Off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, a group of orcas has stepped up attacks on small boats. Some scientists believe they could act out of revenge.
On 22 May, the French navigator Sébastien Destremau and his crew were in the Iberian Peninsula, located in the southwestern tip of Spain, when their boat was targeted by eight orcas. For an hour, the huge marine mammals took turns attacking the ship’s rudder and hull.
“It was terrifying to feel a 15-ton boat being shaken like a nut shell,” the captain told the French network TF1.
More fear than harm for the French crew, since their sailboat was not seriously damaged. But not all were equally fortunate.
On 4 May, a trio of orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar damaged the hull of a boat so badly that it sank. This was the third orca-related shipwreck since July 2022, according to 24 hours.
Since 2020, the Atlantic Orca Working Group (AWWG) has documented 49 cases of apparently voluntary contact between small watercraft and groups of Atlantic orcas. In a dozen cases, the assaults were so severe that the ship was rendered unseaworthy. These attacks last an average of 30 minutes, but can last up to two hours. The animals on the Iberian Peninsula are the only ones in the world to do so, according to the group of scientists.
Out of revenge?
Orcas are known as highly intelligent animals that can learn different behaviors among themselves. Studies have already shown that they are able to organize themselves to carry out coordinated attacks of rare violence, hence their English name: killer whales.
According to marine biologist Alfredo Lopez Fernandez of the University of Aveiro in Portugal, a female is behind the wave of attacks that took place near the Spanish coast.
The most popular theory is that this female suffered a traumatic event involving a boat, which is now pushing her to attack to defend herself.
She would then have taught the other adults in her group to do the same. It could therefore be a phenomenon of training, rather than a desire to attack the human fleets.
Some scientists also believe that orcas do this for pleasure.
In any case, experts agree that the killer whale subpopulation in this high-traffic part of the world is at risk. There are only 39 living there, and these contacts with the boats could make their plight worse. Orcas may be injured in attacks or may be attacked by mariners.