May 29, 2023
Orcas … They are nothing, if not organized. A sharp uptick in killer whale attacks on boats sailing off Europe’s Iberian Peninsula has led scientists to believe that orcas are actually teaching each other how to sink sailing vessels, Live Science reports.
Per Live Science, reports of increasingly aggressive encounters with orcas started back in 2020. But it wasn’t until this month that any of these increasingly hostile orcas had actually sunken any ocean-faring vessels.
And, while researchers can’t say for certain why the killer whales are suddenly sinking sailboats, according to a report by Futurism, they do have a compelling leading theory: revenge.
In short, as Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group), recently told Live Science, the prevailing theory is that one female orca nicknamed White Gladis—was traumatized by a sailboat. This “critical moment of agony,” as researchers are calling it, caused a behavioral change in White Gladis, who began to attack similar vessels.
“That traumatized orca,” López Fernandez says, “is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat.”
As the theory goes, other adult orcas picked up on this behavior—becoming more aggressive with boats themselves. And now, the kids of those adults have seemingly picked up the behavior, too. At this point, according to López Fernandez, sinking sailboats is really just good ol’ family fun.
“We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young,” the researcher says, “although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives.”
Testimony from sailors certainly seem to support this theory.
“There were two smaller and one larger orca,” skipper Werner Schaufelberger, whose boat was sunk by orcas on May 4 in the Strait of Gibraltar, told the German outlet, Yacht. “The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side.”
“The two little orcas observed the bigger one’s technique,” Schaufelberger added, “with a slight run-up, they too slammed into the boat.”
The orcas reportedly are attacking a relatively small number of vessels passing through the area. But, if the situation escalates, it could be dangerous for sailors and orcas. Here’s hoping that chaotic legend White Gladis chooses peace soon.
Research contact: @futurism