks’ in the media, experts have cautioned against the use of the term.

‘Attack has so many connotations, and it means they intend to harm,’ says Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and expert in animal behaviour and intelligence, and founder of The Whale Sanctuary Project.

While she is certain that the behaviour of the orcas is intentional, she says there are probably multiple causes and motivations behind it.

‘There is a concern that if this is perceived as an attack, people will start to feel threatened and so in self-defence, attack the orcas.

Erich Hoyt

‘But it’s important to note that even in the cases where it seems like they are dismantling boats, they are not injuring humans. If they wanted to, they could do a lot more damage, but they have never harmed humans in the wild,’ she says.

One group of scientists, who have launched an informal investigation into the behaviour of these orcas, concluded that the killer whales are playing, as per the BBC.

More recently, environmentalist Victor Hernandez said he believes the orcas are targeting the boats because of a harpoon attack on their pod in July by illegal fisherman, as per Madrid Metropolitan.


‘It’s an interesting theory that will never be proved,’ says Jeffrey Ventre, a doctor who was a marine mammal trainer at Seaworld Orlando from 1987-1995.

For two of those years, he worked with Tilikum: the orca that gained notoriety after killing three trainers and was the subject of the 2013 documentary Blackfish.

Jeffrey Ventre

He says, ‘They certainly have the cognitive capacity to intentionally to strike out at someone. We experienced that first hand in 2010 when Tilikum decided to kill Dawn Brancheau.’


In the wild, killer whales often use seals and sea lions to train their babies how to hunt. ‘There are examples where they don’t always kill the pinniped at the end of their training session, so we know that they can also decide not to kill,’ he says.

In 2018, a wild orca named Tahlequah made headlines across the world when she refused to part with her dead calf for 17 days. The heartbreaking display of grief gave humans an insight into the emotional complexity and strong family bonds of these animals.

‘The key thing to know about orcas and other social mammals, including ourselves, is that we are born helpless and fully dependent on our mothers and families for support, survival, and for learning,’ says Erich Hoyt, Research Fellow, Whale and Dolphin Conservation (WDC) and author of Orca: The Whale Called Killer.

Erich Hoyt

Hoyt said:

Orcas have large brains and a high brain weight to body weight ratio compared to other mammals. That alone is not the sign of intelligence but it does give the capacity and potential. It has been said that the large brains of whales and dolphins can be explained by their complex social relationships and their acoustic abilities.

In an interview with The Atlantic in 2018, Ken Balcomb, the founder of the Center for Whale Research, went as far to say that he thinks Tahlequah was letting everyone know she was grieving.

He told The Atlantic:

[Orcas] are very intelligent. They know people are out there: I’ve seen them look at boats hauling fish out in nets. I think they know that humans are somehow related to the scarcity of food. And I think they know that the scarcity of food is causing them physical distress, and also causing them to lose babies.

Tahlequah is an inhabitant of the waters where plummeting levels of Chinook Salmon due to fishing has been a huge factor in the decline of whales in the area.

Jeffrey Ventre

It was impossible to know if that is what Tahlequah was doing, but she sent a clear message. Similarly, it is impossible for scientists to know what is motivating the orcas off the waters in Spain and Portugal, but the change in behaviour is undeniable.

In the waters off Portugal and Spain today, there are some 60 killer whales. The population dipped to 39 in 2011, which the Spanish conservation organisation CIRCE found was driven by a crash in bluefin tuna stocks.

When international regulators limited the annual catch that was permitted in the Mediterranean Sea, the tuna stocks recovered, as did the orcas. In 2019, the International Commission for the Conservation of Atlantic Tunas agreed to gradually increase the permitted catch, as per the Marine Stewardship Council.

But still today, as the availability of tuna fluctuates, so do the orcas.

Killer WhalePixabay

Phil Demers, former marine mammal trainer at Marineland in Canada turned whistleblower, says that ‘no animal on the planet is going to be more acutely aware of the state of the ocean than orcas’.

‘If that boat is taking something from the ocean, and taking something from them, it is very possible that the orcas know,’ he says, but he reiterates that it’s ‘impossible for humans to pinpoint an intention’.

‘Do I think it’s a possibility? Absolutely. Do I think that’s the explanation? We will never know,’ Ventre agreed.

The cognitive capacity of these creatures raises the question of whether they know that the presence of these boats could endanger their livelihood, as Balcomb suggested back in 2018.

In orcas, the tissue that connects the limbic system  – the part of the brain that processes emotions – to the neocortex – the part involved in cognitive processing – is elaborated.

In addition, the ratio of the neocortex in orcas — which is where analysis, thinking, problem solving and awareness is processed — to other parts of the brain is much greater than in other species, even humans.

Jeffrey Ventre

‘Whatever motivations the orcas have are probably pretty complex. Just like there are multiple emotions involved when we do things, that’s how it is with them as well,’ Marino said.

As Demers pointed out, boats have been coming round those waters for a long time, and the orcas were obviously always aware of these boats.

‘A change in behaviour is probably a consequence of their environment changing,’ he says.

The suffering of orcas in captivity further emphasis the extent of their emotional complexity. Between orcas in captivity and those in the wild, Demers said there is ‘hardly a resemblance’.

Orcas also exhibit signs of chronic stress or depression just like humans.

Phil Demers

‘That’s why we see them acting out and performing all these stereotypical behaviours,’ Ventre explained. This involves self-harm, like grinding their teeth on concrete walls, or breaking them off altogether.

Another sign is a resting behaviour known as logging, where the orca stays still above the surface of the water and has no motivation to do anything. Or, there is hyper-aggression, as we saw in the case of Tilikum.

‘In the wild, they can fight in a way that this would be alleviated, but in the tanks they have nowhere to go, so everything just escalates,’ Marino said.

Demers agreed, adding, ‘When you see an orca in the wild, you realise just how wrong it is to keep them in a pool; when they pump their tail three times and they’ve already exceeded the entirety of their abilities to move in captivity.’

In June 2019 last year, Canada banned captivity and breeding of whales and dolphins. A similar law, the Orca Welfare and Safety Act was passed in California in 2016. Although the US has not issued a permit for taking orcas out of the wild since 1989, many states still allow marine-life parks to breed their already-captive orcas.

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