Killer whales attacked a boat using a previously unseen method

The unusual behavior of a group of killer whales out of southern Spain seems to be taking its toll

The unusual behavior of a group of killer whales out of southern Spain seems to be taking its toll

In early May, news broke of how a group of killer whales attacked a boat in the Strait of Gibraltar in the middle of the night and eventually sank it.


The crew survived and described how two smaller whales had attacked the stern rudder while a larger killer whale swam full speed into the side of the boat.


This incident is actually just one of many.


According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group, since May 2020 there have been up to 505 recorded cases of killer whales exhibiting unusual behavior towards boats in the area. In one out of five cases, the whales prevented the boats from continuing their journey, and three boats were outright sunk.


Now the website LifeScience reports another incident where the killer whales deviated considerably from the previously known pattern.


In the vast majority of cases, these predators lose interest and swim away once they have managed to destroy the steer. But in a recent attack, the killer whales continued their attack after destroying the rudder of yet another sailboat and did not give up until the boat was in port after being towed.


The bizarre incident is just one of 18 attacks on boats off the southern coast of Spain in May 2023, but the first time these toothed whales have continued after the boat has been destroyed.


Trying to scare the whale away

Both on her blog and in an interview with the Daily Mail, the English April Boyes, who was on board, describes how she and her fellow crew members discovered the whales around half past ten in the evening on May 24.


They turned off the engine and tried to direct the whales’ attention to the ropes and sand they threw overboard.

The distinctive black and white colors have the effect of making it difficult for the victims to identify the killer whales until it is too late.

About killer whales

Latin name: Orcinus orca.

Size: Generally 6-8 meters depending on gender and 3.5-6 tons. The largest killer whale ever found was nearly 10 meters long and weighed a whopping 10 tons.

Lifespan: In the wild, males can live up to 60 years and females up to 90 years. In captivity, killer whales never get that old.

Greatest speed: Orcas can reach speeds of up to 56 km/h.

Habitat: Most of the world, both near the coasts and out at great depths.

Characteristics: The whales are black and white with a characteristic gray spot behind the dorsal fin. The colors have a certain camouflage effect. The black color of the back makes the whale resemble the dark depths when seen from above. A mostly white belly has a similar effect when the prey sees the whale from below and it is exposed to the light from above. The dorsal fin is the largest of any marine animal and can reach 180 cm in males. The dorsal fin is sometimes slightly bent, and the theory is that this is caused by the breakdown of collagen in contact with warm air. A half-flapping dorsal fin is often seen on tame killer whales that are in contact with the air a lot when they perform their tricks for an audience.

April Boyes says it didn’t take long before the killer whales started banging on the boat’s steering wheel.


“After about half an hour, the rudder was useless,” she writes, and then sea began to flood into the boat.


The crew soon asked for help, but then sent out a distress call when the boat was flooded with more water than it could handle. The boat was towed to port, but the killer whales continued to chase the boat.


Attack in the North Sea on June 19

On Monday, June 19, 2023, a killer whale suddenly attacked a 7-ton boat on its way from the Shetland Islands to Norway.


A retired Dutch physicist in his seventies, dr. Wim Rutten, was alone on board. He said the killer whale made a few moves towards the boat and just attacked the stern, but then disappeared.


Dr. Rutten had heard about the attacks of killer whales south of Gibraltar and therefore did not care about the seals.


The Guardian reported the incident two days later and spoke to experts, who said it was surprising that this behavior had spread so far from the coasts of Spain and Portugal, but the incident took place some 3,200km north of the Gibraltar attacks.


Various theories

In research results published in the journal Marine Mammal Science in 2022, scientists tried to explain this new and unusual behavior of killer whales in relation to boats.


It turned out that the vast majority of the attacks were carried out on sailboats or sailboats, and the average length of these vessels was about 12 meters. For comparison, a full-grown killer whale can grow to be more than nine meters long.

This is how killer whales hunt

Hornbills hunt in groups and use different tactics. Orcas do not only hunt at safe depths, but tend to go all the way up to the shoreline to catch seals.

Turn fish turf into a buffet

By blowing bubbles and stirring up the water with their proboscis, the killer whales force the fish turf into a small ball, which they then chop and feast on.

Break an iceberg from a seal

When killer whales spot a seal on an iceberg, they lift themselves onto the ice and gradually crush the outside of it until the seal falls into the sea.

Swim almost to shore

Even in the water, seals or sea lions cannot be completely safe from killer whales. These whales are known to stretch all the way up to the shore and snatch seals or sea lions that are resting there.

Scientists don’t know for sure why this peculiar behavior has started to spread among killer whales.

One hypothesis is purely that this is some kind of fad or “latest thing” – but many species of the dolphin family are known to adopt innovations that can then give way to others.

Another hypothesis is that the reason is to look for the difficult life experience of one single killer whale in relation to a boat, he is looking for revenge and others in the group imitate his behavior.

No human injuries have yet been caused by this new behavior of the whales.

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