October 1, 2022

In the wild, is a human extra more likely to survive an encounter with an orca or an ideal white shark?

— Kameryn F., Yardley, Pa.

By the numbers, white sharks are much more harmful to people than orcas are. Despite the identify “killer whale,” there’s just one well-documented occasion of a wild orca attacking somebody — Hans Kretschmer, who was bitten on the leg whereas browsing in California in 1972. Attacks by white sharks, though nonetheless uncommon, occur fairly a bit extra typically; there are a number of hundred on report.

So why are killer whale assaults so uncommon? Emma Luck, a marine-mammal researcher on the University of Alaska, informed me {that a} huge a part of it’s simply that orcas don’t encounter people as typically. “Killer whales are found in all oceans, but they tend to be found in higher densities around cold, high-latitude regions,” she wrote in a message. “These are areas where the water is not particularly inviting for the average beachgoer!”

She stated the 1972 orca assault was most likely a case of mistaken identification, as is the case with many shark assaults. “In an open water context, where all parties can view each other clearly, I would wager that both the shark and the killer whale are going to leave you alone,” she stated.

In truth, you don’t should spend lengthy searching police blotters to substantiate that not solely are killer whale assaults rarer than shark assaults, they’re additionally rarer than documented circumstances of swimmers being attacked and bitten by different people. Granted, that’s as a result of there are much more people than orcas round, however that doesn’t change the conclusion: In the ocean, you’re extra more likely to be attacked and bitten by an individual than by a killer whale.

Because sharks and orcas each spend most of their time hidden underwater, we regularly consider them by way of their temporary interactions with us — will they assault us or not? If the one two choices are “Don’t attack the human” and “Attack the human,” it’s exhausting to not deal with the second. After all, it’s the second almost certainly choice!

But sharks and orcas aren’t simply hanging out down there deciding whether or not to assault us. Like the people you go on the road, they’re principally busy doing their very own factor.

And within the case of orcas, one of many issues they’re busy doing is worrying about humpback whales.

For causes which are unclear to scientists, humpback whales nearly appear to have a vendetta in opposition to killer whales, as a 2016 paper within the journal Marine Mammal Science famous. All over the world, orcas making an attempt to chase down meals are routinely interrupted by out-of-the-blue humpback whale assaults. Humpbacks will band collectively and journey nice distances to intervene in killer whale hunts, no matter what the prey species is.

The paper even paperwork circumstances of humpback whales seemingly lifting seals up out of the water and holding them out of attain of the orcas. The humpbacks stayed and guarded the prey for hours, till the orcas have been pressured to go away hungry.

Why do humpbacks do that? Is this altruism? Game principle? Cross-mammal solidarity? A side-effect of their intuition to guard calves? Or do they only actually hate orcas, for causes recognized solely to them?

“It’s hard to understand why it happens,” Ms. Luck stated. “Especially because it’s not limited to just one population of humpbacks. It happens all over the world.”

So when you do encounter a killer whale within the ocean, don’t fear, it’s unlikely to assault you. And when you’re nonetheless apprehensive … maybe think about befriending a humpback.

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