Orcas on the Attack: Why Are Killer Whales Sinking Boats Off the Coasts of Spain and Portugal?

Orcas on the Attack: Why Are Killer Whales Sinking Boats Off the Coasts of Spain and Portugal?

If you are planning to sail in the waters off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, you might want to think twice. A group of orcas, also known as killer whales, has been causing havoc for sailors in the region. Since May 2020, there have been more than 500 cases of orcas reacting to boats, and at least 49 instances of physical contact between the whales and the vessels. In three cases, the orcas damaged the boats so badly that they sank. 

But why are the orcas behaving this way? What are they trying to achieve by attacking boats? And how can sailors avoid these dangerous encounters? In this article, we will explore the mystery and the solution of the orca attacks. 

The Mystery of the Orca Attacks

The orcas seem to target sailboats and catamarans, especially their rudders, which they bite and break with their powerful jaws. Sometimes they also scrape the hulls with their teeth, leaving marks and holes. The attacks leave the boats unable to navigate and in need of rescue. Fortunately, no human injuries or deaths have been reported so far. 

But why are the orcas behaving this way? Researchers are puzzled by this rare and unusual behavior, which has only been detected in this part of the world. There are two main hypotheses: one is that the orcas have invented a new fad, something that these intelligent and social animals are known to do. Much like humans, orca fads are often spearheaded by juveniles, who may be curious or playful. 

The other hypothesis is that the orcas are responding to a bad past experience involving a boat. One of the orcas involved in the attacks, a female named White Gladis, may have suffered a traumatic incident, such as being hit by a boat rudder or entangled in illegal fishing gear. This may have triggered a defensive behavior against boats, which other orcas copied through social learning. 

Orcas in a group

YACHTING.COM TIP: If you want to get to know marine animals better, we have several articles for you. About overcoming your fear of sharks and whether you should be worried about sharks in the MediterraneanAlso you can find out what to do if you get stung by a jellyfish or first aid and safety when encountering poisonous fish. Plus, find out everything you need to know about the most dangerous creatures of Croatia and the dangerous inhabitants of the Greek seas.

The Orcas Behind the Attacks

The orcas that are attacking boats belong to a critically endangered subpopulation that lives in the Strait of Gibraltar and feeds on tuna. They are part of a larger group of orcas that inhabit the North Atlantic Ocean and are known as Type 1 orcas. They have distinct genetic, morphological, and acoustic characteristics from other types of orcas. 

The Iberian orca subpopulation consists of two clans: one that lives in the eastern Strait of Gibraltar and another that lives in the western Strait. Each clan has several pods that share a common dialect of calls. The pods are composed of family groups that have strong bonds and cooperate in hunting and socializing. 

Researchers have identified nine individual orcas that have been involved in the attacks on boats. They belong to two pods from the eastern clan: Gladis’ pod and Black Gladis’ pod. White Gladis is a 16-year-old female who is suspected to be the initiator of the attacks. She is also the daughter of Black Gladis, a 40-year-old matriarch who leads one of the pods.  

The researchers have given names and nicknames to each of the attacking orcas based on their markings and personalities. They are: 

  • White Gladis: A female with a white patch on her dorsal fin. 
  • Black Gladis: A female with a black patch on her dorsal fin. She is the mother of White Gladis and the leader of one of the pods. 
  • Matrioska: A female with a distinctive notch on her dorsal fin. She is the leader of another pod and has three offspring. 
  • Lenin: A male with a tall dorsal fin and a white spot on his eye patch. He is Matrioska’s oldest son and often accompanies her in the attacks. 
  • La Tiza: A female with a white mark on her eye patch. She is Matrioska’s daughter and Lenin’s sister. 
  • Maga: A female with a curved dorsal fin tip. She is Matrioska’s youngest daughter and Lenin’s sister. 
  • Halloween: A male with a scarred dorsal fin that resembles a pumpkin. He is Black Gladis’ son and White Gladis’ brother. 
  • Draco: A male with a pointed dorsal fin tip. He is Black Gladis’ son and White Gladis’ brother. 
  • Nube: A male with a cloudy eye patch. He is Black Gladis’ son and White Gladis’ brother. 
Orcas Mediterranean Sea

Orca whale photographed in the Mediterranean Sea, off the coast of Tarifa, Cadiz, Spain

The Impact of the Orca Attacks

The attacks by the orcas pose a threat to both the sailors and the whales. The sailors face danger and damage to their boats, while the orcas risk injury from propellers and conflict with humans. 

The attacks have also affected the tourism industry in the region, as many sailors have canceled their trips or avoided sailing in areas where orcas have been sighted. Some sailors have reported feeling scared, angry, or frustrated by the attacks, while others have expressed awe, admiration, or sympathy for the whales. 

The orcas are already threatened by overfishing, pollution, and boat traffic in their habitat. They depend on tuna for their food source, but tuna stocks have declined due to overexploitation and climate change. The orcas also face harassment from illegal fishing boats that use harpoons or nets to catch tuna. 

The attacks may have negative consequences for the conservation of these endangered animals, as they may increase hostility and resentment from humans towards them. They may also reduce public support for their protection and research. 

Orcas in the sea

The Solutions for Coexistence

How can sailors avoid these attacks? Experts advise them to avoid sailing in areas where orcas have been sighted, to keep a safe distance from them if they encounter them, and to turn off their engines if they approach. They also suggest installing protective devices on their rudders, such as metal plates or spikes, to deter the orcas from biting them. 

Some sailors have also tried to communicate with the orcas using sounds, gestures, or lights, hoping to calm them down or scare them away. However, these methods have not been proven to be effective or safe. 

Researchers are working to understand more about the behavior and ecology of these orcas, as well as their interactions with humans. They hope to find ways to reduce conflicts and promote coexistence between sailors and whales. 

They also urge people to respect and appreciate these magnificent creatures for their intelligence, culture, and personality. The orcas are not evil or malicious; they are simply acting according to their nature and circumstances. They deserve respect and protection as much as any other living being. By understanding their behavior and finding ways to coexist peacefully with them, we can ensure their survival and our safety. 

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FAQ: Orcas on the Attack