Are killer whales and sharks getting more aggressive?

Two vacationers were killed in one day by a shark in Egypt this summer. And in the USA and Australia, swimmers have recently been attacked in places where sharks are rarely found. Even more bizarre is the story of killer whales: boats off the coasts of Spain, Gibraltar and Portugal were rammed by orcas and endangered for some time. The events are reminiscent of the novel “The Swarm” by bestselling writer Frank Schatzing, in which marine animals suddenly become enemies of humans.

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In Schätzing’s book, killer whales, sharks, and jellyfish are controlled by a strange and mysterious intelligence that aims to protect the oceans from human destruction. imagination. However, it is true that in reality also, the behavior of animals appears to be caused by human intervention in nature, environmental destruction and climate change.

Orcas attack boats – does Corona play a role?

239 “interactions” between orcas and boats were reported off Gibraltar, Spain and Portugal in 2020 and 2021, and there have already been a number of accidents this year. This stems from statistics for the “Iberian Orca,” a recent initiative of researchers that documents the events. However, events have been limited to the region, says marine biologist and animal behaviorist Carsten Prinsing. Orca whales attacking boats is a well-researched, specific group. It is also known that there were often “conflicts” between hunters and animals in the area. Some boats may use explosives when fishing, although this is of course forbidden and means a lot of noise pollution for orcas. Killer whales can also be hit by boats and recall these negative events.

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But Brensing has another theory: “Of course, we don’t know for sure what motivates the animals’ behavior. But I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the first attacks occurred near the end of the first year of the coronavirus.” Lockdowns and travel restrictions initially limited the Freight traffic hard. “Orcas were introduced to the Pacific Ocean for the first time. They had never experienced how quiet it was before.” Life would have been more fun for orcas without the annoying noises of shipping traffic, also because they were able to communicate with each other better. “Then, when the freight traffic increased again, they probably understood that we were the cause of the constant noise. I think that angered her,” Prinsing says. Due to their intelligence, animals are able to recognize these connections. It is logical that they mainly attack small boats, even if they are less noisy: “They can do nothing against a tanker. But they can bite into the oars of plastic boats without any problems. “

Orcas did not kill humans in the wild

Prinsing is himself a sailor and knows that many are now afraid of whales. As a deterrent, some boats now use “harassing devices” that make annoying noises to animals. It was actually developed to deter porpoises from getting caught in fishing nets. Brensing advises against the use of devices. He himself would “respect” if he was traveling by boat in the affected area. However, he was using the exact opposite tactic and turning off any unnecessary onboard electronics that could annoy the animals with noise.

Incidentally, despite the accidents, orcas have never killed a human in the water in the wild, Prinsing asserts. “Although in theory we would fit their menu.” Brensing believes that this is a conscious choice by animals, and it is a form of respect for humans. But of course he couldn’t prove it.

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It is different with some types of sharks. Time and time again, people fall victim to their bites. Two tourists were killed in one day in a shark attack in Egypt in early July, an area where attacks are rare. This year, Sydney experienced its first death from a shark attack in 60 years. Sharks recently bit swimmers several times off the coast of New York.

Statistics from the International Shark Attack File (ISAF) show that shark attacks have increased with each decade. While a total of 226 was recorded during the entire 1980s, the number was 500 in the 1990s and more than 800 from 2010 to 2019. It must be taken into account that in the age of the Internet, reports have spread much more widely and more attacks are likely to become known. However, it is very likely that sharks are often pushed closer to the coast. And that this is also linked to human behavior and climate change.

Shark habitat is changing

In Egypt, for example, it was assumed that sharks might “feed” from pleasure boats, which was forbidden. Or that the sinking of a ship carrying the carcasses of sheep attracted predatory fish. A study conducted by researchers at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California, for example, was also able to show that shark habitats are changing as a result of ocean warming. Young white sharks are found further north on the eastern Pacific coast, where the water is cooler. According to the researchers, it is still not clear whether this will lead to an increase in encounters between humans and sharks.

In Australia, there was already a marked increase in fatal shark attacks in 2020. At the time, marine biologists suspected that this was indirectly related to the La Nina weather phenomenon. The weather pattern in La Nina has continued since 2020 and worsened again this spring. Among other things, it ensures cooler surface temperatures in the central Pacific Ocean, which can attract salmon, a popular prey for sharks, and the sharks themselves to the coast. La Nina is also associated with heavy rain, which reduces the salinity of the sea. This could open up new territories for bull sharks, which also thrive in freshwater. Some researchers believe that weather events such as La Nina will occur more frequently in the future as a result of climate change. This means that the likelihood of encountering a shark in Australia will likely continue to increase.

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In the future, Orcas could also appear in areas that were previously rare. A whole group of animals recently followed a sailing boat off the Danish coast, although they were rarely seen there before. However, it appears that the incident was not as dangerous as the attacks near Gibraltar. Marine biologist Prinsing says it’s very likely that climate change will also change the orca’s habitat. And that these are also increasingly appearing in the Baltic Sea. Orcas are not picky, they go where there is food. “But we don’t have to worry about orcas becoming so widespread. Unfortunately, there are fewer and fewer of them. We should rather worry that they still exist at all.”

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