A surfing competition in Norway attracted major media attention this week – but not for staggering swells or perfect barrels. A group of killer whales crashed the event, and two of the black-and-white behemoths got alarmingly close to the lineup's riders.

The encounter – which certainly startled the surfers involved – has been called an "attack on humans" and the "first of its kind ever seen". Marine-mammal experts, however, have a different take on the incident. 


The pod showed up during the semifinals of the Lofoten Masters, which took place on Monday at Unstad beach. The iconic surf spot is part of the Lofoten archipelago, a cluster of islands north of mainland Norway in the Arctic Circle. Unstad's icy ocean habitat makes it ideal for cold-wave riding – but those rich waters also draw a plethora of predators to the area.

Norwegian orcas mainly feast on fish like Arctic herring, but some groups favour mammalian meals. And that dietary preference has everything to do with what went down at Lofoten, explains the team at the Norwegian Orca Survey (NOS), which been studying local pods since the late 1980s.

Most of the whales that cruised the shallows during the set hovered near the shore break – but one individual (marked with a red arrow in the video above) darted towards a surfer, coming within 50 centimetres (about two feet) of him before quickly changing course. 

The move was indeed an aggressive charge – but does that make it an intentional orca-on-human kill strike? The NOS team says no. 

"Based on group size and behaviour, we have no doubt saying that these orcas were searching for seal prey," the organisation wrote in a Facebook statement. "Fortunately, orcas use echolocation to better investigate their habitat and prey. It is likely that the charging orca realised, at the very last second, that the surfer was not a seal and so took a sharp turn and moved away."

Orca expert and marine mammal biologist Dr Naomi Rose agrees.

"In my opinion, these surfers were never in real danger, but they might have suffered some injury if the orcas had been fooled just a couple of seconds longer," she says. "Fortunately, [orcas] really are very smart and figured out the confusion in time."

Mealtime mixups like this are not unheard of. In fact, misjudged charges occur most notably in Antarctica, where people have been knocked off their feet as killer whales rammed or jostled the ice floes or ice edges beneath them – the exact method the whales use to hunt:

"In all of these instances, it is almost certain the orcas mistook the people for prey – most likely seals," explains Rose. 

It's a myth that wild orcas never attack humans, but when it comes to incidents where actual contact was made, just two such events exist on record. What's more, only one of those incidents resulted in injuries: a leg wound that required multiple stitches. Compared to dangerous encounters with other top predators, that makes run-ins with orcas remarkably rare – and Rose attributes this to the monochrome leviathans' impressive brain power. 

"An orca has a big brain and a shark has a tiny one. However, even big brains can be fooled. Any predator can be confused by stimuli that mimic prey," she says. "Less intelligent predators strike – and potentially injure or kill – before they break off an attack once they realise their target is not in fact prey."

Killer whales, on the other hand, are able to suss out an unintended target much more quickly.

Because no attack occurred at Lofoten, some reports have suggested that the whales may have been playing. That interpretation of events is understandable – many oceanic dolphins playfully surf waves and wakes for fun – but it doesn't hold water in this case. That's because Norway's orcas are not known to display such behaviour this close to land.  

"We do not find surfing orcas three meters from the shoreline," explains the NOS team. "Based on our observations of these groups, they all show the same behaviour as in this footage when they are charging seals.



Top header image: Victoria Hoete-Dodd/Flickr