Why don’t orcas ever attack humans in the wild?

There are no records of orcas ever preying on and killing humans in the wild, despite numerous interactions between the two species.

Orca are known to prey on whale species larger than themselves and are the only known predators of great white sharks. Their diet also consists of seals, fish and seabirds.

Reaching sizes in excess of 30 feet and weighing up to 11 tons, these apex predators would make easy work of any human in the water if they were so inclined.

Why don’t orcas hunt us?

“It’s amazing,” said Deborah Giles, director of science and research at Washington state nonprofit Wild Orca, which has been studying a population of killer whales in the Salish Sea in the Pacific Northwest since 2005 news week.

“There are areas around the world where it’s not uncommon for people to be in the water with killer whales,” she said. “There was certainly ample opportunity for killer whales to kill humans, but they just didn’t do it. It is confusing. It feels like one of life’s mysteries that we’ll never know for sure because we can’t actually talk to them. “

The question becomes even more confusing when you consider how many different animals kill orcas found in waters around the world eat.

While all orcas are considered one species (Orcinus killer whale), Giles said that the different orca populations should probably be classified at least into subspecies, if not full species, since they are genetically and culturally distinct. One of the main characteristics that differentiates these different populations is what they eat. In fact, different orca groups do not see each other’s food as potential prey.

“The population I study primarily in these waters only eats fish,” Giles said. “Although they have been known to kill porpoises and sometimes play with them to death, we don’t think they eat them – they don’t even bite a morsel out of them. On the other hand, there are other killer whale populations that only eat mammals. And then there are the offshore killer whales, which are more common feeders. We believe their main prey are sharks and rays.

Two killer whales
Stock Image: Two killer whales leaping out of the water in Canadian waters. There have been no reliably documented human kills by orcas in the wild.

“Given the wide variety of different food sources that these killer whales become specialists in eating around the world, it is amazing that there has never been a recorded death of a human being killed by an orca.”

Even orca populations in areas of the world where killer whales have been targeted by humans for whaling don’t appear to be aggressive toward us, Giles said.

Orca attacks in the wild

While there are no records of human kills by orcas in the wild, there have been a small handful of very rare incidents where killer whales have come into contact with and posed a threat to humans.

Giles pointed to an incident in Alaska in 2005, when a 12-year-old boy was swimming in a few feet of water in Helm Bay when a killer whale lunged at the boy and bumped into his shoulder, although it didn’t harm him or bite him in any way.

“At the last minute, the whale realized it was human or realized it wasn’t prey and essentially bent its body in half to turn around and head back out to sea,” Giles said.

Another person surfing at Point Sur off the California coast in 1972 reported being bitten by a killer and then having to have stitches. This is perhaps the only well-documented instance of a wild orca actually biting a human.

But barring very rare occurrences like these, why do killer whales generally avoid attacking humans? While Giles believes the question is to some extent unanswerable, she said it’s likely that cultural factors play a key role.

Like humans, “killer whales have a culture, an ability to pass on behavior — almost like trends,” Giles said. “They are incredibly intelligent animals. They are masters of their environment, depending on where they come from. Their brains are incredibly complex.

“The physiology of these animals suggests they are smart enough to know that humans are not prey. Why is that? I think it boils down more to a cultural issue. They learn to eat what their mothers teach them to eat, and humans have never been part of that diet. People have never been part of the menu. I think it could be as simple as that,” Giles said.

Giles pointed to the example of the population of fish-eating killer whales she studied – known as Southern killer whales – which are known for catching and playing with porpoises. This act sometimes leads to the death of the porpoise.

However, these whales do not appear to eat the porpoises, although some members of the group starve to death due to lack of food. This population is endangered with only about 75 members remaining. One of the biggest threats facing this group is the reduction in abundance of their favorite prey, the chinook salmon.

“Even in the face of hunger, they don’t change what they eat,” Giles said. “They kill the porpoise, it is already dead or dying. And you can eat it all in one bite. But these whales just don’t see these porpoises as prey. And I think it’s exactly the same with humans – they don’t see humans as prey, thank God they don’t see humans as toys.

“It’s like a starving vegan playing with fish by a stream but not eating it. Why the whales don’t do that is such a confusing, interesting question when they die, when their families die.”

Lori Marino, an expert on orca brains, also agreed with Giles that cultural factors are probably the main reason there are no documented kills of humans by orcas in the wild, although these whales’ extremely complex brains also provide some important insights can deliver .

A group of killer whales
Stock Image: A group of orcas swimming underwater. Killer whales around the world eat a variety of different animals in addition to orcas, although each population has its own preferred diet.

“The orca brain — particularly its neocortex — is huge and very complex, and so they can clearly make very fine distinctions between objects,” Marino said news week. “That means they would almost never mistake a human in the water for prey, for example.

“The types of problem-solving behaviors they are capable of and have demonstrated make it clear that they are orders of magnitude more intelligent than any animal mistaking one prey for another. But I think more importantly it has to do with the fact that they have a highly developed limbic system. This is the part of the brain involved in processing emotions. They just aren’t motivated to kill us – at least in the wild.”

Marino said that cultural traditions of these whales include learning what to eat and what not to eat and social etiquette.

“While brain anatomy can tell us something about how complex these whales are, I think the answer lies more in their cultural practices,” she said.

When asked if one reason the whales don’t try to kill humans is because they also recognize us as intelligent, Giles said, “I don’t know how to answer that, but if there’s any animal on the If you were to judge the intelligence of any species other than humans, it would be killer whales.”

A final factor that could potentially come into play is the idea that humans might just not look very attractive to orcas compared to their normal prey.

“We’re not that fat, which is possibly part of that,” Giles said. “But if that were the case, you’d think there would have been some examples in the past of orca whales eating people and then just not doing it anymore.”

SeaWorld and Orca Attacks on Humans

While there have never been documented human kills by orcas in the wild, there have been several captive attacks over the last 50 years, with at least four fatalities. Three of those deaths were caused by the same captive orca Tilikum – the subject of the 2013 documentary blackfish who was held at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida for most of his life.

There is some debate among experts as to whether these captive attacks were intentional or accidental. Giles says Tilikum may have suffered from mental health issues that may have played a role in the deaths, including 40-year-old SeaWorld trainer Dawn Brancheau.

“Killer whales are very social and traditionally very vocal animals,” Giles said. “Being an animal like this in such an unnatural environment most likely caused a psychosis. For example, there has been deviant behavior by Tilikum for years that has not been publicly discussed.

“Personally, I think the environment he had to live in drove him crazy. It probably wasn’t intentional. Of course you can’t know that. But he had interacted with Dawn Brancheau for years before that. I think something’s cracked.”

https://www.newsweek.com/there-no-records-orca-ever-killing-humans-wild-why-1734489 Why don’t orcas ever attack humans in the wild?

Rick Schindler

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