Orcas are Attacking & Sinking Boats: Theories of Revenge vs. Playful

Have you ever wondered what happens when nature decides to push back? Bizarre and unsettling events have unfolded over the past three years in the serene waters around Spain and Portugal.

Orcas, the ocean’s intelligent apex predators, have been launching systematic attacks on boats, leaving the maritime community in bewilderment and fear.

The Unprecedented Orca Onslaught

Since May 2020, the waters near the Strait of Gibraltar have become a battleground between humans and orcas. Over 500 orca interactions with boats have been recorded, with three vessels sunk and many more disabled.

The attacks are not random; they are targeted and strategic, focusing on the rudders and vital parts of the boats.

In one harrowing incident, the sailing vessel Mustique was torn apart by orcas, leading to a dramatic rescue operation as the boat sank.

The Iberian Subpopulation

At the heart of the unprecedented orca attacks on boats around Spain and Portugal is White Gladis, a female orca from the critically endangered Iberian subpopulation of just 39 members.

Her behavior, possibly triggered by a traumatic encounter with humans, such as a collision with a boat or entanglement in fishing gear, stands in contrast to other orca groups.

This “critical moment of agony” may have led White Gladis to start ramming boats, a behavior now being imitated by other orcas in her pod. Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist, suggests this imitation is a significant aspect of orca social dynamics, reflecting their complex learning and adaptation mechanisms.

While some researchers like Deborah Giles view this as a potential playful “fad,” the increasing frequency of these interactions indicates a deeper behavioral shift influenced by human activities and the orcas’ highly sociable nature.

Anthropomorphism or Legitimate Revenge?

The orca attacks have ignited a wave of internet memes and discussions, reflecting broader societal issues like wealth inequality and environmental concerns.

Some view these attacks as a form of revenge by nature against human encroachment and pollution. However, scientists caution against anthropomorphizing these incidents, suggesting we might be projecting human emotions onto these wild creatures.

Orcas are known for their intelligence and complex social structures.

They exhibit diverse behaviors across different regions, from unique hunting techniques to cultural practices within their pods. The recent attacks could be a mix of playful behavior, sensory stimulation, or a response to increased human activity in their territory.

Fear & Fascination

For sailors who have faced these orca attacks, the experience is terrifying.

These creatures’ sheer size and power, coupled with their strategic targeting of boats, evoke a primal fear. Yet, there’s also a sense of awe and fascination with these majestic animals, leading to a complicated relationship between humans and orcas.

Beyond the Attacks: The Orcas of Eden

The story of human-orca interactions isn’t limited to these attacks. History records remarkable instances of cooperation, like the orcas of Eden, who worked alongside humans in hunting.

In Eden, New South Wales, a unique chapter of human-orca interaction unfolded in the 1860s. Here, European whalers and killer whales, guided by the Aboriginal Thaua people, formed a symbiotic relationship known as the “Law of the Tongue.”

Orcas, like the famed Old Tom, assisted whalers in hunting larger baleen whales, receiving the prized lips and tongue as their share. This partnership, deeply rooted in Thaua culture, where orcas were seen as kin, exemplifies an extraordinary level of interspecies cooperation.

However, the bond frayed due to declining prey and perceived human betrayal, leading to the orcas’ eventual departure from Eden.

This historical alliance, now preserved in stories and museum records, highlights profound mutual respect and collaboration between humans and orcas, offering a poignant lesson in coexistence and environmental stewardship.

A Mystery Yet to be Solved

The orca attacks near Spain and Portugal remain an enigma. While theories abound, from revenge to playful behavior, the truth lies hidden beneath the waves.

What is clear is that these incidents show our complex relationship with nature and the need for a deeper understanding of these magnificent creatures.

Martha A. Lavallie
Martha A. Lavallie
Author & Editor | + posts

Martha is a journalist with close to a decade of experience in uncovering and reporting on the most compelling stories of our time. Passionate about staying ahead of the curve, she specializes in shedding light on trending topics and captivating global narratives. Her insightful articles have garnered acclaim, making her a trusted voice in today's dynamic media landscape.