Archive image of an orca chasing a speedboat
Archive image of an orca chasing a speedboat

Iberia’s orca yacht rammings ‘spread north’

Scientists believe killer whale pod identified in North sea “may have been educated down south”

The mystery ‘attacks’ by killer whales to sailing boats off Spain and Portugal look like they may be spreading.

According to a report in the Telegraph today, a killer whale has “repeatedly rammed a yacht off the coast of Scotland (…)  in an attack reminiscent of those seen 3,000 miles further south near Gibraltar”.

The paper’s Science correspondent Joe Pinkstone goes as far as to say “scientists believe that a killer whale pod in the North sea may have been educated by the Mediterranean orca Gladis…

Theories that orca are picking up on this behaviour/ learning it as young has developed in part through anecdotal evidence: victims of ‘attacks’ that started coming to people’s notice  in 2020 have described ‘a lone female’ set back from the action, seemingly overseeing it.

In the early days, these attacks almost invariably left boats ‘stranded’, with destroyed rudders – but otherwise intact.

More recently, however, they have led to very dramatic sinkings, two off the Portuguese coast.

Last month, Aveiro scientist Alfredo López Fernandes suggested the phenomenon could have been triggered by a “traumatic incident” experienced by female orca known as White Gladis. Thus, today’s report that White Gladis’ trauma – and her ‘teachings’ on how to deal with it – has been exported.

This is very much what marine biologists have been fearing. Up till now, the whole ‘rudder ramming’ focus appears to have been isolated to the Iberian coast. There do not appear to have been similar attacks by orcas anywhere else in the world… until last Monday, off the Shetland coast.

Solo sailor Dr Wim Rutten, 72 – himself a retired scientist – was on a trip from Lerwick to Bergen, Norway. He has told reporters that he saw the whale “come up through the water and repeatedly and deliberately” collide with his boat.

The most frightening aspect of the ordeal, he claims, was not the several shocks from the impacts but the “very loud breathing of the animal”.

The whale was “looking for the keel” after its initial barrage before vanishing back into the water before mounting numerous follow-up attacks afterwards and circling the seven-tonne yacht.

“Maybe he just wanted to play. Or look me in the eyes. Or to get rid of the fishing line,” he told the Guardian.

The Scottish attack has raised questions over how and why an orca is engaging with boats so far north. 

“It’s possible that this ‘fad’ is leapfrogging through the various pods/communities,” suggests Dr Conor Ryan, a scientific adviser to the Hebridean Whale and Dolphin Trust, adding that “some pods are particularly mobile and may have spread this information 3,000 miles from the mouth of the Mediterranean to Shetland’s waters”.

The Telegraph dubs Gladis “a particularly vindictive killer whale”.

Be that as it may, the solution to these attacks is still eluding everyone.

Says the paper, “bags of sand are now being carried aboard after hundreds of boats were damaged in the Strait and three sunk in the last three years, normally through headbutting the rudder to its destruction.

Sand, when sprinkled in the water pre- or mid-attack, is said to confuse the cetacean sonar system and a few kilograms dropped overboard create an “acoustic mirror effect”.

The trouble with these snippets of advice is that they provide no assurances, as the young crew of the Smousse found out last winter, off the coast of Viana do Castelo.

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