United States

Orcas vs. Sailors: Yatch Sinks In Strait Of Gibraltar, Mysterious Attacks Leave Experts Baffled

Experts are baffled by a rise in cases of orcas attacking sailing vessels like boats and yachts in the Strait of Gibraltar, igniting debates over the reasons behind these encounters. As scientists offer insights, theories vary from playful curiosity to potential imitation among these highly intelligent mammals.

Getty Images
Orcas Sink Yacht Photo: Getty Images

A sailing yacht has sunk in Moroccan waters in the Strait of Gibraltar after being struck by orcas, according to Spain's maritime rescue services. The vessel, Alboran Cognac, was rammed at 0900 local time (0800 BST) on Sunday. Two people on board were rescued by a passing oil tanker.

This incident is part of a series of orca attacks on vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar over the past four years. Scientists are uncertain about the exact reasons for this behavior, but suggest it might be "copycat" or "playful" behavior by these highly intelligent mammals.

The couple notified emergency services and were subsequently rescued by a nearby oil tanker, which then transported them to Gibraltar. The yacht drifted aimlessly and ultimately sank.

Orcas ramming vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar, one of the world's busiest waterways with approximately 300 ships crossing daily, and off the Atlantic coast of Portugal and north-western Spain, have been on the rise over the past four years.

But why are the orcas sinking boats?

Experts believe that around 15 orcas, known as the "Gladis" subpopulation, is responsible for the attacks. The GTOA research group, which monitors the Iberian orca sub-species, has recorded nearly 700 interactions involving these orcas since the attacks were initially reported in May 2020.

Experts suggest that the attacks began when one or two orcas, also known as the killer whales, began interacting with and causing damage to small sailing vessels during that month. One popular theory circulating on social media is that the orcas may be seeking revenge for a killer whale, nicknamed White Gladis, allegedly struck by a boat.

The theory gained traction when Alfredo López Fernandez from the research group GTOA suggested that a "traumatized orca" might have initiated the attacks. However, animal behavior experts dispute this idea.

Neuroscientist Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, told the BBC, "The idea of revenge is a great story, but there's no evidence for it."

Marino added, "There's never been a case of an orca harming a human being in the wild. If they really wanted to do damage and harm the people on the boat, they could easily do that."

Instead, Lori stated that the apparent attacks likely "started out as play behavior" and are more a case of copycat actions rather than aggression, reported BBC.

"We're talking about very intelligent beings, and we know that they are social learners," she explained.

Scientists believe these endangered mammals are "playing" with the boats out of curiosity and imitative behavior, rather than displaying aggression.