Scientists hold diverse theories regarding the phenomena of killer whales engaging in boat attacks near the Strait of Gibraltar. The moment a killer whale attacked the yacht A yacht participating in the Ocean Race encountered a killer whale on its way to the Strait of Gibraltar on June 22, but fortunately no people or property was damaged.
Researchers are trying to understand why a group of killer whales around the Strait of Gibraltar have a penchant for colliding, pushing and diverting boats, and even attacking the rudder.
They suspect it may be the strange new hobby of young killer whales. According to the scientists, it could also be a sign of stress caused by previous exposure to boats.
“Killer whales are curious, highly intelligent and responsive animals,” said Deborah Giles, director of science and research at the nonprofit Wild Orca. “They like to interact with everything in their environment.”
According to her, they develop strange temporary preferences, or behaviors, and spread in the herd, but then forget about them.
“We are waiting for that moment, when killer whales lose interest,” she said.
On June 15, three killer whales attacked two sailboats during a long-distance sailing competition in the Atlantic Ocean, west of Gibraltar. Black and white killer whales slam into the boat and nudge the rudder below. The crew said one hit the boat but caused no damage.
The skirmish forced the crew to lower their sails and increase their loudness to drive them away.
|There are about 50,000 known killer whales, living in the world’s oceans. Photo: AP.
“It was impressive to see those amazing animals suddenly appear and be so close to them,” one captain told Ocean Race organizers after the encounter. “But at the same time, it’s also a bit scary.”
Researchers have documented an increase in contact between Iberian killer whales and boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal over the past three years. These collisions sometimes resulted in damaged ships and sunken sailboats.
Meanwhile, Iberian killer whales, which can grow to more than 6 meters in length as adults, are also at risk of injury from lacerations and other injuries.
Since July 2020, Portuguese and Spanish researchers with the Atlantic Killer Whale Working Group (GTOA) have recorded about 536 times Iberian killer whales interacted with ships. around the Strait of Gibraltar.
In some cases, killer whales approach boats but do not touch them. According to Alfredo López, biologist and killer whale expert, a member of the GTOA, about 20% of interactions end with the ship being so damaged that it is no longer navigable.
Mr. López said three sailboats had sunk after the killer whale damaged the rudder and caused a serious water leak.
In 2023, there were 80 interactions between Iberian killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar. López said 14 incidents caused damage that forced boats to be towed ashore.
Scientists say no one was injured in these incidents. Wild killer whales do not attack humans.
There are fewer than 50 Iberian killer whales swimming in the Atlantic waters around the Strait of Gibraltar, according to the most recent GTOA figures. The researchers identified a total of 39 animals, of which 18 were adults.
Mr. López and other scientists were unable to determine the definitive motive for the Iberian killer whale’s increased interest in boats.
|A killer whale feeds near a fishing boat in the Strait of Gibraltar. Photo: Patty Tse/Alamy.
However, they do know some “culprits”. About 15 killer whales have been recorded interacting with boats, Mr. López said, “each with its own preferences”.
Scientists then came up with several hypotheses. Young Iberian killer whales, which enjoy the touch of rubbing and pushing against boats, are teaching each other new behaviour.
Killer whales may also be frolicking with boats – an idea that stems from the long-term study of marine mammals. They have been observed playing with each other and with objects in their environment.
Killer whales are marine mammals in the dolphin family, and like their smaller relatives, sometimes enjoy swimming alongside a fast-moving boat.
However, Mr López said other Iberian killer whales may have had previous negative experiences with boats and acted to stop the boats and avoid a repeat of the unhappy event.
Of the 15 individuals that participated in the attacks, 13 were young, supporting the theory that they were frolicking. But two adult killer whales in the pod, which is more consistent with the theory that they were responding to a past injury event.
Scientists say these negative experiences may be related to environmental stressors, like prey depletion.
Killer whales, therefore, have to scour the waters for fishing boats that have caught bluefin tuna – the main food source – and try to eat them before the crew rolls on.
According to López, in the past, Iberian killer whales have been injured by fishing gear and fishing lines. A fishing boat was even hooked on them a few years ago.
“These things make us think about the fact that human activity, even in an indirect way, is the source of behavior (killer whales attack boats)”, he said.
Interactions with ships off the Iberian Peninsula are limited to populations of Iberian killer whales – a small subspecies or ecotype, of the approximately 50,000 killer whales known to inhabit the world’s oceans. gender.