Do whales attack boats? – like in Moby-Dick

After I started talking about whales in my post about wild swimming, I can’t stop without talking about the depletion of whale populations and the recent orca “attacks” in Spain and Portugal. So here comes more whale information and Moby-Dick discussion. Mind you, I am not an expert when it comes to whales, I am merely interested in all living things.

90 species of whales

Of the 90 whale species that habit this planet, four are critically endangered according to IUCN Red List. These rather unknown porpoises, dolphins, and whales are nearing extinction as their populations continue to decrease.

The nine species that are listed as endangered include blue whale and sei whale. Although their populations are increasing, most other endangered whale species are facing a continuing decline. The remaining 87 species are less threatened, although there is not enough solid data to categorise some of the whales.

Why are some whales threatened?

Hunting depleted the populations across the whale species between the 1500s and 1900s. In the time of Hermann Melville’s book Moby-Dick (1851) whalers hunted whales for their oil with rowing boats and skilled harpooners. Later on, this hunting method was replaced by more powerful hunting tactics which killed masses of whales.

Although most whale hunting has now been banned and endangered species protected, some whales like the Sei Whale, which is endangered, is being hunted by Japan under scientific permit. Also fishing poses a considerable threat to some dolphin species as their meat is used as bait as well as consumed by (usually local) people.

On top of that, urban area development, mining, oil drilling, pollution, climate change, and accidental collisions with large vessels threaten whales. Whales, small and large, can be injured or killed in a collision. Also the vessel can be damaged, so the bump is not ideal for either party.

But do whales attack ships?

In Moby-Dick the sperm whales are described as dangerous beasts; it is stated that the whales attack ships – they might even want revenge.  

The Sperm Whale is in some cases sufficiently powerful, knowing, and judiciously malicious, as with direct aforethought to stave in, utterly destroy, and sink a large ship.

Herman Melville, Moby-Dick

I searched whether the cases of whale attacks reported in Moby-Dick had any truth in them. Some of them are described in the ship logbooks and seem real, although some incidents were probably accidental collisions. The whole tale of Moby-Dick was, presumably, inspired by an incident where a sperm whale sunk a large whaleship, Essex, in 1820.

However, there have been very few reports of whales attacking ships considering how aggressively people have attacked whales. Researchers and scientists have pointed out that whales don’t attack ships or people unprovoked. They might get aggressive if they, or their young ones, are threatened but that seems only reasonable.

Moby Dick book cover

And the Orcas bumping into boats?

This summer and autumn, a pod of Orcas on the coast of Spain and Portugal was in the headlines because of their odd behaviour. Young orcas were bumping into yachts, seemingly aiming for the rudder – the moving part underwater that is used for steering. Some media reported these incidents as attacks, and to be honest, it would be rather intimidating to sit in a small boat when a whale of a few thousand-kilos is ramming his head against the vessel. Some yachts were damaged after the encounters and required assistance from other boats but no-one was hurt.

However, marine scientists noted that instead of hunting or attacking, the whales seemed to be playing. The whales touching the boats were the same young individuals and, presumably, they were trying to change the course or stop the boats by pushing the rudder. It sounds like a child playing with a toy boat, except that the whales could get hurt doing this.

What were the whales doing? What were they thinking? Were they bored adolescents looking for excitement? Did they want to show off by stopping a big moving thing?

Should we be comparing whale behaviour to human behaviour?

Trying to understand whales

I’m sure there is a lot to learn about whales and their behaviour, and nowadays people put time and effort into trying to understand them, unlike in the time portrayed in Moby-Dick when little was known of those large marine mammals. Then, some ships were sunk by whales, by accident or by whale-size anger. But nowadays the whales are more likely to get hurt in the collisions and there are no recent examples where a whale would have tried to fully destroy a ship or a boat. Humans occupy only a fraction of the world in which whales live, yet their paths do collide. 


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