22 July 2010

Whales "attacking" boats?


A presumed 'attack' by a right whale to a small sailing boat is having considerable media coverage in these summer days.

This, however, looks more like an accident made up by the press than a habitual or intentional behaviour. Some even suspect the image with the whale might be a smart PhotoShop product, i.e. an ex-post representation of a real event.

The cetacean species known to intentionally attack and occasionally sink small boats is the killer whale, possibly because boats do not respond to warning signals by the whales, who may be engaged in critical activities when a boat approaches too closely and suddenly. The animals may just try to react to an intrusion, behaving in the same way as several other large and wild mammals would (e.g. elephants, rhinos, hippos or apes). Killer whales do that because they, too, are wild and large mammals who care about their territory. Sinking boats is a rare event anyway, considering how often boats disturb killer and other whales - either deliberately or not - in virtually all oceans.

While I did not investigate the occurrence of right whale 'attacks' in the past, I remember a similar report involving a whale calf (either a right whale or a similar species) one or more years ago. As far as I can recall that was most likely an error by a playful calf, not an attempt to harm humans. In any case, such behaviours may have meanings other than deliberate attacks. If there was any aggressive intention, it remains to be seen why the whales reacted as they did (had they been harassed for too long?).

More generally speaking, I am often disturbed by the morbid interest shown by the media in depicting wild animals as dangerous beasts. In Italy, there is plenty of stupid TV programmes of that kind, totally uninformative as well as non-educational for children. Titles such as 'whale attacks boat' may work well in the media marketplace but they encourage irrational ancestral fears rather than inspire awe and appreciation for wonderful and disappearing animals. I've also seen media articles featuring 'attacks' by jellyfish, as if jellyfish (animals devoid of a central nervous system) could possibly have an intention whatsoever.

Giovanni Bearzi

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