New orca attack makes a sailboat almost sink in Spain

by Lorraine Williamson
killer whales

PROVINCIA DE CÁDIZ – In yet another alarming incident, the sailboat ‘Mustique’ was targeted by a group of killer whales while en route to Gibraltar on Thursday. The vessel sustained damage to its rudder and a crack in the stern, posing a serious risk of sinking. 

Fortunately, the four crew members were saved by the Coast Guard rescue service, which promptly dispatched a ship and a helicopter to assist. However, this unsettling occurrence is not an isolated event. Since 2020, there has been a concerning pattern of behaviour observed among killer whales in this region. These majestic creatures have been approaching boats and forcefully colliding with them, resulting in significant damage and operational disruptions. 

Also read: Sailboat sunk off Spanish coast after orca attack 

Alfredo López, a biologist from Cemma and a member of the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA), explains that the Iberian orcas responsible for these incidents are a critically endangered species with a population of only 35 individuals. Shockingly, these orcas have already caused three boats to sink. 

According to GTOA, there have been 744 recorded encounters between killer whales and boats since 2020, spanning from the northern coast of Africa to the French Brittany. Out of these encounters, 505 involved direct interactions where the orcas responded to the presence of the boats. However, López emphasises that these interactions should not be mistaken for deliberate attacks. Some encounters had no physical contact, while others resulted in physical contact without damage. However, there were also severe cases where the boats suffered significant harm. 

Also read: Sailboat again aggressively treated by orcas in Southern Spain 

GTOA estimates that between 2020 and 2022, approximately 1 in 100 boats passing through this area experienced contact with killer whales, with 20% of them sustaining severe damage. Although the frequency of these interactions increased notably between 2020 and 2021, there was no significant rise in 2022, as the behaviour of the killer whales appears to be influenced by seasonal and geographical factors. 

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Advice for Sailors in the Area 

To mitigate the risks, GTOA advises sailors to avoid night-time sailing and, if possible, to remain close to the coastline to minimise encounters with these captivating yet potentially dangerous animals. GTOA has launched a website and mobile application where sailors can access data on orca-boat interactions. These platforms also provide information on “hotspots” where the likelihood of encountering killer whales is higher. Furthermore, GTOA also offers guidance for sailors on how to react when encountering orcas at sea. 

Understanding the Interaction 

López explains that when orcas detect boats, they initially exhibit competitive behaviour, almost like engaging in a speed race. They then approach the boats and physically interact by bumping their heads against the rudder, causing a shift in the vessel’s course and resulting in damage. However, the researchers affirm that there is no aggressive intent or motive to sink the boats. 

Unravelling the Mystery 

The precise cause of this behaviour remains unknown. Researchers have proposed two hypotheses, as reported by El Independiente. The first hypothesis suggests that the killer whales invented this behaviour and is now being repeated within the population. Initially, this seemed plausible as the behaviour was more common among younger individuals, but it was subsequently observed in adult killer whales as well. 

The second hypothesis is that the orcas have undergone a traumatic experience related to boats in the past, leading to an aversion that triggered behavioural changes. These changes were then imitated by other killer whales within the population. Therefore, the orcas may now be attempting to prevent the boats from engaging in similar behaviour that could harm them. 

Orcas Are Not Aggressive 

López emphasises that while killer whales are predators, they pose no threat or aggression towards humans or anything other than their food sources. Moreover, López assures that even if a crew member were to fall overboard, the orcas would simply ignore or observe the person. As such, there have been no documented cases of killer whales attacking humans. In fact, divers, photographers, and surfers have had close encounters with these magnificent creatures without any harm. 

Overcoming Fear and Promoting Understanding 

Despite this reassurance, many individuals at sea still experience fear when confronted by these majestic animals. It is therefore, important to note that this fear often stems from a lack of knowledge and misconceptions about killer whales, fuelled by movies such as “Jaws.” However, some have encountered killer whales before and developed a more natural or familiar perspective, even when their boats are impacted. 

Ongoing Scientific Investigations 

Scientists are actively investigating the reasons behind the unique behaviour displayed by these orcas. Understanding the underlying causes will not only shed light on their behaviour but also contribute to developing strategies to minimise potential conflicts between boats and killer whales in the future. 

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