Killer whales Orcas eating Boats
Scientists Report Multiple Incidents of Orcas Sinking Boats in Southern Europe within the Past Year
During a voyage from Morocco to Portugal, the crew of a 46-foot sailing cruiser encountered a concerning situation when they realized there was a problem with the rudder. Their apprehension heightened when they spotted orcas slicing through the turbulent waves. The orcas swam alongside the boat, forcefully colliding with its side and gnawing at the rudder. The boat’s skipper, accompanied by a photographer onboard and captured video footage, confirmed the encounter. Throughout the ordeal, the crew contacted the Spanish Coast Guard for assistance while trying to maintain composure.
The orcas inhabiting the waters off the Iberian coast are considered an endangered population. Each spring, this group migrates from deeper and farther northern regions along the coast to the waters near the Strait of Gibraltar to hunt tuna. Although their presence is expected, scientists remain uncertain about how to address the recent behavior exhibited by this small group, causing concern among sailors regarding their safety and potential ship damage. The Spanish and Portuguese authorities have taken notice of these incidents.
Bruno Díaz López, a biologist and the director of the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute, who was not involved in last year’s research, expressed that incidents involving orcas occur weekly, and the underlying cause remains unknown. Recently, a sailboat was battered by orcas off the coast of Spain, resulting in its sinking during the early hours of May 5. The Spanish authorities swiftly arrived at the scene, successfully rescuing the four individuals onboard, who reportedly remained in good spirits. Christoph Winterhalter, the president of Hoz Hochseezentrum International, the Swiss company operating the boat, stated that the vessel was in excellent condition.
Dr. López Fernandez, a biologist from the University of Aveiro, suggested that the three boats that sank over the past year might have been vulnerable to leaks or ill-equipped to withstand the damage caused by the orcas. According to Dr. López Fernandez, the majority of interactions between boats and orcas, which amount to approximately 200 incidents per year and occur along the North African coast to France, were instigated by this small group of orcas, consisting of just two adults.
Stephen Bidwell, the photographer aboard one of the affected boats, recounted feeling a mix of awe and nervousness during the relentless ramming by the orcas. The skipper, Gregory Blackburn, struggled to regain control of the vessel as the orcas repeatedly collided with it, interfering with the rudder. Blackburn remarked that the experience serves as a reminder of humanity’s place in the food chain and the natural world.
Although wild orcas are apex predators known to prey on sharks and whales, they are not generally considered dangerous to humans. These large members of the dolphin family often approach, nudge, and trail boats, but ramming them is an uncommon behavior, as noted by marine scientists. Since 2020, a small group of approximately 15 orcas has exhibited this unusual behavior, targeting boats around Spain. The motivation behind their actions remains unclear, and researchers have labeled it as uncommon.
Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist from the University of Aveiro, who contributed to a study published last June on the subject, explained that this complex behavior displayed by the orcas has no aggressive intent towards humans. The orcas do not exhibit signs of wanting to harm humans. The Atlantic Orca Working Group, which began monitoring direct interactions and sightings in 2020, revealed that in most cases, the orcas maintain their behavior without making physical contact.
Since the initial surge in 2020, orcas have been observed approaching or responding to vessels approximately 500 times in the heavily trafficked seas near Morocco, Portugal, and Spain. The group reported that physical damage occurred in roughly 20 percent of these incidents.