Earlier this year, there were several reports of orcas seriously damaging sailing boats in the Strait of Gibraltar – and they are at it again.
On October 31, a pod of orcas surrounded a yacht off the coast of Morocco. According to a social media post from the tour company that operates the boat, the whale tore the ship’s hull and continued banging against the hull for about 45 minutes. Attempts were made to tow the damaged yacht back to shore, but it ultimately sank near a harbor entrance.
Where is this happening?
In the Strait of Gibraltar – a strip of sea separating the southern tip of Europe from North Africa. A feeding of orcas there has rammed boats and ruptured hulls, sinking four boats and damaging dozens of others. The orcas began a wave of activity this May, and videos documenting the encounters have been hitting the Internet ever since.
At least a dozen whales are participating in this activity, leading to speculation about the orcas (Orcinus orca) They may have been teaching each other how to launch boats and organize armies. But there may be non-belligerent reasons behind the apparent trend.
How long has this been going on?
The increase in whale encounters in the past year has captured public attention, but controversies with these orcas started long before that. Scientists, fishermen and locals started reporting Unusual encounter in the Strait of Gibraltar in May 2020. According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group, which monitors this pod, 207 interactions were reported in 2022. While many interactions were relatively harmless, at least four ships have sunk this year, none of which were reported to have injured people – all of them were rescued before their boats sank.
Over the past few years, orca-boat encounters in the Mediterranean Sea seem to have increased during the month of May, which is when the pod’s favorite food, bluefin tuna, is migrating through the area. This is what makes this latest confrontation different from others.
What are orcas really doing with boats?
In most cases, orcas move rapidly towards the stern of boats with obvious interest in boat hulls, which they pierce or break with their teeth. Whales have been observed pressing into boats with their heads and sides, sometimes even punching holes in the hull.
Sometimes, they do not cause any harm to the ships, but simply ride behind the boat. In particular, this group of whales has less interest in large or motorized ships. “They’re highly focused on sailboats,” says Deborah Giles at the University of Washington in Seattle.
How many orcas are involved?
The encounters, including the latest one last week, typically involve only a handful of whales from a pod numbering about 39. Images and videos of the incidents are helping researchers track which members of the pod are most involved and which have not yet displayed the behavior. , Currently, about 15 orcas are participating in the boating activity. “This is a behavior that probably spread from one person to another,” says Andrew Trites of the University of British Columbia in Canada.
Can orcas learn from each other? Will this behavior spread?
Orcas are a social species capable of learning from their peers, so it’s possible the behavior is a trend that is taking hold. But this does not mean that whales are deliberately teaching their podmates to target boats, which would require communicating a motive and recruiting others to this purpose. Instead, it may simply seem funny or interesting to the orcas.
This North Atlantic subpopulation, like many orca pods, is distinct from others in diet, culture, speech, and genetics. Members of this pod do not socialize with other orcas, so it is unlikely that this behavior will spread to other populations, although it may spread further within this pod.
Why are the orcas doing this? Has it changed?
Rumors have spread online about an orca named White Gladys, who was reportedly injured in an encounter with a boat. This speculation is based on injuries to its wings, but it is not clear whether those injuries were caused by an encounter with a boat. Orcas rub each other with their teeth, which may provide another explanation for the marks. Most experts agree that there is no evidence that White Gladys is training other whales to attack, and there is no apparent motive for the podmates to risk personal injury in retaliation. It is also unknown whether White Gladys was involved in this latest clash.
“Nobody knows why this is happening,” says Trites. “All the reports coming out are from non-scientists, non-experts – people who are scared.” He says that orcas are a highly intelligent species capable of self-recognition, but that does not mean they are capable of planning and taking revenge actions.
What else could be behind the increase in orca encounters?
Both Trites and Giles think it’s more likely the orcas are just having fun or looking for a nasty back scratch. “These whales are very tactile,” says Giles. “They interact with things in their environment, including each other.” For example, in British Columbia a group of whales have been observed rubbing vigorously against rocky beaches.
Wild orcas have never been documented hunting or eating humans, so this is unlikely to be related to a desire for food.
Until researchers know what is prompting the encounters, it will be challenging to eliminate them. For example, if orcas view the activity as a game, running away may elicit a more aggressive response. “This is something that we humans need to understand and not blame on whales,” says Giles.