We often marvel at the intelligence of animals, but sometimes that intelligence can have unexpected consequences. Case in point: killer whales, also known as orcas, have recently been implicated in a startling series of attacks on boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal.
According to recent reports, these majestic marine mammals have managed to sink three boats since 2020. But that’s not all; it’s believed that numerous other vessels have also been the target of orca aggression. In a fascinating, albeit unnerving development, these creatures have even learned how to immobilize a boat in the midst of an attack.
The majority of these incidents involved sailboats, with the orcas typically approaching from the stern and striking the ship’s rudder. In most cases, the whales seemed to lose interest once the vessel’s movement was successfully halted.
Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist from the University of Aveiro, has proposed a theory for this unusual behavior. He suggests that the intensely social nature of these animals may have led them to learn and propagate this tactic.
López Fernandez’s hypothesis is that an individual orca, having experienced a traumatic encounter with a boat, developed an aggressive response and then passed this behavior on to its peers.
“This traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” he explained.
He believes the orca aggression isn’t random; it’s a deliberate action. The precise motivation remains unclear, but defensive behavior rooted in a traumatic experience seems an increasingly plausible explanation.
Accounts from the victims of these attacks paint a picture of a coordinated assault. Werner Schaufelberger, a boat captain, recounted a terrifying encounter, describing the attack as “brutal.”
“There were two smaller and one larger orcas. The two little ones shook the rudder while the big one kept running and then rammed the ship from the side with full force,” he said.
According to Lopez Fernandez, the boat-attacking behavior seems to have spread through observation and imitation, suggesting that the orcas regard this tactic as an important aspect of their lives.
In response to these events, experts have advised against entering the water during an orca attack. Yet, it’s important to note that, despite these startling incidents, a fatal orca attack on a human has never been recorded.
Orcas are renowned for their high intelligence within the animal kingdom. As we grapple with the complexities of these encounters, it becomes more evident that there is still so much to learn about these intriguing marine creatures. In the face of such unusual behavior, continued observation, understanding, and respect for these majestic animals remain paramount.