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Killer whale attacks – Orca whales are increasingly initiating coordinated attacks against boats, and scientists have no idea why.

Killer whale attacks - Orca killer whale attacking a boat rudder

Killer whales attack sailboats during international yacht race

On June 22, 2023, two sailing teams competing in a round-the-world race had a scary encounter with a pod of orcas. The teams were competing as part of The Ocean Race, an international competition that also collects climate data. Team JAJO, a group from Amsterdam, and Mirpuri Trifork Racing, a team from Portugal, crewed the boats. The encounter took place around 2:50 local time in the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Gibraltar.

Jelmar van Beek, skipper of the JAJO Team, reported that several orcas were involved. Both teams reported that the boats were undamaged and there were no injuries, but the orcas had pushed against the boats, nudged and bitten the rudders, and in one instance, rammed a boat.

Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said in a news release:

“20 minutes ago we got hit by some orcas. Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team. We took down the sails and slowed down the boat as quickly as possible and luckily after a few attacks they went away… This was a scary moment.”

An increase in the number of killer whale attacks against boats

In recent years, there have been increasing reports of orcas attacking boats in the Gibraltar area. Researchers have noted that these incidents have become more common, with a threefold increase in the past two years. GTOA, a group that studies orcas in the area, recorded 52 incidents between July and November 2020 and 207 incidents in 2022 alone. At least three of these incidents resulted in boats sinking due to damage.

One captain said:

“First time, we could hear them communicating under the boat. This time, they were quiet, and it didn’t take them that long to destroy both rudders. … Looks like they knew exactly what they are doing. They didn’t touch anything else.”

A boat captain has been attacked twice by killer whales

For one boat captain, this has happened twice, with the second time appearing to be more targeted. Dan Kriz says that the first time his boat was confronted by a pod of killer whales was in 2020, while delivering a yacht through the Strait of Gibraltar. He was on one of the first boats to experience this “very unusual” behavior.

Orca killer whale with boat rudder in mouth

“I was surrounded by a pack of eight orcas, pushing the boat around for about an hour,” Kriz said, adding that the ship’s rudder was so damaged that they had to be towed to the nearest marina.

In April, it happened again near the Canary Islands. Initially, he assumed they had been struck by a wave, but when they felt a sudden force once more, he realized it was more than just the water’s wrath.

Video footage of the encounter shows orcas “biting off both rudders.” One of the whales was even seen swimming around with a piece of the rudder in its mouth.

According to Kriz, this time, the orcas appeared to be stealthier in their approach. “They even seemed to know precisely what to do to keep the boat from continuing further.”

The attack on the rudders lasted about 15 minutes. But when the crew started to head for Spain’s coast, they came back.

“Suddenly, one big adult orca started chasing us. In a couple of minutes, she was under the boat, and that was when we realized there was still a little piece of fiberglass left and she wanted to finish the job. After that, we didn’t see them anymore.”

The frequency of killer whale attacks is increasing around the world

Kriz is just one of several people to have encountered orcas off the coasts of Portugal and Spain in recent months. According to orca research group GTOA, incidents have more than tripled in the past two years. Biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin previously told CBS News that this behavior “highlights the incredible intelligence” of the whales and that it is clear they are adapting.

“What we’re seeing is adapted behavior. We’re learning about how they actually learn from their environment and then take those skill sets and share them and teach them to other whales.”

According to him, there are two main theories behind the phenomenon of killer whale attacks against boats and sailboats. The first theory suggests that it is a type of “play” or “sport” for the whales, while the second theory suggests that it is the result of a “negative experience, a traumatic event” after years of boats hitting and injuring whales. However, the truth behind this behavior remains a mystery.

Andrew Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News:

“Nobody knows why this is happening. My idea, or what anyone would give you, is informed speculation. It is a total mystery, unprecedented.”

Orcas are complex animals

Two mammal-eating "transient" killer whales

Orcas are known for their complex societies, which are comparable in complexity to those of elephants and higher primates. Resident orcas in the eastern North Pacific have particularly complex and stable social groups. They live in family groups based on matrilines, which consist of the eldest female (matriarch), her sons and daughters, and the descendants of her daughters, etc.

The average size of a matriline is 5.5 animals, and because females can reach age 90, as many as four generations can travel together. These matrilineal groups are highly stable, with individuals separating for only a few hours at a time to mate or forage. With one exception, an orca named Luna, no permanent separation of an individual from a resident matriline has been recorded.

Closely related matrilines form loose aggregations called pods, usually consisting of one to four matrilines. Unlike matrilines, pods may separate for weeks or months at a time. DNA testing indicates that resident males nearly always mate with females from other pods. Clans, the next level of resident social structure, are composed of pods with similar dialects and common but older maternal heritage. Clan ranges overlap, mingling pods from different clans. The highest association layer is the community, which consists of pods that regularly associate with each other but share no maternal relations or dialects.

And killer whales are extremely intelligent too

Orcas have the second-heaviest brains among marine mammals (after sperm whales, which have the largest brain of any animal). They can be trained in captivity and are often described as intelligent. Orcas imitate others and seem to teach skills to their kin deliberately. For instance, off the Crozet Islands, mothers push their calves onto the beach, waiting to pull the youngster back if needed, to teach them how to recover if they are beached.

Orcas swimming in synchronization to create wave to wash seal off ice

Numerous anecdotes from people who have interacted closely with orcas demonstrate the whales’ curiosity, playfulness, and problem-solving abilities. For example, Alaskan orcas have not only learned how to steal fish from longlines but have also overcome various techniques designed to stop them, such as the use of unbaited lines as decoys. Fishermen once placed their boats several miles apart, taking turns retrieving small amounts of their catch in the hope that the whales would not have enough time to move between boats to steal the catch as it was being retrieved. The tactic worked initially, but the orcas quickly figured it out and split into groups.

Orcas have been observed using tools to help them hunt. For example, they sometimes hold sea sponges in their mouths to protect their sensitive noses while foraging for fish in rocky areas. Orcas have shown impressive problem-solving abilities. For example, they have been observed figuring out how to open latches and gates to access food.

Orcas have a complex communication system that includes a variety of vocalizations, body language, and even touch. They use this system to coordinate their hunting, navigate, and socialize with one another.

In other anecdotes, researchers describe incidents in which wild orcas playfully tease humans by repeatedly moving objects the humans are trying to reach. In another instance, an Orca started to toss around a chunk of ice after a human threw a snowball toward it.

Image Credits

In-Article Image Credits

Orcas swimming in synchronization to create wave to wash seal off ice via Wikimedia Commons by Callan Carpenter with usage type - Creative Commons License. January 3, 2018
Two mammal-eating "transient" killer whales via Wikimedia Commons by Robert Pittman - NOAA with usage type - Public Domain. December 5, 2006

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Killer whale attacks - Orca killer whale attacking a boat rudder via


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