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The Orca Mystery

Why are orcas hitting boats off the coasts of Europe and Africa? Experts say they’re probably bored.
Orcas swim near a large vessel.
© wildestanimal—Moment Open/Getty Images

When a group of orcas (also called killer whales) started ramming boats off the coasts of Europe and North Africa, some people thought the animals were out for revenge. Maybe they’re mother orcas protecting their young, or maybe the orcas have had enough of all the boat traffic. But a new report says the orcas aren’t vengeful at all. They’re bored.

There have been at least 673 encounters between boats and orcas off the coasts of Spain, Portugal, France, and Morocco since the first reported incident in May 2020. The new report, released by a group of orca experts from several countries, says it’s likely the orcas are using the boats as playthings.

“The sea is a very boring place for an animal,” Renaud de Stephanis, president of the marine preservation group CIRCE (Conservación, Información y Estudio sobre Cetáceos), told USA Today. “If you’re a dog or some other mammal, you can interact with objects around you. But in the sea, there’s not much for the orcas to interact with, so they play with the rudders [on the boats].”

The experts say it makes sense because orcas are both intelligent and playful. And studies have shown that orcas work together and learn from one another. So, when one or two orcas rammed boats, others probably took an interest in this “fun” activity. Experts add that most of the orcas that ram boats are juveniles, which are the orca equivalent of teenagers and are often bolder and more curious than adult orcas.

According to the experts, orcas are more likely to be bored in recent years. That’s because the local population of bluefin tuna, the orcas’ favorite food, has risen after years of a low supply. The orcas spend less time hunting than they used to—so they have more time to have fun.

But while this solves the mystery of the orcas’ behavior, it doesn’t protect vessels from dangerous encounters with orcas. Experts advise boaters to avoid orcas when possible. Boaters can also change the appearance of their rudders by adding pieces of plastic that make rudders look like jellyfish. Orcas don’t like jellyfish.

“We don’t want to see people in distress,” University of Washington senior research scientist Alex Zerbini told the Washington Post. “But we also don’t want to see the animals being hurt. And we have to remember that this is their habitat and we’re in the way.”

NEWS EXTRA

The Grandmother of Juneteenth

Opal Lee smiles at the presidential podium as Kamala Harris smiles behind her.
© Elizabeth Frantz—The Washington Post/Getty Images

In this 2023 photo, U.S. vice president Kamala Harris (left) helps Opal Lee to the podium so she can speak at a Juneteenth concert in Washington, D.C.

On June 19, 1865, two and a half years after the Emancipation Proclamation, General Gordon Granger arrived in Galveston, Texas, to inform the state’s enslaved people they were free. Juneteenth, as this date is now called in the United States, was celebrated in Texas for decades. It became a national holiday in 2021, thanks to the tireless work of a retired teacher and counselor named Opal Lee. 

In 2016, at the age of 89, Lee set out to walk from her home in Fort Worth, Texas, to Washington, D.C.—a distance of about 1,400 miles (2,250 kilometers)—to gather support for making Juneteenth a national holiday. Lee walked 2.5 miles per day to highlight that it took two and a half years for the enslaved people of Texas to receive the news that they were free. 

The walk was the start of a multiyear effort. Lee eventually collected more than 1.5 million signatures and presented them to Congress. In 2021, lawmakers passed legislation to make Juneteenth a national holiday, and President Joe Biden signed it into law. 

In 2024, Opal Lee was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civilian honor in the United States. Today, she is known as the “Grandmother of Juneteenth.”

Did You Know?

A small population of orcas may be interfering with boats, but scientists say boats also interfere with orcas. Orcas make a clicking sound that bounces off their prey, enabling them to find food. This is called echolocation. Underwater noise from ships can hinder echolocation.

Click the play button below for an example of echolocation.

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Orca Using Echolocation
An orca swims in water.
Photo: Nature Picture Library/Alamy; Audio: C. Gabriele/NPS

By Any Other Name…

Orcas are carnivores that can take down great white sharks. But since they don’t hunt humans, it’s hard to understand why we call them “killer whales.” According to one theory, Basque fishermen named them “whale killers,” and the name got messed up in translation.

Here are some other animals with misleading names.

A honey badger stands on sloped ground with its nose in the air.

 © Lukas Blazek/Dreamstime.com

Honey Badger

“Grouchy weasel” would be a more fitting label for this animal. The honey badger, which is more closely related to the weasel than to other badgers, gets its sweet-sounding name because it likes to eat bee larvae—not because of a gentle nature. In fact, it will bravely face formidable foes, including lions.

A red panda sits on a branch with its tail in front of its body.
© digitalpark/stock.adobe.com
Red Panda
Though the red panda shares part of its name with the giant panda, the similarities end there. Unlike the giant panda, the red panda isn’t a bear. It’s more closely related to the raccoon.
A bearcat stands on a branch with its paw on a tree stump.
© Vadim Nefedov/Dreamstime.com
Bearcat
The binturong is also known as a bearcat. But while it looks like a cross between the two animals, it’s not related to either one. Fun fact: The binturong smells like popcorn. Scientists have learned that 2-acetyle-1-pyrroline, a chemical that forms in popcorn when it pops, is also present in the urine of the binturong.
Closeup of a horned toad on a rocky desert landscape.
© Dennis Donohue/Dreamstime.com
Horned Toad
You guessed it: The horned toad is not a toad. In fact, it’s a lizard with hornlike spines. But both animals have an interesting way of fending off predators. While the toad secretes a toxin from its skin, several species of horned toads shoot blood from their eyes. Yikes.

More About Juneteenth

Composite photo of people celebrating Juneteenth, including dancing and marching.
© Dylan Buell, Go Nakamura, Brandon Bell/Getty Images

June 19 is Juneteenth, a day to celebrate the end of the institution of slavery in the United States.

You can learn more about the history of Juneteenth at Britannica.

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verb
Definition:
: to gradually move or go into an area that is beyond the usual or desired limits
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