by Cybele Knowles
A month after a news article about boat-sinking orcas went viral, the killer whales have become full-fledged folk heroes. (Should that be “full-finned”? “Totally toothed”?) The stories we tell about the yacht-yeeting cetaceans express our desire to liberate ourselves from oppressive systems.
The #OrcaUprising, as it’s now widely called, has been underway for a while. The boat-sinking orcas were reported on as early as 2020, but the news didn’t go viral until LiveScience shared it in May 2023. Likely the article sparked our collective imagination because of a bit of poetry it contained. “A critical moment of agony,” (such as a boat strike or the loss of a calf) may have caused a matriarch whale named White Gladis to begin sinking ships, the article reported.
A critical moment of agony.
Nothing could be more relatable.
We don’t really know why the orcas are sinking ships — or how the behavior is spreading from one population of orcas to others. Maybe it’s just a new game. Maybe it is some form of self-defense. If so, scientists speculate that the behavior may have been kicked off not by one inciting incident (“moment of agony”), but an accumulation of human-caused stresses and dangers: entanglement and entrapment in fishing gear, collisions with ships, competition with the fishing industry for food, noise pollution, and possibly even physical attacks on orcas by humans.
There are stories of fishermen “stunning orca with electric prods, throwing lit petrol cans, cutting dorsal fins.” Just saying.
Another thing to say: The orcas who started sinking boats are from a small, critically endangered population. There may only be 35 of these orcas left in the world — and we are responsible for reducing them to that pitiful number. The current extinction crisis is “anthropogenic”: caused by us. Ninety-nine percent of currently threatened species are at risk from human activities, primarily those driving habitat loss, climate change, and introduction of non-native species.
Many folk heroes began as real people whose traits and accomplishments were exaggerated to mythic proportions. Folk heroes often come to the rescue of ordinary people. Joan of Arc was a French warrior who defended her people against the British in the late Middle Ages. John Henry was a U.S. labor hero who stood up for workers against the new machines that threatened their livelihoods during the Age of Steam. (The real-life John Henry may have also been an advocate for prisoners, and an imprisoned person himself.)
And now, the orcas: sea beasts who sink yachts. Yachts, which aren’t just boats, but also symbols for a set of overlapping 21st-century horrors: the carnage of capitalism, including the climate emergency, extinction crisis, pollution and other forms of environmental destruction. The bone-chilling concentration of wealth into the hands of a very few, as well as the forms of destruction and oppression that enable this concentration: extractive industries, wage slavery, incarceration. The weakening of democracy. The popularization of fascistic, xenophobic, and white-supremacist ideologies.
An article by Jacob Stern in The Atlantic admonishes, “Killer whales are not our friends: Stop rooting for the orcas ramming boats.” This piece provoked instant, merciless, thorough dragging of the author’s boat-y last name, CV, and attire. Any part of his person that is available to us, we have dunked on. Twitter user @BlameTag additionally brings a class analysis to the article by pointing out Laurene Powell Jobs, who owns The Atlantic, also owns a $120M yacht.
The Atlantic piece acknowledges but doesn’t honor what we’re doing with the orcas: making meaning of them. We’re not dealing in facts here, like the fact that by attacking boats, the orcas are putting themselves in even more danger of being targeted by humans. Or the fact a human may eventually get hurt — although to date there is not a single documented instance of a wild orca hurting a human. (Which demonstrates amazing restraint, if you ask me.)
The internet is many things: an exploitative marketplace composed of overlapping corporate spaces where we’re both sold product and sold as product. A battlefield in the information wars for geopolitical dominance. And a site of folk culture. It’s the culture of a highly technological folk with a world of information at their fingertips, but folk nonetheless.
Orcas are our new folk heroes: a sustaining legend we’ve created in our time of need.
The possibility that orcas are fighting back provides catharsis for our sense that our world has become deeply unjust — unbearably so — and that no one is coming to help. Only bold action by us, for us (whether “us” is people or killer whales) can save the day, our species, all the species, the planet.
In the folk imagination, the ship-sinking orcas are linked to many current efforts, structures, and philosophies we turn to to help ourselves and each other. While scientists debate whether to call the transmission of the new ship-sinking behavior a “fad” like fish hats or “social learning,” Twitter user @jelenawoehr calls it grassroots organizing. The orcas are imagined as our allies in the labor movement, as in this tweet about David Zaslav, yacht owner and media exec embroiled in ongoing strikes by entertainment-industry workers. Methods of mutual aid such as bail funds and GoFundMe’s are proposed as support for the #OrcaUprising. Proliferating memes link the orcas to anarchy, socialism, anti-fascism, the Occupy movement, the fight against militarized borders, punk, prison abolition, and anti-capitalism.
Orcas are becoming the black-and-white face of justice movements that seek liberation over profit, the welfare of the many over the power of the few, and above all: life over death. Here’s a meme that brings an orca mascot into a critique of Elon Musk’s transphobia and billionaires taking doomed $250K trips to the wreck of the Titanic.
In the words of trans liberationist Leslie Feinberg, “My right to be me is tied by a thousand threads to your right to be you.” The orca folk hero says: No one is free until everyone is free.
So let’s keep biting off those rudders, sinking those ships, imagining resistance, and rising up.
Cybele Knowles is an editor and writer living and working in Tucson, Arizona.