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orcas attacking boats

Orcas are exhibiting some strange behavior towards ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

Orcas appear to have been exacting vengeance on vessels around the Strait of Gibraltar, and on the night of May 24, they ramped up their attacks. A pod of them nearly sank yet another sailboat, then followed it as it was towed back to port.

Back in 2020, reports began to filter in from ship crews claiming that killer whales had seemingly been targeting them. Interestingly, they almost always attacked the rudder. According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA), since July of that year, there have been 744 reported encounters with 505 of them including contact between the whales and the ships. The whales have sunken three of the boats. But the most recent orca on boat attack was a little different than most. Up until now, the orcas have generally lost interest once the rudder was ruined. This time, however, the pod followed the the yacht Mustique all the back to port.

“They didn’t leave after the rudder was removed,” April Boyes, a sailor who was aboard the Mustique, told Live Science.

The crew of the Mustique first saw the pod of orcas at around 9:30 p.m. in the Strait of Gibraltar. Within minutes, they began attacking the ship.

“It didn’t take long for them to start hitting our rudder,” Boyes wrote in a blog post. “The force of this would spin the helm violently and you could feel the vibration through the deck.”

Once the rudder was sufficiently damaged, the whales looked as though they were finished and swam away. But 20 minutes later, much to the disappointment of the crew members, they returned and began to swim in circles around the boat. Then they began attacking again.

“After an hour of the orcas continuing to hit the rudder it was evidently now completely destroyed and water started to flow into the boat,” Boyes wrote.

Once water was entering the boat, the crew of the Mustique called the Spanish coastguard. They showed up, hooked on, and began the long journey back to the port of Barbate. The whales, however, followed, and they didn’t swim away until the Mustique was almost ashore. Once the boat was out of the water, the extensive damage the orcas caused was revealed. The rudder was smashed to splinters and the hull was ripped open.

While no one is exactly sure why the orcas began attacking boats, the prevailing theory is that a single orca may be showing other whales the new behavior. “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,” Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, told Live Science.

There isn’t much anyone can do about it, either, but Spanish officials have begun placing GPS trackers on six orcas that have been involved in the attacks. As of this writing, only one tracker has been attached. They’re also recommending that sailors avoid sailing at night, try and avoid certain areas, and attaching anti-bird spikes onto ships’ rudders.


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