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A pod of killer whales is launching coordinated attacks on boats

PortandTerminal.com, September 13, 2020

A series of orca attacks on sailboats along the coast of Spain and Portugal has left scientists baffled | Witness says the attack felt “totally orchestrated”

2020 has brought us a pandemic, out of control wildfires, murder hornets and now killer whale attacks on boats.

Killer whales have been “attacking” sailing boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, in encounters one mariner said felt “totally orchestrated” and another described as “like a sledgehammer”.

Sailors traveling along the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia have sent numerous distress calls in the last two months, with reports of boats losing part of their rudders, crew members sustaining bruises, and ships having to be towed away because of serious damage.

In one instance, a 46-foot delivery boat was surrounded by nine orcas off Cape Trafalgar in Spain.

The whales, that can weight up to six tons, rammed the boat continuously for one hour, causing it to spin 180 degrees and the engine to shut down, according to crew member Victoria Morris.

Morris told the Guardian that the attack, which happened on July 28, felt “totally orchestrated.”

“The noise was really scary. They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat,” Morris said. “And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other. It was so loud that we had to shout.” 

In a similar instance, a crew member from another delivery boat near Barbate told the port authority said the force of the orcas hitting the ship “nearly dislocated the helmsman’s shoulder and spun the whole yacht through 120 degrees,” according to the Observer.

While researchers say it is normal for the highly intelligent mammals to follow small boats, it is extremely unusual for them to display such aggressive behaviour.

“These are very strange events,” Ezequiel Andréu Cazalla, a cetacean researcher, told The Guardian. “But I don’t think they’re attacks.”

While orca attacks on humans in the wild are rare, and no fatal attacks have been recorded, as of 2019 four humans have died due to interactions with captive orcas.

Endangered and hungry

The Gibraltar orcas are endangered, with only 50 believed to be left. But as food grows ever scarcer, the mammals are drawn to the strait – described by Ms Cazalla as “the worst place for orcas to live” – by the dwindling wealth of blue-fin tuna. 

But the costs of more fertile hunting grounds are severe, with orcas facing often deadly competition from human fishing practices.

“They’re very intelligent. They know people are out there: I’ve seen them look at boats hauling fish. I think they know that humans are somehow related to the scarcity of food,” Ken Balcomb from the Centre for Whale Research was quoted as telling The Atlantic in 2018.  

“And I think they know that the scarcity of food is causing them physical distress, and also causing them to lose babies.”

But The Guardian reported that Jörn Selling, a marine biologist with Firmm whale watching and research foundation, considered another theory – that, after months of reduced noise in the ocean during the coronavirus pandemic, “something most of them probably never experienced before”, the orcas could have been angered by the resumption of business-as-usual.

Espada believes that the ramming could indicate stress, which could be associated with the nets and long lines found along the Straits and the fact that the area is a major shipping route.

Gibraltar orcas are also endangered and are suffering in the food-scarce, noisy and polluted waters in the area, researchers say.

With reporting by The Guardian and The Insider.

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