Orcas Are Attacking Boats Near Spain. Scientists Don’t Know Why

12:06 minutes

An orca whale peeking its head out of water.
Orcas have been attacking boats recently, and scientists aren’t sure of the cause. Credit: USAP Photo Library (CC BY NC ND 4.0)

This Thursday, the Supreme Court restricted the scope of the Clean Water Act pertaining to wetlands, in a 5-4 vote. This could affect the Environmental Protection Agency’s power to protect certain kinds of wetlands, which help reduce the impacts of flooding by absorbing water, and also act as natural filters that make drinking water cleaner. Justice Brett Kavanaugh joined the court’s three liberal members in the dissent, writing that the decision will have, “significant repercussions for water quality and flood control throughout the United States.”

Plus, earlier this month, three orcas attacked a boat, leading to its sinking. This is the third time an incident like this has happened in the past three years, accompanied by a large rise of orcas attacking boats near the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists are unsure of the cause. One theory is that these attacks could be a fad, led by juvenile orcas in the area, a documented behavior in this subpopulation of the dolphin family. They could also be a response to a potential bad encounter between boats and orcas in the area.

Science Friday’s Charles Bergquist talks with Sophie Bushwick, technology editor for Scientific American, about these and other stories from this week in science news, including a preview of a hot El Niño summer, an amateur astronomer who discovered a new supernova, and alleviating waste problems by using recycled diapers in concrete.

Segment Guests

Sophie Bushwick

Sophie Bushwick is senior news editor at New Scientist in New York, New York. Previously, she was a senior editor at Popular Science and technology editor at Scientific American.

Segment Transcript

FLORA LICHTMAN: This is Science Friday. I’m Flora Lichtman. I’m a host and managing editor at Gimlet Media, and I am very happy to be co-hosting the program this week.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And I’m SciFri producer Charles Bergquist, and we’re so happy to have you back. Later in the hour, we’ll talk about new research into your cells’ telomeres.

FLORA LICHTMAN: We’ll also talk to researchers compiling a zoo’s worth of animal genomes and talk about a museum’s dilemma around displaying human remains.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: But first, a 5 to 4 Supreme Court decision delivered yesterday will restrict the scope of the Clean Water Act, specifically, as it relates to the nation’s wetlands. Here to tell us more about that decision and other science news of the week is Sophie Bushwick, technology editor at Scientific American here in New York City. Welcome back to Science Friday.


CHARLES BERGQUIST: OK, so we’ve talked about this case before while it was pending, but remind us of some of the details here.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this is a case called Sackett versus EPA, and it deals with restrictions to building and modifying wetlands under the Clean Water Act.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And part of what I’ve been reading on this is that this decision comes down to a sort of technicality sounding thing, a difference between the words “adjacent” as opposed to “adjoining.”

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So a 5 to 4 majority declared that only wetlands that are adjoining a larger stream or lake would get these federal protections. So, previously, it’s just if it’s a wetland, it’s protected. These wetlands are often next to a larger body of water. But the new ruling says if it’s next to it, but there’s not a continuous connection, it doesn’t count, and it’s not protected under the scope of this act. And this means a lot of wetlands are going to lose federal protections.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And why is that significant? Why should we care?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Wetlands, they’re not only these really interesting ecosystems in their own right, they also play a big role in things like flood mitigation because they can take in some of those waters and slow down flooding in the nearby areas. They also improve water quality because they can absorb runoff from farms and other sources. So they play this important role in our health and in the quality of the water we drink. And removing the protections means they could be more vulnerable going forward.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: I see. Speaking of bodies of water, a curious case of orca behavior off the coast of Spain and Portugal, orcas are grouping up somehow to attack boats and are even sinking some of them.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: That’s right. So in the past few years, killer whales have started attacking boats. And sometimes these are only minor encounters. There’s hundreds of cases of whales kind of swimming up to the boats and then maybe exploring around them and then going away. But in about 50 cases in 2020, the orcas made contact with the boat. And in the past three years, there have been three boats that have been so damaged by orca attacks that they actually sank.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow, I get this mental image of some sort of Jaws type chomp right in the middle of the boat, but–

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] But it’s worse because they’re all ganging up together. One of them might go for the rudder. Another one might scrape its teeth along the hull. And they can really do damage.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Wow. We keep saying attacking, but do we know whether this is aggression, or are they playing with the boat, or we don’t know?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: We don’t know. They don’t seem to be attacking the humans. They don’t seem to have a problem with the humans on the boats. It’s the boats themselves. And so there’s a couple of different theories for why are they doing this. So one group has an adult female in it, one of these groups that they’ve noticed attacking. So it’s possible that she had a negative encounter with the boat and now sees the boat itself as a danger and so has her group attacking it.

There’s also a group of juvenile whales that have attacked some boats. And so some people say, well, maybe this is a fad, like teenagers taking on this cool orca equivalent of a Tide Pod challenge. And this has happened before. So orcas can experience fads. There was a previous case where orcas started wearing– I don’t want to call it a hat, but essentially hats made out of dead salmon. They would be swimming around with this dead fish on their head, like a fashion statement. And it seemed to be a trend that multiple different individuals were picking up.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: All the kids are doing it.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: All the cool kids wear dead salmon.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: [CHUCKLES] Do we know why it’s happening now? Has there been an increase in boat traffic or anything, or it’s just, one of those weird nature things?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: It’s probably just one of those weird nature things. Maybe one particular whale had a really bad encounter with the boat and started attacking them, and other whales were like, this looks fun, and joined in. Maybe a group of juveniles just decided to do it for fun one day, and then others, again, started spreading the behavior. It’s pretty unclear. But it’s fascinating.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: OK, in some medical news this week, a group of American women contracted fungal meningitis after getting some surgeries in Mexico. What happened there?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So fungal meningitis is an infection where a fungus can attack the brain and the area around it. And this can be deadly. One of the individuals has died from this fungal infection. And infections, it’s hard for them to get to the nervous system. There’s a lot of safeguards in the human body. But in this case, it seems that all of the surgeries involved an epidural, so this is where you have an anesthetic injected into the area around the spinal column. So it’s possible that that carried a fungal infection that affected these individuals.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, I mean, is this just a cautionary tale for medical tourism, or is there something deeper that we should be taking out of this?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this kind of outbreak isn’t limited to this particular clinic. There have been other cases, so it’s not necessarily that this is due to the medical tourism. But it does shine a light on the issue of medical tourism, on the idea that some Americans travel out of the country for cosmetic procedures or for other health care because they can’t afford it in the US. And so, by going out of the country, they’re no longer in our familiar system of regulations. And so it can be risky.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Gotcha. I heard that an amateur astronomer has discovered a star that went supernova from his backyard. Why are scientists excited by this?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: This is really cool because this amateur astronomer, who’s amateur, but not new to this– he has discovered almost 200 supernovae since 2000.


SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So he spotted this supernova pretty early in its development. This is what’s called a type II supernova. So what’s happening out there, about 21 million light years away in galaxy M101, pinwheel galaxy, is this big star, maybe eight times bigger than our sun, is collapsing into itself. And it’s in the process of becoming a neutron star or a black hole. And in doing that, it’s throwing out all this matter, as well as electromagnetic radiation. And it’s really cool for researchers and scientists to be able to measure and observe this supernova as it progresses, so as it gets brighter and then starts fading again. And while they’re doing that, amateur astronomers with even a backyard telescope can also take a look at it.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So it’s something the rest of us could see, too, if we went out to our backyards this weekend?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, so you’re going to want to look near the end of the handle of the constellation known as the Big Dipper, or Ursa Major. And the supernova will be a bright spot there.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And part of what’s cool here is that this amateur was able to catch it pretty much as it was happening, or this is just happening.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, totally. That’s why scientists are really excited. It’s not the first time that they’ve heard of such a supernova or observed it, but this gives them the chance to make continuous observations of it as it progresses and changes. And because it’s in a popular corner of the sky, so to speak, they could look at what this area looked like before the supernova happened and then compare it to what it looks like now as the supernova is happening and afterward. So there’s lots of data for them to collect.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yeah, and while we’re saying as it’s happening, as it’s happening 21 million years ago.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: Yes, yes, exactly. Because this is 21 million light years away, it’s 21 million years in the past, but we’re just seeing it now.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Whoa. I’m looking forward to doing some stargazing this summer, but forecasters are saying that it seems we might be due for an El Nino year for the first time in 10 years. Remind me what those are and how they factor into this whole trend of warmer summers that we’ve been seeing lately.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So an El Nino is a weather phenomenon where the waters of the Eastern Pacific get hotter than usual. And then this has a sort of butterfly effect on the rest of the planet. That extra heat changes the air flows and circulates around the world. And it also ends up increasing overall global temperatures. So an El Nino makes what might have already been a hot summer even hotter.

And the fact is that our summers are getting hotter. We’re seeing more heat records broken. There was a heat record just recently broken in Western Canada for this time of year, and it wasn’t just broken by a few tenths of a degree. It was broken by about 12 degrees Fahrenheit. So it was 12 degrees above the highest previously measured temperature, but it was also 40 degrees above the average temperature for this time of year in that area.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yikes. How does this affect different parts of the country differently?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So in places that are used to hot summers and hot weather, there tends to be a lot of air conditioners installed. There tends to be an infrastructure in place that is built to deal with the heat. But in places like the Pacific Northwest or Western Canada, which was affected in the recent heat wave, they don’t have that same kind of infrastructure in place. So people are less likely to have air conditioners. People are less likely to be familiar with what they can do to mitigate that heat when it hits. And so it’s more of a shock to the area. And that tends to kill people.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: So, finally, an infrastructure story of a different kind– using recycled diapers, instead of sand in concrete.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: I love this idea. So researchers in Japan found that you can shred up disposable diapers, which are often made of wood pulp, cotton, even absorbent polymers. All of these ingredients can be used in concrete. So they washed the diapers and shredded them and used them as an ingredient in concrete. And they were trying to figure out just how much of the sand in concrete can you replace with diapers before it starts to lose some of its strength and ability to be used in buildings.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: And I mean, that leads to the obvious big question, I mean, can I have a towering castle made of recycled diapers?

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: So this is another interesting thing. Concrete is used in buildings in different ways. So if it’s used as a structural element, you’ve got to have a pretty low proportion of diapers because these structural elements like columns and beams, they need to be very strong to support your proposed castle, as opposed to architectural elements. If you’re using it for like a wall panel or a brick, you can use a higher proportion of diapers, up to 40%, because it doesn’t need to be as strong.

So for instance, let’s say you’re building a one-story house. You could replace about 27% of the sand in the concrete with diapers. But if you want just a three-story house, not that crazy, you can only use 10% diaper in your concrete. And I imagine if you want a castle even bigger than that, the percentage would continue to drop.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Very good information to have. I will keep that in mind for this weekend.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: [LAUGHS] For your house building.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Yes. Thank you so much, Sophie. It’s always great to talk to you.

SOPHIE BUSHWICK: You, too. Thanks.

CHARLES BERGQUIST: Sophie Bushwick is a technology editor for Scientific American, based in New York City.

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