Orcas Sank 3 Boats in Southern Europe in the Last Year, Scientists Say

Hours after a voyage to Portugal from Morocco, the crew of a 46-foot sailboat noticed something was wrong with the rudder. Then someone yelled out what they saw cutting through the choppy waves: “Orcas! Killer whales!

The orcas kept pace with the ship, pounding its side and biting the rudder, according to their skipper, an onboard photographer and video of the encounter. For about an hour, the crew reported their situation to the Spanish Coast Guard and tried to remain calm.

“There was nothing we could do,” said Stephen Bidwell, the photographer, who was two days into a week-long sailing course with his partner when the onslaught began. “You’re amazed at the same time you’re nervous.”

The skipper, Gregory Blackburn, said he struggled for control of the boat when the orcas rammed into him, interfering with the rudder. “It’s a reminder of where we are in the food chain and the natural world,” he said.

Finally, the ship managed to return to Tangier, Morocco. But marine scientists took note of the episode, on May 2, and said it continued a puzzling pattern of behavior by a small group of killer whales off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula. The orcas, according to the researchers, have caused the sinking of three ships since last summer and interrupted the voyages of dozens more.

Wild killer whales, though the apex predators they hunt sharks and whales, are generally not considered dangerous to humans. The animals, the largest of the dolphin family, have been known to touch, poke and follow ships, but ramming them is unusual, marine scientists say. A small group of orcas, numbering about 15, began pounding boats off Spain in 2020, with researchers calling the behavior unusual and their motivations unclear.

“We know that it is a complex behavior that has nothing to do with aggression,” said Alfredo López Fernández, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal who worked on A study published last June on the subject. Orcas show no signs of wanting to harm humans, she said.

In most sightings, the orcas do not modify their behavior or make physical contact, according to the report. Atlantic Orca Working Groupwhich began tracking direct interactions, as well as sightings, in 2020.

Since an initial wave that year, orcas have been documented approaching or reacting to ships some 500 times, causing physical damage about 20 percent of the time, in the high-traffic seas off Morocco, Portugal and Spain. the group said.

The killer whales of the Iberian coast are considered an endangered population: The group comes to the waters near the Strait of Gibraltar each spring from deeper waters and further north of the coast to hunt tuna. But while they’re a common sight, scientists don’t know how to stop the recent behavior of the small group, which has left the sailors worried on the safety and damage to the ship, and which has drawn the attention of the Spanish and Portuguese authorities.

“Every week there is an incident,” said Bruno Díaz López, a biologist and director of the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute who was not involved in last year’s research. “We really don’t know the reason.”

In the most recent example, orcas struck a sailing ship off the coast of Spain and sank it in the early hours of May 5. Spanish authorities arrived quickly and the four people on board were rescued “in good spirits”, said Christoph Winterhalter. , the president of the Swiss company that operated the ship, Hoz Hochseezentrum International.

University of Aveiro biologist Dr. López Fernández said the three ships may have sunk over the past year because they were vulnerable to leaks or not equipped to withstand the damage. (“The condition of the ship was very good,” Winterhalter said of the one his company had chartered.)

The small group of killer whales, including just two adults, were responsible for the majority of the interactions with the boats, which number about 200 a year and range from the North African coast to France, according to Dr. López Fernández.

Researchers do not know what is behind the behavior. Some have speculated that this is “aversive behavior” that could have started after an incident between an animal and a boat, such as a tangled fishing line, or repeated behavior invented by young orcas.

Those remain just theories, though Dr. López Fernández said it appeared the behavior could be happening among local animals.

“We know that orcas share their culture with their calves and with their mates,” he said, adding that they learned of imitation. But because the behavior has been observed only in this particular subpopulation of killer whales, he said it’s unlikely that it would carry over to the various groups of killer whales that populate waters around the world.

Given the lack of evidence and the presence of young orcas in the group, other scientists expressed skepticism that the behavior stemmed from a boating incident and believed the animals could simply be playing.

“They’re getting some kind of reward or excitement,” said Erich Holt, an expert on orcas and Research Associate at Whale and Dolphin Conservation, a wildlife charity. “Playing is part of being a predator.”

The scientists say that in addition to getting sailors to avoid the area, they don’t know how to prevent orcas from disturbing sailboats, which tend to be quieter than most boats and therefore more attractive to the animals.

It has also left conservationists concerned about how humans will treat the orca population, especially as sailors in the region express growing frustration with the animals.

“I hope they stop doing it as quickly as they started, because they are actually putting themselves at risk,” said Hanne Strager, a marine biologist and author of “The killer whale diaries”, adding that it was putting pressure on an already vulnerable species.

Mr Bidwell, the photographer, said the episode would not stop him and his partner from booking another sailing trip in June, though perhaps with some changes. “Maybe we’re not going down the same path,” he said.