As It Happens

Pods of orcas are ramming boats off Spain and Portugal and scientists don't know why

Victoria Morris has had her fair share of orca encounters, but nothing quite like this.

'They really just were going for us,' says sailor Victoria Morris. 'There was definitely no playing'

A female orca leaps from the water while breaching in Puget Sound west of Seattle. Orcas off the coast of Spain and Portugal have been ramming boats in what experts say is unusually aggressive behaviour. (Elaine Thompson/The Associated Press)

Transcript

Victoria Morris has had her fair share of orca encounters, but nothing quite like this.

The recent biology grad was among the crew of a 14-metre sailboat off Spain on July 29 when they found themselves surrounded by a pod of nine orcas. 

At first, she says, they were "being lovely and playing around" — something she's experienced several times with orcas when she worked as a sailing instructor in New Zealand.

Then suddenly, their demeanour changed. 

"They just started surrounding us in a circle, coming for the rudder and the keel," Morris told As It Happens host Carol Off. "They really just were going for us, and there was definitely no playing."

It's one of at least four reported instances this summer of orcas ramming into vessels in the Gibraltar Strait near Spain and Portugal, reports the Guardian newspaper.  The area is home to a major shipping lane, whale watching tourism and a commercial fishing industry. 

Scientists who study the animals say they are baffled by the dramatic change in behaviour of marine mammals that are known to be friendly and playful. 

Ramming the boat for more than an hour 

The orcas, Morris said, were ramming into the keel, which is the flat blade beneath the boat that keeps it right-side up, and biting the rudder, which is essential for steering.

It felt like a co-ordinated attack, she said, and it lasted for more than an hour. The boat was spinning around wildly, and the autopilot became disengaged, setting them adrift in the shipping lane. 

Sailors say a pod of nine orcas rammed their boat and bit their keel for more than an hour in late July in the Strait of Gibraltar off the coast of Spain. (Submitted by Victoria Morris )

Below deck, the experience was even more intense, Morris says, as you could actually hear the orcas communicating.

"It was like a whistle, like a very, very loud whistle, and there was lots of them, maybe about four or five of them were doing it at the same time. And it was just so loud," she said. "It was actually quite amazing to hear."

When the crew called for help, Morris says "it was almost like they didn't believe us at first."

"They asked us to repeat a quite a few times," she said. "Like, 'Can you confirm that you are actually under attack by orcas?"

Eventually, they were rescued and towed to the nearby town of Barbate, she said. There, they were able to assess the damage: The keel was covered in bite marks and two-thirds of the rudder was torn right off.

"All the people around us just were so gobsmacked and couldn't believe ... what happened," Morris said.

'I've never seen or heard of attacks'

Neither could Rocío Espada. The University of Seville marine biologist has long observed the Gibraltar Strait orcas and says she's never seen anything like this.

"For killer whales to take out a piece of a fibreglass rudder is crazy," she told the Guardian. "I've seen these orcas grow from babies, I know their life stories, I've never seen or heard of attacks."

Her only theory — which she noted is "just a hypothesis"  — is that the animals are stressed out. And they have plenty of reason to be.

Orcas swim behind a sailboat as it's being towed to safety after what crewmembers describe as a killer whale attack. (Submitted by Victoria Morris)

The Gibraltar orcas are endangered, with fewer than 50 remaining. Their calves often die before maturing, and projections for the future of their population are grim. 

The area is home to a popular shipping route, which means there's a lot of marine traffic bringing noise and pollution. 

The orcas come to the area between July and early September to hunt bluefin tuna, which is also becoming more scarce, and for which they have to compete with humans. 

That means they are sometimes injured by fishing vessels, or entangled in nets. And in some cases, there have been reports of fishermen attacking the orcas.

Sailor and biology graduate Victoria Morris says if stress and lack of food are causing orcas to attack boats in the Strait of Gibraltar, then something needs to be done to help them. (Submitted by Victoria Morris )

But none of these stress factors are new for the orcas. So why would they suddenly start behaving aggressively?

Jörn Selling, a marine biologist for Firmm whale watching, suggested they may have gotten used to quieter waters during the COVID-19 restrictions and are upset to see the traffic levels spike again. 

He and some other scientists suggested to the Guardian the orcas are more than stressed — they're angry. 

It's something Morris says sounds entirely plausible, especially if they're protecting their young. She noted there were two babies among the group that rammed and bit her boat. 

"They do have the capacity to be angry and they're very, very intelligent creatures and so it is very possible. But if that is true, then, you know, something needs to be done," she said.

"I think as bad as it is that all these attacks have been happening, especially to us, but I think in a way it's also a good thing because it's turned the spotlight on the fact that there is a problem. Something has changed that's causing them to do this."


Written by Sheena Goodyear. Interview produced by Lisa Bryn Rundle. 

 

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