Boats Off Spain’s Coast Are Seeing More Killer Whales Touch, Push And Even Turn Vessels

[USA Today] Orcas may be teaching fellow killer whales to ambush boats, with some incidents that have resulted in sinking, according to various recent headlines.

Tales of orca ambushes have started gaining more traction online as reported incidents off the Iberian coast jumped from 52 in 2020 to more than 200 last year, Orca research group GTOA found, though no human injuries or deaths have been reported. 

Experts first documented juvenile Iberian killer whales  — a “unique subpopulation of killer whales that lives in the northeast Atlantic,” — touching, pushing, and even turning vessels, including some fishing and inflatable boats, in 2020, GTOA said. Experts think the rest of the population could be mimicking the behavior. 

In May, orcas, also known as killer whales, had attacked and sunk a third boat this year off the coasts of Portugal and Spain, according to Live Science’s Sascha Pare.

Dan Kriz told Newsweek that he first observed the same unusual behavior in 2020, which left him him forced to tow his ship to the nearest marina. 

Kriz said his crew was confronted by a pod of eight orcas who pierced the rudder, pushing the boat around for about an hour, while they were delivering a yacht through the Strait of Gibraltar off the coast of Spain. 

It happened to Kriz again in April this year near the Canary Islands, but the orcas seemed to be more stealthy in their approach, he said. Kriz shared the video on instagram earlier this week.

“My first reaction was, ‘Please! Not again,'” Kriz told Newsweek.

The orcas seemingly knew how to prevent the boat from traveling any farther, Kriz added, and only took around 15 minutes to “quietly” destroy both rudders. Kriz said they could hear the orcas communicating under the boat in 2020.

When the crew got away to head for Spain’s coast, one large orca chased them to “finish the job” and remove a tiny piece of fiberglass that was leftover from the initial confrontation and then left.  

 “There is not much one can do. They are very powerful and smart.”

In a separate nearby incident reported by the German publication Yacht, skipper Werner Schaufelberger described an attack with three orcas, according to Live Science.

“The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side,” Schaufelberger said.

Andrew Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News that there are two main theories about why this is happening, but for now it remains to be an “unprecedented” mystery. Trites said something is positively reinforcing the behavior among the highly intelligent species.

Iberian orcas are the only species of whale that have been known to attack boats in this region, Trites added.

The first main theory is that orcas are engaging in a type of whale “play” or “sport,” Trites said. The second theory is that orcas’ years of dealing with traumatic boating injuries have resulted in a “negative experience.”

Whale expert Anne Gordon told USA Today that these are isolated incidents.

“Yes, their job is to be predators in the ocean, but in normal circumstances there is absolutely zero threat to humans in a boat,” Gordon said.

“I think it gets taken as aggression because it’s causing damage, but I don’t think we can say that the motivation is aggressive necessarily,” Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Washington based nonprofit research organization Orca Behavior Institute, told NBC News late last month.

Experts have recently gathered in an effort to address “urgent need for specific actions based on  international coordination between  administrations, mariners and scientists  to prevent future damage to  people, orcas and vessels,” GTOA said.

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