Whale-Human Encounters Are Likely to Rise

  • Orcas are targeting boats near Spain while gray whales in Baja let humans pet them.
  • A marine ecologist said she expects more interactions like this as the animals recover from whaling.
  • Why the whales interact with humans in these ways it still unknown to scientists.

Orcas ramming boats and gray whales letting humans pick whale lice off them have recently made headlines — but these interactions may indicate more of what’s to come.

“As whale populations recover from whaling and humans venture more into the oceans for various things, including ecotourism, we’re going to have more of these interactions between whales and humans that we don’t quite understand,” Leigh Torres, a marine ecologist and professor at Oregon State University’s Marine Mammal Institute, told Insider.

The population of killer whales near the Iberian Peninsula has especially caused concern. A few years ago they started targeting boats, causing at least three to sink. Since 2020, scientists have documented hundreds of instances of killer whales approaching or striking a boat.

While experts doubt the encounters are actually attacks — a more likely explanation is that the orcas are playing — they certainly feel violent to the people on board and pose a risk to both the whales and humans. 

An ocean away, whales are engaging with humans in a different kind. Gray whales that spend the winters nursing their calves in the warm, shallow waters of the lagoons on the Pacific coast of Mexico’s Baja California Peninsula frequently swim up to the side of boats, even letting humans pet them. 

“The whale turns on its side, looks you in the eye. It clearly is very curious about people,” Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told Insider. “It isn’t people running up to whales, it’s whales coming to people.”

The gray whales befriending boats is especially interesting because just decades ago they were hunted to the brink of extinction in those same lagoons. But after conservation measures made whaling illegal, the North Pacific gray whales have dramatically recovered, allowing for these more friendly, social interactions between whales and humans.

And it’s not just the gray whales. Commercial whaling in the 18th and 19th centuries put many species at risk of extinction, including fin, humpback, and blue whales. Each of those species has seen varying population increases in recent decades, though it’s worth noting some species, including fin, blue, and  North Atlantic right whales, are still endangered.

Torres said both the gray whales in Baja and the orcas near Spain and Portugal are examples of fascinating behaviors that have popped up recently that scientists don’t quite understand, and that she expects more to arise as whales continue their recovery.

She also urged caution when it comes to interacting with whales, as humans often tend to see animals through our own bias and may not fully understand what a whale is doing.

“We do need to be careful about those interactions,” she said. “This is their habitat and we’re sort of visiting, so we need to give them the space that they need to do what they need to do.”

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