Who are the most likely losers of the 'orca uprising?' Sadly, the killer whales themselves.

Who are the most likely losers of the 'orca uprising?' Sadly, the killer whales themselves.
The female orca was observed caring for a baby pilot whale.Getty Images
  • Killer whales near Spain and Portugal have been confronting, and even sinking, boats.
  • People online have called it an "orca uprising," but it may not end well for the whales.

News of killer whales confronting boats near the Iberian Peninsula has sparked discourse about an "orca uprising" in which the marine mammals are finally fighting back against the blight humanity has brought to the Earth's oceans — but the whole ordeal could end badly for the orcas themselves.

Orcas near Spain and Portugal first started confronting boats in 2020. Researchers have since documented hundreds of concerning encounters in which an orca either directly approached or collided with a boat. The killer whales typically approach the ship from behind and then try to strike the rudder until the boat is immobilized.

Most incidents have caused minimal damage and no human has yet been injured. But in three separate cases, the whales have caused sailboats to sink.

Much of the internet has been fascinated by the whales' strange behavior. People online have joked the killer whales are "orcanizing" an "orca rebellion," with many social media users rooting for the whales. In reality, the explanation is likely a lot less Hollywood-like.

Experts agree the killer whales are likely engaging in playful behavior, not seeking out revenge. And so far the behavior of targeting boats is only being displayed in the orcas near the Iberian Peninsula, which includes a population of about 39 whales that is considered critically endangered.


Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, previously told Insider the behavior is also unlikely to spread to other orca populations throughout the world's oceans any time soon.

Still, the chatter and surrounding discourse have sparked some concerns among marine biologists — for the orcas.

"Undoubtedly, the people on board these little boats feel attacked," Trites said, "but I'm concerned the choice of verbiage takes on an image of 'Jaws,' like revenge of the killer whale."

But the result could be an increase in fear of killer whales in the popular imagination, similar to what the movie "Jaws" did for sharks.

In reality, killer whales — which got their names from hunting other whalesdo not pose a significant risk of harm to humans. There are no known instances of a killer whale attacking a person in the wild. While killer whales in captivity can become aggressive and have attacked their human trainers, the same behavior has not been observed outside of that context.


There's also a concern that people on boats could target orcas out of fear of being attacked.

"I am worried that people will take the situation into their own hands and use lethal or harmful tactics to try and, you know, get the whales to stop or at least you know, stop an attack at the moment," Deborah Giles, science and research director at Wild Orca, told Vice.

Who are the most likely losers of the 'orca uprising?' Sadly, the killer whales themselves.
An orca breaching in Monterey Bay.Evan Brodsky/ Monterey Bay Whale Watch

But even if boaters don't intentionally start shooting whales, encounters between whales and boats in general don't usually end well for the animals.

Thousands of whales are killed in boat collisions every year. An NBC Bay Area investigation found hundreds of endangered whales, including humpback, gray, and fin whales, have been killed by ship strikes off the West Coast in recent years.

And for one well-known killer whale in particular, that's exactly how things ended. Luna, an orca off the coast of British Columbia in Canada in the early 2000s, became famous for befriending humans and approaching boats, even damaging some of them in what was also likely play.


Luna's interactions with humans and boats in the Nootka Sound of Vancouver Island lasted around five years but ultimately ended in 2005 — after the animal was struck and killed by a tugboat.