Story at a glance

  • There have been several reports of orcas striking sailing boats in the Straits of Gibraltar in recent months.
  • It's unclear whether these are intentional attacks or accidents.
  • Scientists don’t know why such incidents have suddenly spiked.

Since late July, sailors have reported several encounters with orcas in the Straits of Gibraltar that tipped one boat sideways and spun others in circles, leaving them rudderless. 

There is some speculation that these attacks seemed orchestrated, but scientists don’t know for sure — and the orcas have not yet made any statements. 

 

Scientists can agree on one thing, however: Something is wrong. 


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“For killer whales to take out a piece of a fibreglass rudder is crazy,” Rocío Espada, who works with the marine biology laboratory at the University of Seville, told the Observer. “I’ve seen these orcas grow from babies, I know their life stories, I’ve never seen or heard of attacks.”

The Observer reports that it’s not unusual for the highly social and curious animals to follow or even interact with boats. But experts say it is unnatural for orcas to become aggressive, and it is unlikely, albeit not impossible, that the orcas were mounting deliberate attacks. 

One crew member told The Observer that an incident in July felt like a “totally orchestrated” attack.

Orcas, the largest species of dolphins, are sometimes referred to as "toothed whales." Think squares and rectangles: all squares (dolphins) are rectangles (whales), but not all rectangles are squares. Commonly called the "killer whale," orcas are generally about 23 to 32 feet long and can weigh up to 6 tons, according to National Geographic. Traveling in pods, the carnivores live an average of 50 to 80 years in the wild and are considered at low risk of extinction, categorized as "least concern."


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But orcas are still captured by whalers in some regions and sold for consumption or captivity, while others get caught in fishing nets and gear. In areas with high boat traffic, toxic waste, increased underwater noise pollution and a higher risk of collisions are all threats to these sea mammals.

After the coronavirus pandemic hit, nationwide lockdowns and restricted economic activity provided a temporary reprieve — and some are hypothesizing that orcas are just “pissed off” that humans are back in their waters. 

“If we are talking about whether killer whales have the wherewithal and the cognitive capacity to intentionally strike out at someone, or to be angry, or to really know what they are doing, I would have to say the answer is yes. They are likely defending a territory or resources,” Lori Marino, neuroscientist and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, told the Observer. 


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Published on Sep 14, 2020