Orcas Sink Sailing Yacht in Strait of Gibraltar

Why Orcas Are Attacking Boats
A study explains why orcas are attacking the boats. Credit: Shawn McCready / Flickr / CC BY-ND 2.0

An unknown number of orcas have sunk a sailing yacht after ramming it in Moroccan waters in the Strait of Gibraltar, Spain’s maritime rescue service said on Monday, a new attack in what has become a trend in the past four years.

The vessel Alboran Cognac, which measured 15 meters (49 feet) in length and carried two people, encountered the highly social apex predators, also known as killer whales, at 9 a.m. local time on Sunday, the service said.

The passengers reported feeling sudden blows to the hull and rudder before water started seeping into the ship. After alerting the rescue services, a nearby oil tanker took them onboard and transported them to Gibraltar.

The yacht was left adrift and eventually sank.

Orcas ramming yachts at the Gibraltar Strait

The incident is the latest example of recurring orca rammings around the Gibraltar Strait that separates Europe from Africa and off the Atlantic coast of Portugal and northwestern Spain.

Experts believe them to involve a subpopulation of about 15 individuals given the designation “Gladis.”

According to the research group GTOA, which tracks populations of the Iberian orca sub-species, there have been nearly 700 interactions since orca attacks on ships in the region were first reported in May 2020.

In a study released in June 2022 in the scientific journal Marine Mammal Science, it has been discovered that the orcas’ attacks primarily focus on sailing boats.

There is a noticeable trend of the orcas targeting and causing damage to the rudders, with spade rudders being the most frequently attacked and harmed type. Once the boat comes to a halt, the orcas typically lose interest and cease their assault.

The orcas involved in these incidents generally move from the Strait of Gibraltar towards Galicia in northern Spain. It has been observed that at least one of the groups returns to southern Portugal.

Based on an extensive analysis of more than 47 testimonies, 110 pictures, and 69 videos, the study proposes several possible motivations behind the orcas’ interactions with vessels.

These motivations include a specific negative event, such as a collision with a vessel, the innate curiosity of the animals, or existing pressures that killer whales commonly face, such as a decrease in available prey, disturbance caused by boats, and interactions with fisheries.

The study also took into account the cognitive abilities of orcas, which enable them to learn and replicate behaviors through social learning.

Although known as killer whales, endangered orcas are part of the dolphin family. They can measure up to eight meters (26 feet) and weigh up to six tons as adults.

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