Orcas ramming boats 'learn behaviours' but attacks are 'just games'

Killer whales ramming boats in the Atlantic are ‘learning dangerous behaviour from their elders’, scientists claim – but insist that terrifying orca attacks are ‘just games’

  • Attacks have mainly taken place off Iberian coast but recently in UK waters too
  • Scientists have said the marine mammals are just playing with boats’ rudders 

Killer whales are just playing games when they ram boats and rip off their rudders, scientists have insisted, as the dangerous behaviours are spreading through the orca population off Spain. 

Whales began damaging vessels off the Iberian coast in 2020 and now twenty or more orcas have seemingly learned the behaviour from their elders, according to marine experts.

Most attacks have taken place off the coast of Gibraltar and southern Spain, but recently the first known incident in British waters occurred, with an orca ramming a yacht off Shetland. 

The whales have been captured on video ripping yachts’ rudders off and working in groups in coordinated attacks which have left boats needing to be towed back into harbour.

Despite the worrying behaviour patterns which have left sailors on high alert, Dr Renaud de Stephanis, a scientist based on the south coast of Spain, insisted it is ‘only a game’ to the whales. 

The moment an orca whale began circling a yacht off the coast of Gibraltar was caught on camera

The whale emerges with what appears to be a piece of the boat’s rudder – which crew found later was entirely ripped off

President of Conservation, Information and Research on Cetaceans (CIRCE), Dr de Stephanis and his colleagues have now attached satellite tracking tags to the fins of two whales off the Iberian coast.

The scientist, who has studied the marine animals since 1996, said the whales they have monitored appear to be playing with boats’ rudders.

‘It isn’t revenge [against boats], it isn’t climate change, it’s just a game and that’s it,’ he told the BBC.

A French sailor revealed his experience to the news outlet, describing how the rudder of his boat was ripped off, before ‘the orcas were pushing it around with it on their noses – like a toy’.

‘I had the feeling they were training each other,’ he added. ‘There were two calves, and the adult would do it, then watch while the calf did it – like they were transmitting something.’

Approximately sixty orcas live in Spanish waters, with a concentration off the Galician coast and in the Strait of Gibraltar, where the majority of recent attacks have taken place. 

Experts are hoping that by tracking killer whales with GPS tags they will be able to prevent these attacks.

Three yachts were reportedly bitten by a pod of orcas late last month near the Sotogrande marina in Andalusia, southern Spain.

To avoid falling victim to the whales, the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge (Miteco) advised sailors to keep their vessels in shallow waters close to the coast. 

Pictured is a killer whale attacking Alan Bruce’s yacht off the Iberian Peninsula in 2021

Two killer whales attacking Dieter Peschkes’s yacht off the Iberian Peninsula in 2021

Commenting on the attacks, Lewis Stagnetto, of the Gibraltar-based Nautilus Group said: ‘They are big predators used to hunting huge tuna, so they need to hone their skills to catch them,’

‘They’re not there to hunt people, so it’s important to understand this.’

In the first known attack in British waters, a 72-year-old Dutch yachtsman was sailing from Lerwick, a port in the North Sea archipelago, to Bergen, Norway, when the orca rammed into the stern of his boat.

READ MORE: EXCLUSIVE – Astonishing moment killer whale rips off yacht’s rudder with its teeth off Gibraltar

Dr Wim Rutten, who had been fishing for mackerel at the time, said the orca was behind the boat, ‘then he disappeared… but came back at fast speed, twice or thrice… and circled a bit.’

The scientist told The Guardian he thought the animal may have wanted to play, ‘or look me in the eyes. Or to get rid of the fishing line’.

There have been hundreds of coordinated attacks on vessels by the orca whales off the Iberian coast since 2020, according to reports. 

On June 11, an orca whale circled a high-end yacht before tearing off its rudder – leaving the boat’s crew adrift off the coast of Gibraltar.

The vessel, a 48-foot catamaran, was attacked during a delivery voyage, with footage showing the whale biting off part of the boat that is crucial for steering.

The captain of the Bali 4.8, who has experienced orca attacks in the area before, said he noticed the ‘unusual motion of the boat’ before seeing a pod of four or five orcas emerge.

Czech skipper Daniel Kriz, 61, said: ‘My first reaction was: “Please! Not again”.’

And on June 5, Captain Iain Hamilton, 60, was left marooned in a harbour near Gibraltar for a few days after his boat, the Butey of the Clyde, had both rudders taken off by a pod of five whales.

A killer whale attacking Alan Bruce’s yacht off the Iberian Peninsula in 2021.

He said the orcas staged a ‘choreographed’ assault on the boat, but he believes they were ‘playing with the rudders, and just inadvertently rendering the boat very vulnerable and in a very dangerous situation’.

The attacks are thought to have been prompted by a ‘critical moment of agony’ suffered by a leader of a group of killer whales known as White Gladis, possibly either due to a collision with a boat or entanglement with a fishing line, scientists say. 

The trauma Gladis experienced could have caused the whale to become more aggressive, before her behaviour began to be mimicked by other whales, Marine biologist Alfredo Lopez Fernandez has said. 

‘That traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact with the boat,’ Mr Fernandez told livescience.com.

‘We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behaviour has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives,’ he added. 

In November, a pod of seven orcas sank a sailing yacht in 45 minutes by ripping a hole in the hull and swimming off with the rudder before the boat’s terrified crew fled on a life raft off Portugal.

Footage showed the orcas circling and bumping the vessel, called Smousse, while crew members Elliott, Augustin, Roman and Corentin were on board. 

Augustin said that when they heard the boat shaking and a loud noise at the back of the yacht, they realised they were surrounded by orcas. 

As the attack continued, the boat eventually began to crack because of the force of the orca’s jaws and the killer whales ripped a hole in the hull of the 40ft boat.

Why do orcas attack boats?

A study in Marine Mammal Science last year concluded that the attacks on small boats follow the same pattern: orcas join in approaching from the stern, disabling the boat by hitting the rudder, and then lose interest.

Experts believe orcas may be teaching others how to pursue and attack boats, having observed a string of ‘coordinated’ strikes in Europe.

Some even think that one orca learned how to stop the boats, and then went on to teach others how to do it.

The sociable, intelligent animals have been responsible for more than 500 interactions with vessels since 2020, with at least three sinking.

It does not appear to be a very useful behaviour, and is not clearly helping their survival chances. 

In fact, Alfredo Lopez, an orca researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says the critically endangered whales ‘run a great risk of getting hurt’ in attacks.

Dr Luke Rendell, who researches learning and behaviour among marine mammals at the University of St Andrews, agreed the behaviour does not seem to be an evolved adaptation.

Instead, he pointed to ‘short-lived fads’, like carrying dead salmon on their heads – a sign of sociability, but not a desperate bid to survive.

The answer to the boat attacks might lie with White Gladis, an orca with a personal vendetta against boats or people.

Lopez said ‘that traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact’.

‘The orcas are doing this on purpose,’ he told livescience.com. ‘Of course, we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day.’

Like humans, the orcas have ‘sophisticated learning abilities’ that allow them to digest the behaviour of others and replicate it themselves, a study in peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation indicates.

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