There has been an increase in the incidents of orcas, commonly known as “killer whales”, causing damage to sailing boats along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts. Research group GTOA said at least 20 interactions between small vessels and these highly social apex predators have been documented this month alone in the Strait of Gibraltar. The group monitors populations of the Iberian orca sub-species, Reuters reported.
This behaviour is now believed to be linked to the orcas’ inclination towards “imitational behaviour”, as highlighted in a report by Live Science. In the reported incidents, smaller orcas in the vicinity appeared to be imitating the larger ones. “The two smaller orcas observed the technique of the larger one and, with a slight run-up, they too collided with the boat,” stated a skipper whose boat was attacked on May 4, as quoted in the report.
What is driving the unusual behavior of orcas, according to researchers?
The Live Science report revealed that the majority of encounters between orcas and sailing boats have been harmless, but there has been a recent increase in aggression, as stated by biologist López Fernandez, a representative of the Atlantic Orca Working Group.
Fernandez suggested that the heightened aggression may be attributed to a traumatic event that potentially triggered a behavioural change in a specific orca, subsequently influencing the rest of the population to imitate this behaviour.
The biologist further indicated that experts suspect a “critical moment of agony” experienced by a female orca named ‘White Gladis’. This traumatic event, such as a boat collision or entrapment during illegal fishing, may have acted as a catalyst, causing the orcas to exhibit physical contact with boats. Fernandez added, “That traumatized orca is the one that initiated this behaviour of physical contact with the boat.”
The unusual behaviour observed in orcas could also be attributed to playfulness or what researchers refer to as a “fad”, a behaviour that is initially displayed by one or two individuals and is temporarily adopted by others before eventually being abandoned.
Recent attacks by orcas!
- On Saturday, a sailing boat en route to Gibraltar off the southern coast of Spain experienced a group of orcas breaking its rudder and piercing the hull, leading the four-member crew to seek help from Spanish authorities, as per news agency Reuters report.
- Another incident occurred on May 22, where a 26-foot vessel sailing near the Strait of Gibraltar off Cape Spartel encountered an orca strike.
- On the night of May 4, three orcas attacked a Swiss yacht named Champagne as it sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. The orcas targeted and damaged its rudder, ultimately causing the yacht to sink, as reported by ABC, citing Yacht, a German boating news outlet.