Killer whales attack ships off the coast of Spain and Portugal, leaving scientists baffled: NPR


A pod of killer whales seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


A pod of killer whales seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Ester Kristine Storkson was asleep on her father’s small yacht earlier this month, sailing off the coast of France, when she was violently awakened.

Turning around on the deck, he saw several killer whales, or killer whales, surrounding them. The steering wheel spun wildly. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was pushed 180 degrees, heading in the opposite direction.

They were “wrapping the boat,” says Storkson. “They [hit] repeatedly … giving us the impression that it was a coordinated attack.”

“I said to my father, ‘I’m not thinking clearly, so you have to think for me,'” says the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student. “Luckily, he’s a very calm and focused person, and he made me feel safe by gently talking about the situation.”

After about 15 minutes, the orcas broke apart, leaving father and daughter to assess the damage. They attached a GoPro camera in the water, he says, and he could see that “about three-quarters of [the rudder] it broke and some metal was bent.”


Screenshot of a video of the encounter between a pod of killer whales and the Storkson vessel.

Esther Kristine Storkson/


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Esther Kristine Storkson/


Screenshot of a video of the encounter between a pod of killer whales and the Storkson vessel.

Esther Kristine Storkson/

For any boat, losing rudder at sea is a serious matter and can be dangerous in adverse conditions and some sailboats have had to be towed into port after killer whales destroyed their rudders. Fortunately, the Storksons had enough of their rudder left to limp into Brest on the French coast for repairs. But the incident temporarily derailed his plan to reach Madeira in northwest Africa, part of an ambitious plan to sail around the world.

there There is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild. Even so, last month two orcas were sunk by killer whales off the coast of Portugal, in the worst encounter since authorities tracked them down.

The Storkson incident is one outlier, says Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator of CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. It was further north — nowhere near the Straits of Gibraltar, nor the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other such reports have originated.

This is an enigma. Until now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals are involved in these encounters and that they are all from the same pod, de Stephanis says.

“I don’t really understand what happened there,” he admits. “It’s too far. I mean, I don’t think so [the orcas] I’d go up there for a couple of days and then come back.”

These encounters – most scientists avoid the word “attack” – have been attracting the attention of sailors and scientists alike in the past two years, as their frequency seems to be increasing. Sailing magazines and websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that killer whales seem to be particularly attracted to a boat’s rudder. A Facebook group, with more than 13,000 members, has sprung up to exchange personal reports of boat and orca encounters and speculation about avoidance tactics. And of course, there is no shortage of dramatic videos posted on YouTube.

Scientists don’t know why, but they have some ideas

Scientists hypothesize that killer whales like the water pressure produced by a ship’s propeller. “What we think is that they’re asking to have the propeller in their face,” de Stephanis says. So when they come across a sailboat that doesn’t work with the engine, “they get a little frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder.”

Still, that doesn’t quite explain an experience Martin Evans had last June when he was helping deliver a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.

About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, “just about to enter the Straits of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crewmates were sailing, but also running the ship’s engine with the propeller that it was used to increase its speed.

While Evans was on duty, the steering wheel began to move so violently that he couldn’t hold it, he says.


Martin Evans
YouTube

“I was like, ‘Jesus, what is that?'” he recalls. “It was like a bus moving him… I look over the side and all of a sudden I could just see that familiar black and white of the killer whale.”

Evans noticed “pieces of the rudder on the surface”.

The killer whale population along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is quite small. Scientists believe that boat damage is done by just a few young males, says Jared Towers, director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia.

“There’s something about moving parts … that seems to stimulate them,” he says. “Maybe that’s why they’re focused on the rudders.”

If there are a small number of killer whales involved, they may simply outgrow the behavior, de Stephanis says. As the young males get older, they will have to help the pod forage and will have less time to play with the sailboats.

“This is a game,” he speculates. “When they have their own adult life, it will probably stop.”


A killer whale calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


A killer whale calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Towers points out that these “games” tend to ebb and flow in orca society. For example, right now in a population he’s studying in the Pacific, “we have juvenile males that … often interact with shrimp and crab traps,” he says. “This has only been a fad for a few years.”

In the 1990s, for some Pacific killer whales, something else was in vogue. “They would kill fish and just swim with that fish on their head,” says Towers. “We just don’t see that anymore.”

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