Nature bites back as killer whales attack

Red in tooth and claw: Not even great white sharks are safe from orcas.

Is nature angry? Wildfires, plagues, hurricanes and now marauding orcas… experts warn that humanity’s treatment of the natural world has awoken a wrathful beast seeking revenge.

At first, the captain thought they were just dolphins. But as his yacht was surrounded, he saw their distinctive “jet black and brilliant white” markings, and their immense size. Not dolphins but orcas. Killer whales. Excitement turned to horror as they rammed into the rudder and the boat spun out of control.

David Smith’s close encounter last month was no isolated event. This summer, orcas have attacked at least 40 sailing boats in the Atlantic. This strange behaviour has surprised experts and led to talk of a “rogue pod” seeking revenge against humans.

Biologists dismiss this as anthropomorphism, endowing the natural world with human emotions. Nevertheless, orcas are remarkably intelligent social animals and sophisticated hunters. “But these guys”, reassures biologist Renaud de Stephanis, are just juvenile males “playing”.

Small comfort for sailors confronted by six-ton marine predators, capable of killing great white sharks and disabling boats. And “it’s getting worse and worse”, admits de Stephanis.

But it is not just orcas. Around the world, nature is on the attack. It has been a record year for hurricanes in the Atlantic. The worst wildfires in living memory have ravaged Australia and the United States. And plagues of locusts have devastated large parts of Africa and the Indian subcontinent.

Even before Covid-19 hit, UN Secretary-General António Guterres was warning “nature is angry” and “striking back with fury”. Now, with 1.3 million dead worldwide, experts say nature has sent a “clear warning shot”. Humanity faces an “avenging planet” laying waste to our “complacent civilisation”.

Some believe our relationship with nature has turned full circle. For most of history, humans feared the wilderness and saw disasters as the acts of vengeful deities. Earthquakes, storms and plagues were judgements on human society, requiring sacrifice and penance to appease the gods.

During the Enlightenment, attitudes changed. The French philosopher René Descartes wrote, humans must become “masters and possessors of nature”. The Industrial Revolution saw civilisation’s growing confidence that nature could be conquered.

Then in the 20th Century, the environmental movement defended Mother Earth, a fragile world under attack from humanity’s aggressive expansion.

But recent evidence shows a planet on the counter-attack. Rising global temperatures are making extreme weather - floods, heatwaves and droughts – more likely. Human expansion into wild spaces will make viruses like Covid-19 more common. Even the playful orcas may be the result of overfishing.

Philosopher Clive Hamilton argues we should see Mother Earth as a “half-crazed, bloodthirsty and vindictive goddess”, to be feared and respected, as our ancestors once did. Some, like the French thinker Michel Serres, believe the answer is to open peace negotiations and learn to co-exist with the natural world.

Hamilton fears it is too late for that. We have awoken an angry beast that will be impossible to put back to sleep.

So is nature striking back?

Killer tale

Some say no, personifying nature and using the metaphors of war do not help us understand what is happening to our planet. The natural world is not a god or a monster, but a complex living system – and we’re part of it. Our best hope for the future is to understand this system and change our behaviour in order to stabilise and reverse the damaging effects of society.

Others say planet Earth is on the attack. It was arrogant of civilisation to try to control the natural world in the first place. Now we’re facing the consequences. Every year, the weather becomes more extreme, causing chaos for people and the environment. As the natural world becomes less predictable and more dangerous, we must rediscover the fear and respect our ancestors had for Mother Earth.

You Decide

  1. Do killer whales want to take revenge against humans?
  2. Can humans coexist with nature?

Activities

  1. Write the orca’s story and explain the real reason why they are attacking the boats.
  2. Research an example of people and nature coexisting peacefully. Design a poster to present your research.

Some People Say...

“The earth we abuse and the living things we kill will, in the end, take their revenge; for in exploiting their presence we are diminishing our future.”

Marya Mannes (1904 – 1990), American writer

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that nature and society have transformed one another. Around 11,500 years ago, the last Ice Age ended and the world entered the Holocene Epoch. Until the modern era, the global climate remained warm and stable, creating conditions for the growth of civilisation. As technology advanced, from agriculture to the industrial revolution, humanity increased its control over the natural world, shaping it to serve society’s needs.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around whether the Holocene Epoch has ended and a new Anthropocene Epoch has begun. Holocene means “entirely new,” whereas Anthropocene comes from the Greek term for human (“anthro”). It is a controversial idea, implying that humans have fundamentally altered the balance of nature and left a permanent mark on the geological record. Carbon emissions and plastic pollution are evidence of this dramatic shift, but another sign may be an increasingly unstable climate with more extreme weather.

Word Watch

Orcas
Despite their name, killer whales are not whales but a relative of the dolphin. They are named after Orcus, the Roman god of death. An apex predator, they will eat fish, penguins, seals and even whales.
Revenge
Three young males have been identified as the main culprits. One, called Gladis White, has a scar that may have been caused by a propeller.
Anthropomorphism
It is very difficult for humans to imagine how orcas experience the world. They use echolocation and a series of clicks, whistles and pulses to communicate with one another.
Sophisticated hunters
Orcas can live up to 80 years and the mature animals pass their skills on to the younger generation. Some of the techniques observed include purposefully beaching themselves to catch prey on land and creating waves to flip floating ice to catch seals.
Hurricanes
There have been a record-breaking 29 storms this season. The most recent is Storm Theta. Since storms are named following the letters of the alphabet, this year the US National Hurricane Center has resorted to using the Greek alphabet.
Plagues of locusts
Heavy rainfall led to the worst infestation to hit Kenya in 70 years, where 70,000 hectares of farmland was destroyed. Swarms spread across 23 countries, reaching as far as Argentina in South America.
Enlightenment
The European philosophical movement of the 17th and 18th Centuries developed the idea that both society and nature could be understood by reason and scientific enquiry.
Mother Earth
Many cultures have personified the Earth as a female deity, from Ancient Greek Gaia to the Incan Pachamama. The environmentalist James Lovelock introduced the idea of the Earth as a single self-regulating organism with his Gaia Hypothesis.
Overfishing
Marine biologists believe the decline of bluefin tuna stocks in the Atlantic led some orca pods to develop a culture of stealing tuna from fishing boats. The most recent attacks may be related to this emboldened family of orcas.

Subjects

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