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orcas are attacking boats

Orcas appear to be learning to attack vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo: Unsplash/Mike Doherty

The Inertia

According to reports, orcas appear to be learning to attack boats. Killer whales aren’t generally thought of as dangerous to humans — unless they’ve been trapped in a tank and forced to perform tricks for most of their lives — but boats certainly are dangerous to orcas. A fatal attack on a human by a killer whale in the wild has never been recorded. But it looks as the whales may be exacting their revenge on the boats we sail through their home.

Since 2020, there have been dozens of orca attacks on boats. Occurring mostly in the Strait of Gibraltar, the attacks have seen killer whales ramming boats and reportedly targeting rudders. Researchers believe that a single orca may be showing other whales the new behavior after three orcas smashed into a yacht off the coast of Spain on May 4. That attack happened just a few days after a pod of six orcas rammed another sailboat in the strait.

“There were two smaller and one larger orca,” skipper Werner Schaufelberger told the German publication Yacht. “The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side.”

A June 2022 study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science looked at the phenomenon and found that all the attacks “follow a clear pattern, with orcas approaching from the stern to strike the rudder, then losing interest once they have successfully stopped the boat.”

Since 2020, there have been more than 500 orca/vessel interactions. While most of them have resulted in minor damage, three events ended with the vessel sinking. Scientists think that one orca learned to stop the boats and others are learning to do the same.

“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

Scientists even have a specific orca in mind: a female named White Gladis, who suffered a “critical moment of agony,” which was likely caused by either a boat strike or fishing net entrapment. “That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” López Fernandez continued.

Orcas are very social animals. They teach their calves to hunt and behave socially, so teaching them to attack boats is not out of the realm of possibility. Researchers, however, aren’t 100 percent that it’s taught behavior. Instead it might simply be imitation.

“We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives,” López Fernandez explained.


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