Why Are Orcas Attacking Boats? Experts Weigh In

For the past few years, orcas attacking boats have been making headlines, most recently off the coasts of Spain in the Atlantic Ocean. These incidents, involving a group of orcas known as the Iberian orcas, have been occurring since 2020.

Once seen as gentle giants — partly because of "Free Willy" and SeaWorld — these striking black-and-white mammals are now the center of a curious debate.

Is this a maliciously motivated attack on humans, or are they simply playing around with us?Let's explore this strange behavior and find out whether experts think it's an anomaly or the new standard for orca interactions.

The Lowdown on Killer Whales

An orca, also known as a killer whale (Orcinus orca), is a large marine mammal from the dolphin family recognizable by its black-and-white coloring. Orcas can grow up to 32 feet (9.8 meters) in length and weigh up to 11 tons (10 metric tonnes).

These highly social apex predators are known for their complex social structures and sophisticated behaviors. Orcas live in family groups called pods, usually led by the oldest female, with multiple generations included. These pods can consist of a few individuals to several dozen; multiple pods form clans, which in turn make up a community.

Orcas use echolocation and unique vocalizations for navigation, hunting and communication. Each pod has distinct calls that help maintain group cohesion and coordinate activities. They engage in cooperative hunting, herding fish or hunting seals together, with their diet varying based on region and pod specialization.

Playful behavior, such as breaching and tail-slapping, helps strengthen social bonds among orcas, while social grooming reinforces these connections.

Could this inherent playfulness be the reason for the recent string of boat attacks? More on that in a bit.

Recent Attacks on Boats

In May 2024, an unknown number of orcas attacked a 49-foot-long (15-meter-long) sailing yacht named Alboran Cognac in the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow waterway between southern Spain and North Africa that connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea.

Reuters reported that the incident occurred around 9 a.m. local time when the orcas repeatedly rammed the boat's hull and rudder, causing significant damage. The yacht's crew (just two people) radioed for aid and managed to be rescued by a passing oil tanker, but the yacht ultimately sank due to the damage it sustained​.

These attacks are part of a series of interactions reported since 2020, primarily involving a subpopulation of Iberian orcas — around 40 killer whales living off the coasts of Spain, Portugal, Morocco and Gibraltar.

Most attacks occur between May and August each year in and around the Strait of Gibraltar. However, earlier this year, some of these highly social apex predators were spotted circling a boat in northern Spain, suggesting they have spread out much further and are engaging in this behavior earlier than usual.

As a result, Spanish authorities have warned recreational boaters to avoid sailing too far from the coast and to not stop their vessels if approached by orcas, according to a statement from Spain's maritime rescue service.

Sailors are now considering adding extra armor to their vessels — or at least investing in some orca deterrents — if only such a thing existed.

So, if you're planning a trip through these waters, watch for these mischievous marine mammals. And maybe, just maybe, consider bringing along a decoy yacht to distract them.

Experts Debate: Playful Curiosity or Trauma Response?

The behavior driving these so-called attacks is still being studied, and many theories have emerged. As we hinted earlier, some researchers suggest that the orcas might engage in these interactions out of curiosity or playfulness.

These creatures are known for their intelligence and complex social behaviors, and these attacks may be a form of play or social learning. Similar to how other animals engage in play to develop skills or for entertainment, orcas might be doing the same with boats.

Another theory is that these behaviors are part of a learned fad within the orca population. This idea is supported by observations of other cultural phenomena among orcas, such as carrying dead salmon on their heads, which were short-lived trends.

Essentially, the attacks might have started as an isolated incident and then spread through social learning within the pod​.

Some experts believe that the attacks could be a response to a traumatic event experienced by one or more orcas. For example, a collision with a vessel could have caused injuries or distress, leading the orcas to associate boats with danger and respond aggressively.

An orca named White Gladis is often mentioned in this context, as she may have had a negative encounter with a boat. Her apparent distress and subsequent aggressive behavior toward ships might have been observed and adopted by other orcas in her pod. This learned behavior could then spread through social learning, leading to the increased frequency of these attacks seen since 2020.

Conservation Concerns and Public Opinion

Conservationists are worried that these attacks might lead to negative perceptions of orcas and potentially harmful responses from the public.

“I hope that they stop doing it as quickly as they started because it’s actually imposing a risk on themselves,” Hanne Strager, a marine biologist and author of “The Killer Whale Journals,” told the New York Times. She noted that this behavior adds strain to an endangered species, as the negative publicity might result in detrimental actions against the orcas.

Another perspective is that these attacks are a response to environmental pressures such as a decrease in prey availability, increased boat traffic or interactions with fisheries. These stressors could be causing the orcas to exhibit unusual behaviors as they adapt to changing conditions in their habitat​.

Social Media and Public Opinion

Social media has played a significant role in shaping public opinion about these incidents. Many users have joked about "orca rebellions" and formed "Team Orca," sympathizing with the killer whales and viewing the attacks as a form of playful resistance.

However, there are also concerns that these humorous takes could minimize the serious implications of the behavior and the potential risks to both humans and orcas.

Monika Wieland Shields, cofounder and director of the Orca Behavior Institute, wrote an op-ed in response to the outpouring of love for the orca uprising. "We recognize that we have done enough to the world to deserve orcas attacking us in response. Laughing at the memes is fine, but my hope is that people will also reflect on this one a bit further."

We created this article in conjunction with AI technology, then made sure it was fact-checked and edited by a HowStuffWorks editor.

Original article: Why Are Orcas Attacking Boats? Experts Weigh In

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