Orcas have sunk another boat off European coast. Baffled scientists think they may know why (2024)

The orcas are at it again: for the seventh time in four years, a pod of whales has sunk a boat after ramming it in Moroccan waters off the Strait of Gibraltar.

The 15 metre-long yacht Alborán Cognac, which carried two people, encountered the highly social apex predators at 9am local time on Sunday, Spain's maritime rescue service said.

The passengers reported feeling sudden blows to the hull and rudder before water started to seep into the sailboat. It is not known how many orcas were involved.

After alerting rescue services, a nearby oil tanker took them onboard and carried them to Gibraltar, a British overseas territory on Spain's southern coast.

Nothing could be done to save the sailboat, which drifted and eventually sank.

It's the latest incident in what has become a trend of hundreds of interactions between orcas and boats since the "disruptive behaviour" was first reported in the region in May 2020.

The origin of this new behaviour has baffled scientists, though the leading theory suggests this "social fad" began as a playful manifestation of the whales' curiosity.

Where have orcas interacted with boats?

The latest data from the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA), an organisation that contributes to the animals' conservation and management, shows that there have been at least 673 interactions since 2020.

GTOA defines interactions as instances when orcas react to the presence of approaching boats with or without physical contact.

The map below shows the highest numbers of encounters from April to May 2024 took place off Spain's southern coast in the Strait of Gibraltar (red zones), with some lesser activity in surrounding areas (yellow zones).

Orcas have sunk another boat off European coast. Baffled scientists think they may know why (1)

A 2022 peer-reviewed study published in the Marine Mammal Science journal found the orcas in these areas preferred interacting with sailboats — both monohulls (72 per cent) and catamarans (14 per cent) — with an average length of 12 metres.

A clear pattern emerged of orcas striking their rudders, while sometimes also scraping the hulls with their teeth. Such attacks often snapped the rudder, leaving the boat unable to navigate.

"The animals bumped, pushed and turned the boats," the authors of the report said.

Adding this week's encounter, there have been seven reported cases of orcas damaging a boat so badly that it has sunk, though thepeople onboard were rescued safely each time.

In June 2023, a run-in with the giant mammals in the Strait of Gibraltar forced the crew competing in The Ocean Race to drop its sails and raise a clatter in an attempt to scare the approaching orcas off.

No-one was injured, but Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said that it had been a "scary moment".

"Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders," he said.

"Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team ... Luckily, after a few attacks, they went away."


After analysing 179 videos and photos of these types of interactions, which lasted on average 40 minutes, researchers concluded there was no reason to classify the events as intentionally hostile behaviour.

"The behaviour of orcas when interacting with boats is not identified as aggressive," they said.

"One of their main motivations has been identified as competition with boats for speed."

Still, the researchers of the study admitted they were not sure what triggered the novel behaviour in 2020.

"We are not yet certain what the origin of these interactions is, but it is still suspected that it could be a curious and playful behaviour," they wrote.

"[The behaviour] could be self-induced, or on the other hand it could be a behaviour induced by an aversive incident and therefore a precautionary behaviour."

Are the same orcas responsible for these incidents?

Out of around 49 orcas living in the Strait of Gibraltar, GTOA researchers found a total of 15 whalesfrom at least three different communities participated in the unusual interactions with boats between 2020 and 2022.

Most of those that engaged with greater intensity were juveniles, though it's unclear if others have since joined the group.

These giant mammals, which belong to the dolphin family, can measure up to eight metres and weigh up to six tonnes as adults.

The director of the Orca Behaviour Institute, Monika Wieland Shields, has said there is no evidence to prove the theory these whales were seeking vengeance against humans for a past trauma.

"While I'm sure it feels like an attack for the people on board, for the whales themselves, it really looks more like play behaviour," she said.

"There's something intriguing or entertaining to them about this [boat rudder] mechanism and they're just showing a lot of curiosity about it."


Ms Wieland said it's likely this new behaviour spread through the population as a kind of "social fad".

"Orcas are highly intelligent, very social animals, and with that comes a tendency to be curious about and explore your environment," she said.

"One thing that we see are these kind of fad behaviours that will appear in a certain population.

"One whale discovers something, they find it entertaining or interesting, or fun — it's some type of game. And then they will teach that to other members of their family group."

Are orcas dangerous to humans?

While orcas have earned their fearsome reputation for preying on other marine animals, there is no record of them killing humans in the wild.

In captivity, orcas have killed four people since the 1990s, though it's unclear whether the deaths were accidental or deliberate attempts to cause harm.

Ms Shields said she was worried the recent interactions between orcas and boats would skew people's perceptions of these mammals.

"I am concerned that people are going to react with fear, potentially injure or shoot at some of these whales,"Ms Shields said.

"We really need to educate boaters about the best things that they can do to make themselves less attractive to the whales and the best case scenario would be the whales lose interest in this and move onto something less destructive."

Spain's Transport Ministry advises that whenever boats observe any changes in the behaviour of orcas — such as in their direction or speed — they should leave the area as soon as possible and avoid further disturbance to the animals.

The ministry also states every interaction between a ship and an orca must be reported to authorities.

Orcas have sunk another boat off European coast. Baffled scientists think they may know why (2024)


Orcas have sunk another boat off European coast. Baffled scientists think they may know why? ›

"The behaviour of orcas when interacting with boats is not identified as aggressive," they said. "One of their main motivations has been identified as competition with boats for speed."

Why are the orcas sinking boats? ›

At least three boats have sunk, though there is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild. Scientists have been trying to pinpoint the cause of the behavior. One theory among researchers is they're just playing around. Other researchers say it may be that the whales like the feel of the rudder.

Why won't killer whales stop ramming boats in Spain? ›

“We have two theories about why these interactions started,” she said. “The first is that the orcas are just playing, and the other is that one animal suffered an aversive moment and the orcas are trying to stop the boats to prevent it from happening again — but we don't know exactly what happened in the first place.”

How many boats have been sunk by orcas? ›

Over 250 boats have been damaged by the orcas and four vessels have sunk. The frequency of attacks has increased over time. From July until November 2020, 52 orca interactions were reported. The behaviour continued into 2021, with another 197 interactions recorded, and into 2022, with 207 interactions.

Why did they get rid of orcas at SeaWorld? ›

SeaWorld finally acknowledged the significant shift in public opinion on orca captivity and made its historic announcement that the current generation of orcas at SeaWorld will be its last. A combination of relentless protests, canceled corporate sponsorships, and celebrity outcry led to the landmark decision.

Why are orcas attacking boats in Portugal? ›

Some experts have previously said that revenge might be behind the unusual behaviour, based on the traumatic experience of an orca called White Gladis. After an initial collision a couple of years ago - the theory goes - she started exhibiting “defensive behaviour” against vessels, which other orcas began to copy.

What causes orca fins to collapse? ›

The whales also often swim in a repetitive circular pattern. Other potential causes for fin collapse may be dehydration and overheating of fin tissue due to warmer water and air temperatures, stress due to captivity or changes in diet, reduced activity that causes low blood pressure, or age.

Do whales know to avoid boats? ›

Large whales have excellent hearing, and at times can be easily disturbed by noise. Overall, it is assumed that a whale could detect and avoid an oncoming vessel.

Why do scientists think orcas are suddenly becoming aggressive toward humans in boats off the coast of Spain? ›

One is that the killer whales have invented a new fad, something that subpopulations of these members of the dolphin family are known to do. Much as in humans, orca fads are often spearheaded by juveniles, López says. Alternatively, the attacks may be a response to a bad past experience involving a boat.

What to do if an orca approaches you while swimming? ›

Try to get out of the water, because you could risk other dangers such as hypothermia. Orcas can be dangerous because they are large, but they're generally not interested in humans as prey. If orcas approach, “they might just be curious as to what you are,” Strager said.

Have orcas ever attacked a human in the wild? ›

In fact, there are no documented cases of an orca intentionally harming a human in the wild. Hanne Strager, a Danish biologist and whale researcher, said people off the coast of Norway have been swimming in close proximity to killer whales for decades. "The killer whales do not seem to be at all interested in people.

Do orcas have predators? ›

Orcas are apex predators, which means they're at the very top of the food chain and they have no predators. Killer whales are some of the largest and most powerful animals in the ocean, and no other predator is able to challenge them.

How many orca is left? ›

How many are there? Experts believe there are an estimated 50,000 killer whales left globally. Of these, around 2,500 live in the eastern North Pacific Ocean.

Where is Tilikum now? ›

SeaWorld announced in March 2016 that Tilikum's health was deteriorating, and it was thought he had a lung infection due to bacterial pneumonia. In May 2016, it was reported Tilikum's health was improving. On January 6, 2017, SeaWorld announced that Tilikum had died early in the morning.

Are Shamu and Tilikum the same whale? ›

And one of those stories resonated with people around the world when it was chronicled in the groundbreaking documentary Blackfish, which told the truth about a “Shamu” whose actual name was Tilikum. Kidnapped from waters off Iceland, Tilikum was abducted from his family pod at just 2 years old.

Do trainers still swim with orcas at SeaWorld? ›

Safety. No SeaWorld trainer entered a pool to perform a show with an orca following Brancheau's death. Immediately afterwards, SeaWorld disallowed trainers from being in the water with any orca. This internal, voluntary prohibition was similar to what happened after other injuries to animal trainers.

How to stop orcas from attacking boats? ›

For now, researchers and authorities say, the only real solution is to sail in shallower waters and move away as fast as possible during an orca encounter. “The solution is to leave the area,” said Renaud de Stephanis, a biologist and coordinator for the nonprofit research group CIRCE.

Do whales cause ships to sink? ›

Historians have since found still more examples of whales ramming holes in wooden hulls of ships and fishing boats and even a couple modern accounts where sperm whales bumped into steel boats. So, yes, sperm whales did occasionally ram ships, and even sink them on occasion.

What happened to the boat used in Jaws? ›

In the infamous scene where the shark chomps on Quint as Chief Brody throws a scuba tank into the shark's mouth — that's Orca 2. The production team shipped the Orca 1 back to Universal Studios in Hollywood, California. Taylor says that within a brief time, it was sold to a fisherman in Los Angeles.

What are killer whales afraid of? ›

Selbmann says that in the majority of the interactions documented around Iceland, killer whales seem to avoid pilot whales. Occasionally things will get heated and the pilot whales will chase the killer whales at high speeds, with both species porpoising out of the water.

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