Early Thursday morning, killer whales crashed into a sailboat off the southern coast of Spain, piercing its hull and damaging its rudder. This is not the first time this has happened off the coast of Spain or Portugal this year, according to reports in the Washington Post, which has already counted about a dozen attacks, especially off the Strait of Gibraltar.
According to the Gruppo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Gtoa), a research association that studies killer whales in the region, the phenomenon of attacks has been on the rise since 2020. What is happening? There are two hypotheses: the first is that killer whales are playing. Related to bottlenose dolphins, they “are very intelligent and curious marine mammals” and “playing for them is just one aspect of learning to be predators”, so much so that this way of doing things would correspond to “the attack pattern” that whale experts have witnessed this year, in the opinion of Alfredo López Fernandez, a researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal who works with Gtoa.
The point is that young orcas “after learning a new behaviour often repeat it ad nauseam”, which means that eventually they “always invent something new and replicate it”, explains López Fernandez. In doing so, they end up on the boats, unknowingly.
The second explanation, on the other hand, assumes ‘Moby Dick-like’ behaviour. In the sense that it would be a deliberate, voluntary attack, carried out ‘out of revenge’. The Post writes: ‘Killer whales off the Iberian coast like to follow fishing boats to grab bluefin tuna before the fishermen reel them in, thus putting the mammals at risk of getting caught in nets or hooked’, so much so that killer whales have often been spotted in those very waters ‘with lines hanging from their bodies’. According to López Fernandez, it is therefore possible that an orca ‘has had a bad fight with a boat in the past and is now teaching others how to attack ships’, in retaliation. This is only an assumption, the expert puts it, because in fact ‘we do not know what the trigger may have been’.