Killer whales attack boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal, leaving scientists stranded : NPR


An orca seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


An orca seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Esther Christine Sturkson was sleeping on her father’s small yacht earlier this month, sailing off the coast of France, when she was jolted awake.

Climbing on deck, she noticed several killer whales, or killer whales, surrounding them. The steering wheel rocked furiously. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was yanked 180 degrees, heading in the opposite direction.

They were “rocking the boat,” Sturgeson says. “They [hit] repeatedly … which gives us the impression that this is a coordinated attack.”

“I told my father, ‘I’m not thinking clearly, so you have to think for me,'” says the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student. “Luckily, he is a very calm and centered person and made me feel safe by gently talking to me about the situation.”

After about 15 minutes, the killer whale broke away, leaving father and daughter to assess the damage. They put in a GoPro camera in the water, she says, and can see that “about three-quarters of the [the rudder] it was broken off and some metal was bent.”


Screenshot from a video of the encounter between a group of killer whales and the Storkson boat.

Esther Christine Sturgeson/


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Esther Christine Sturgeson/


Screenshot from a video of the encounter between a group of killer whales and the Storkson boat.

Esther Christine Sturgeson/

For any vessel, losing control at sea is a serious matter and can be dangerous in adverse conditions, and some sailboats have had to be towed into port after killer whales destroyed their rudders. Fortunately the Storksons had enough rudder left to limp into Brest, on the French coast, for repairs. But the accident temporarily scuppered their plan to reach Madeira, off northwest Africa, part of an ambitious plan to sail around the world.

There there is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild. However, two boats were reported to have been sunk by killer whales off the coast of Portugal last month, in the worst such encounter since authorities began tracking them.

The incident involving the Storksons is extraordinary, says Reno de Stefanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. It was further north — nowhere near the Straits of Gibraltar, nor off the coasts of Portugal or Spain, whence other such reports have come.

It’s a conundrum. Until now, scientists assumed that only a few animals participated in these encounters and that they all came from the same capsule, says de Stefanis.

“I really don’t understand what happened there,” he admits. “It’s too far. I mean, I don’t think so.” [the orcas] will go there for a few days and then come back.”

These encounters – most scientists avoid the word “attack” – have attracted the attention of sailors and scientists alike in the past two years, as their frequency seems to be increasing. Sailing magazines and websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that killer whales seem to be particularly attracted to the rudder of a boat. A Facebook group with more than 13,000 members has sprung up to exchange personal reports of boat-orca encounters and speculate on evasive tactics. And of course, there is no shortage of dramatic videos posted on YouTube.

Scientists don’t know why, but they have some ideas

Scientists theorize that killer whales like the water pressure created by the boat’s propeller. “What we think is that they want the fin to be in the face,” de Stefanis says. So when they come across a sailboat that doesn’t run an engine, “they get frustrated and so they break the rudder.”

However, that doesn’t fully explain the experience Martin Evans had last June when he was helping to deliver a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.

About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, “just short of entering the Strait of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crewmates were under sail, but they were also running the boat’s engine with the propeller used to increase their speed.

While Evans was on duty, the steering wheel began to move so violently that he was unable to hold on, he says.


Martin Evans
YouTube

“I thought, ‘Jesus, what is this?'” he recalled. “It’s like a bus was driving it… I look over the side and suddenly I see that familiar white and black of the killer whale.”

Evans noticed “pieces of rudder on the surface”.

The population of killer whales along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is quite small. Scientists believe the damage to the boats is caused by just a few young males, said Jared Towers, director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia.

“There’s something about moving parts … that seems to stimulate them,” he says. “Maybe that’s why they focused on the rudders.”

If a small number of killer whales are involved, they may simply outgrow the behavior, says de Stefanis. As the young males get older, they will have to help the pod forage and will have less time to play with sailboats.

“It’s a game,” he speculated. “When they . . . have their own grown-up lives, it will probably stop.”


A killer whale photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


A killer whale photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Towers points out that such “games” tend to go in and out of fashion in orca society. For example, right now in a population he’s studying in the Pacific Ocean, “we have young males that … frequently interact with shrimp and crab traps,” he says. “It’s just been a fad for a few years.”

In the 1990s, for some killer whales in the Pacific, something else was in vogue. “They would kill a fish and just swim around with that fish on their head,” Towers says. “We just don’t see that anymore.”

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