Over the weekend, the internet found a new hero: anti-capitalist, direct-action-taking killer whales. Following the publication of a LiveScience article reporting that killer whales, or orcas, around the Iberian Peninsula had started sinking boats and appeared to be “teaching others to do the same,” social media—Twitter in particular—ran with the story.
The popular satirical “WhaleFact” account tweeted: “Humans have fucked around long enough, it is now time to find out.” Tweets picked up on the suggestion that whales targeted yachts and other luxury vessels, hoping the rogue whales might seek out billionaire Amazon owner Jeff Bezos next. Users referenced “direct action,” “solidarity with orca saboteurs,” and “grassroots organizing”—and penned some (terrible) puns, à la orca-strating and orca-nizing. References to “anti-colonial struggle” and Land Back—“ocean back”—also appeared. Both an Amazon labor organizer and a New York Times columnist described the whales as “comrades.” Memes and jokes abounded; one user adapted the lyrics of the song “Bitch” to read: “I’m a bitch/ I’m an Orca/ Sinking boats/ Just off Majorca.” The Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s Twitter account, never one to miss out on a moment, got involved, posting that MW’s definition of orca did “not yet” include “BOAT DESTROYER,” but that they “welcome our new Delphinidae Overlords.”
Although the yacht-sinking whales inspired a fun and raucous moment, that moment was also bittersweet. Scientists quoted in the LiveScience coverage hypothesize that a “critical moment of agony” (perhaps a collision or entanglement) traumatized matriarch White Gladis and led her to start attacking similar vessels—and others to follow suit. Whether the behavior is spreading through imitation or intentional teaching, its adoption resonates with existing knowledge about orcas: They are intelligent creatures who learn, adapt, and may even mourn; they can go through cultural fads (including a rather charming one in which one whale prompted others to start wearing salmon hats); and they live in tight-knit matriarchal social structures.
Reports of orcas attacking yachts and other vessels are not new, even in recent times; similar stories popped up in the news in 2022 and 2020. These “attacks” on boats also have a longer history across whale and dolphin species, not just orcas. A classic example is, of course, the events of Herman Melville’s novel Moby-Dick, and of the wreck of the whaleship Essex, which partly inspired Melville. But what immediately came to mind for me, as the internet fell in love with White Gladis and her crew, was another whale: the gray whale. Killer and gray whales are typically pitted against each other as foes because the former preys on the latter. Yet gray whales themselves have a history of being taken for sea monsters, similar to the killer whale’s. Gray whales are infamous as “devil-fish”—a nickname they acquired for their unusually ferocious responses to mid-19th-century Yankee whalers’ attacks in the Mexican lagoons where they gave birth. These “devil-fish” rammed boats, injured whalers, and inspired fear among whaling crews. As the story goes, mid-20th-century protections allowed the “devil-fish” to become the “friendly whale” by the 1970s—a gentle giant that approaches small boats and allows people to touch it. In other words, the idea has been that humans changed their behaviors (from destruction to care), and whales responded accordingly.
In my own work as an environmental historian, I found that this “devil-fish to friendly whale” arc doesn’t quite hold up to historical scrutiny. Instead, friendly whales appeared prior to this apparent transition—and often at the same time as devil-fishes. Like the contemporary orcas, past gray whales who struck boats could spark a wide array of human stories—from tales of vengeful monsters to tragedies or pitiful accidents. Some of the stories people have told about these incidents that I’ve encountered in the course of my research border on absurd: An 1899 report of “sociable” whales that approached yachts said they mistook the yachts for potential mates. Another from the same era told of a gray whale who followed a commercial vessel for miles on end, and who purportedly interpreted the ship’s crew spraying it with bullets as “love taps.”
Across a wide range of time periods and geographies, various whale species have altered their behaviors in relation to changing human activities. For example, a recent, widely covered study suggests that sperm whales in the 19th-century North Pacific shared information about Yankee whaling among themselves, changing their behaviors to avoid those whalers. According to environmental historian Bathsheba Demuth, bowhead whales in the Bering Sea, which were initially more docile than other whales, began to avoid Yankee whalers in the mid-19th century; a sea shanty from around that time claimed “the devil has got into bowhead whales.” (But even as the whales got away from those whalers and disappeared into labyrinthine ice, Indigenous hunters across the Bering Strait continued successfully hunting bowheads.)
Other examples from the historical record include shifts among right whales in response to commercial whaling in the early 19th-century South Pacific, the influences of whalers and bowhead whales on each other during an era of climate change in the 17th-century Atlantic Arctic, and stories about contemporary narwhals evading satellite surveillance. These examples show how whales are not static objects affected by human history, but rather active participants who change alongside shifts in political, social, and cultural conditions.
Whales change their behaviors in relationship with humans’ social changes, and alongside these shifts come shifts in human perception and interpretation of those behaviors and changes. Often, when people describe changing human attitudes toward whales, they tell a black-and-white story: Either people save, watch, and respect the whales, or we eat, kill, and fear them. The story has a historical trajectory: We used to exploit and fear whales, and now we respect them as intelligent, social beings. Respecting whales becomes mutually exclusive with fearing whales; eating whales becomes mutually exclusive with loving whales. This is the version of events that emerged during the Save the Whales movement in the 1970s, and in the context of the broader mainstream Western environmental movement, and it’s the version that continues to permeate public discussions of whales today. From the transformation of the blackfish into Shamu to the devil-fish’s evolution into the friendly whale, you can find this story everywhere.
But many environmentalists, like me, have come to feel like this way of thinking about interactions between humanity and nature is limited and unproductive. Remember the “We Are the Virus” meme that emerged early in the COVID-19 pandemic, in which a universalized and homogenized humanity was represented as a virus destroying all other life on earth? In “our” absence, nature was said to be healing—as demonstrated, in the first instance, by reports of dolphins returning to the canals of Venice. The later memeification of this idea interestingly, and accurately, critiqued its absurdity, misanthropy, and inaccuracy. We Are the Virus environmentalism—the sincere kind—is an outgrowth of a type of thought that sees humans as always separate from, and dangerous to, an external Nature. If you think that, you may also tend to view the future in similar either/or ways—either we are doomed to destroy the rest of the planet and ourselves along with it, or we will successfully achieve a level of technological prowess that allows us to manage planetary change effectively.
This boat-attacking-whale-comrades moment feels different—and exciting. Part of what makes these boat-sinking whales into anti-capitalist allies is their choice of targets. Much of the coverage and response focuses on the whales’ attacking yachts in a popular European vacationing location. These yachts symbolize excesses of wealth under capitalism. This story simply wouldn’t have the same appeal or political resonance if the whales weren’t targeting symbols of wealth, waste, and opulence.
The unique combination here, then, is that this orca attack moment embraces a less universalizing environmentalist perspective. Although there certainly is some bemoaning of “humans” deserving the whales’ attacks as their due comeuppance, what I find exciting about these responses is how many of them don’t fall into the “We Are the Virus” trap. Many of the responses connect the plight of killer whales to social, cultural, and political issues of inequality, land rights, labor rights, capitalism, imperialism, and uneven and exploitative development. Yes, some of this is in jest—but the jokes, I would argue, aren’t entirely joking.
Animals are doing weird and funny stuff as our shared planet changes rapidly. From whales showing up halfway across the world from where they should be, to what anthropologist Nayanika Mathur calls “crooked cats”—tigers, lions, and leopards which defy standard expectations of their species by preying on humans and our companion and livestock species—transforming to become more devilish in response to joint pressures of capitalism and climate change, we should expect the unexpected about nonhuman life. This moment of celebration offers a window into what it might look like to move out of the idea that whales can be either dangerous monsters or priceless objects worthy of protection. Maybe joining the orca war can be an act of radical solidarity with both other people and other beings—if we orca-nize carefully.