Something is up under water. In the ocean, to be specific. You must have heard that orcas are attacking ships. They have been attacking and even sinking ships, especially off the coasts of Portugal and Spain. Most recently, they attacked two boats competing in a big yacht race. They have sunk three ships in 2023 alone.
This unprecedented orca behaviours—seemingly leaning into its other name, killer whales—has provoked the widest range of human response, from terror to “eat the rich” giggles. Especially because speculation had it that the aggressive pod off the Iberian coast was led by a female called Gladis, who had a “traumatic incident” when she was pregnant. This internationally recognisable trauma narrative of the 21st century, combined with a 20th century name, was really irresistible. As if the hausfrau of the ocean had had enough and thrown off her apron to take up maritime arms. The truth is less in the quirky genre and more in the edgy variety.
Gladis is actually short for the killer whale’s scientific name, Orca gladiator. This particular orca, identified as the leader of the attacks, is Gladis Bianca. The other Gladises who often join her, having learnt to mimic her moves, are her children and siblings. Today, over 15 orcas from three different pods have been observed in what is euphemistically termed “interacting with ships”. According to scientists, Gladis Bianca’s mother, Gladis Lamari, just watches.
Gladis Bianca began her attacks in 2020, right when fake photographs of dolphins in the canals of Venice were making the rounds, along with what would become the pandemic’s cruel, funny meme—“nature is healing.” Nature didn’t heal, of course. And we are all hurtling into climate change. And the truth is, the poor family Gladis, among other creatures, are trying to cope, not stage a Tarantino under water. That’s us with our continuing anthropomorphic tendencies, giving human motives to non-human life. Nature, at best, is dealing.
Having said that, it is impossible to not read the recent marine tarot cards and be intrigued by the stories.
Take basking sharks. They are five-tonne loners, typically. Over the last decade, these endangered, exceptionally toothy creatures have been spotted near Ireland, once a year or so, in the hundreds, swimming round and round in enigmatic circles. In the last year, scientists have drawn the conclusion that the groups are a mix of sexually mature male and females using their 3D formation in the water for “speed dating”.
When reflecting on octopus settlements near New Zealand, my friend, Sruthi Krishnan, wrote in her Substack, “Now, all these terms, socialising, settlement, community, culture, again have the same issue; they stem from a very human understanding of the world, and so to interpret the behaviour of another creature with such a lens would probably be misleading, but that’s the best we can do, because we do not have other ways of understanding the world (that’s what the research on embodied cognition tells us).”
Having received this anticipatory bail, I allow myself to collect more examples of schemes under water. Not just the story of the octopus who stole a diver’s Go Pro (though the best thing about octopuses seems to be their cranky, many-legged pants behaviour). Or the enormous sea lions who commandeered a whole schooner and sailed away, a silent, nose-in-the-air reproof to Gladis Bianca’s anarchist ways. Under the sea, there are all kinds of stories and not just hijinks and crimes.
Scientists found recently that two male great white sharks had swum a whole 4,000 miles off the Atlantic coast together—triggering a theory that perhaps great whites occasionally enjoy social foraging, also known as eating together. Again, cute, but it has to be read alongside the fact that all around the world beachgoers are alarmed by a huge rise in shark sightings. Great news for conservationists who have worked hard to bring shark populations back up but bad news for anyone who can hear the Jaws soundtrack in their head. As Russell Jacobs wrote in a wonderful essay in Slate last September about the mixed blessings of shark sightings, “A century ago, when the Atlantic Ocean around the East Coast of the United States was full of sharks, people didn’t recreate there in the same way.” Going to the beach wasn’t a thing, swimming was less common, surfing was unknown, the ocean was less full, the skies had no drones. No drones busily recording the basking dating circle in Ireland or the octopus nursery off Costa Rica.
And while the ocean is ravaged by our greed and endless desire for joyrides, we also know more and perhaps can do more to protect it. And frankly, every new thing that is discovered gives me the happy-creepy woo-woo thrills that non-scientists get from science. It’s all seemingly in the more you know, the less you know department.
Just last month, two scientists from the Indian Institute of Science (IISc), Bengaluru, theorised about a very cool marine mystery. South of Sri Lanka, for about three million square kilometres. the earth’s gravitational pull is extremely low, creating what is known as a gravity hole. Why? No one knew. IISc scientists Debanjan Pal and Attreyee Ghosh think that at that spot, hundreds of kilometres under the Earth’s crust, are the remains of—hold your breath—a super ancient ocean.
I can only think of what Gladis Bianca would do with a gravity hole.
Nisha Susan is the author of The Women Who Forgot To Invent Facebook And Other Stories. She posts @chasingiamb.