Experts are expressing concerns over a recent series of coordinated attacks by orcas on yachts off the European coast, and they fear that other members of the orca population may start imitating this behavior.
According to a report from Live Science, a notable incident took place on May 4, when a group of three orcas targeted a yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar off the coast of Spain. The yacht’s skipper, Werner Schaufelberger, recounted the event, explaining that two smaller orcas shook the rudder at the back of the boat, while a larger orca repeatedly rammed the ship with full force from the side. The smaller orcas observed the larger one’s technique and then followed suit by slamming into the boat themselves.
Although the Spanish coast guard managed to rescue the crew, the boat ultimately sank at the entrance to the port of Barbate.
This incident was not an isolated occurrence. Just two days earlier, The Telegraph reported another attack on a boat by a pod of six orcas in the same area near Tangier, Morocco. Skipper Greg Blackburn of Leeds described how two large blows struck his boat’s rudder during “heavy weather.” It became apparent that two large orcas had rammed into the boat, followed by the arrival of four more.
Blackburn chose to drop the boat’s main sail to make it uninteresting to the whales. This strategy seemed to work as the orcas lost interest, but not before causing thousands of dollars in damages.
Similar attacks have been reported continuously since 2020, leading experts to believe that they all trace back to a single incident. A study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science in June 2022 suggests that these attacks may have originated from a specific traumatizing event involving a large female orca named White Gladis. According to the study, White Gladis experienced a “critical moment of agony” after colliding with an entrapment or boat during illegal fishing, triggering a behavioral change in her.
Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Atlantic Orca Working Group, explained that the traumatized orca started the behavior of physically contacting boats. Fernandez stated, “The orcas are doing this on purpose; of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.”
Although most encounters with the aggressive orcas have been harmless, sailors and scientists are increasingly concerned. Over 500 interactions have been recorded since 2020, resulting in only three ship sinkings.
The study highlights that orcas are highly social and quickly learn and imitate behaviors they observe in others. Young orcas witnessing Gladis attacking boat rudders have swiftly adopted this behavior, leading to its rapid spread within the population.
López Fernandez clarified that they do not interpret the orcas as teaching the young but rather the behavior spreading vertically through imitation and later horizontally among the orcas, as they consider it significant in their lives.
Despite the potential risks posed by the attacks, López Fernandez believes that the orcas find this behavior advantageous. However, other experts argue that these incidents might be more of a temporary “fad” than aggressive behavior. Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington and the non-profit Wild Orca, suggests that orcas are naturally curious and playful animals, and this behavior could be a form of play rather than aggression.
Orcas are very intelligent creatures. It seems obvious, they were displaying a defensive manoeuver, esepcially if young are involved. So to, since they are a social creature, protecting the pod from something that looks like a lager whale, is of paramount concern to them. Dropping the sails was a good idea (lying dead in the water).The Orcas likely percieved that they had killed the threat. Play dead in other words.
Furthermore, notice how on these occassions, the Orcas attacked the rudder. That is a brilliant manouever. As a former Sonarman in the Canadian Navy, I was quick to learn that when a torpedo is fired at your ship, the Captain would turn the vessel toward the torpedo. Reason being, it is impossible for a ship to out run a torppedo. This would protect the vital rudder. Losing your rudder would make the ship unmanoeuverable and more susceptible to attack.
In their minds, the Orcas were trying to incompacitate these so called threats by taking out the rudder and by ramming it in the side they could ultimately kill the threat. As you see they succeeded in sinking one of the boats. A perfect navy manoeuver.
Whether it is man immitating nature or nature immitating man, we still have a lot to learn when it comes to understanding these creatures.