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Why killer whales continue to ram ships in Spain

A pair of killer whales surfaced beneath Daniel Kriz’s boat as he crossed the Strait of Gibraltar in April, causing him to think, “Not again.”

It was Kriz’s second such incident in as many years; in 2020, a pod of orcas surrounded and crippled his boat, rendering him unable to ferry a racing catamaran across the Atlantic.

During the recent incident, “we were startled by what appeared to be a bad surge from the side,” he stated. The second time it happened, we looked down and saw two orcas gnawing on the rudder. They were two young ones, and the adults looked to be cruising around to keep an eye on things.

The four passengers were unharmed, but Kriz was forced to use only the boat’s engines to get to the nearest marina without manual steering. Both rudders (the underwater control surfaces that steer a boat) were damaged by the whales in what seemed like a condensed version of the event that had occurred three years earlier.

The attack in 2020, Kriz added, lasted for about an hour and was not as well-planned. This time, we were able to listen in on their conversations below the boat. It probably just took 10 or 15 minutes.

What Kriz has gone through isn’t unprecedented. Over 500 encounters between orcas and vessels have taken place in the Strait of Gibraltar in the previous three years. This waterway is 8 miles (13 kilometers) wide and separates Europe and Africa.

Marine biologist Mónica González of CEMMA, or Coordinadora para o Estudo dos Mamferos Marios, a non-governmental organization collecting data on the orcas in the strait, estimates that the same 15 animals are responsible for all of the encounters, which have resulted in the loss of three vessels and the inability to use the waterways by dozens more.

It is still unclear why some whales are showing such an obvious fascination with boats, but specialists have a few hypotheses.

Two concepts

Even though orcas only approach a small percentage of the vessels that pass through the Strait of Gibraltar, around one out of every five confrontations with orcas results in significant damage necessitating a tow, according to González.

Early in May, a sailing yacht named Alboran Champagne was assaulted by three orcas, swamped to the point of sinking, and then abandoned. Two teams competing in this year’s Ocean Race reported encounters with orcas in the strait on June 22; fortunately, no harm was done to either of the yachts.

Twenty-five encounters a month is about as high as it gets during this time of year: In the summer, “there are more encounters because the orca’s prey, bluefin tuna, is in the strait, so they are waiting there,” González explained. The tuna migrate to the north of Spain as summer winds down, and the orcas go with them.

When it comes to the dolphin family, killer whales take the cake as the largest. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, these massive marine mammals may travel at rates of up to 30 miles per hour (48.3 kilometers per hour). An adult can grow to a length of 32 feet (9.7 meters) and a weight of 11 tons. Orcas can live up to 90 years in the wild, and there are thought to be about 50,000 of them.

According to González, there are only 40 killer whales in the strait, and roughly 15 vessels are approaching them. This population is highly endangered according to the International Union for the Conservation of Nature. There are just two adults among the criminals, which may provide some insight into their mindset.

Two explanations for the emergence of these partnerships were offered by her. We don’t know what happened, but there are two possible explanations: “To begin with, the orcas could simply be amusing themselves,” and “The third theory is that the orcas are trying to prevent more distress to their pod by stopping the boats since one of their members experienced an unpleasant event.”

The White Gladis flower

Researchers from many local universities and colleges did a study on the assaults in 2022, finding that they occur during the day, peaking at midday, and last anywhere from half an hour to two hours.

Typically, orcas may approach a boat of up to 40 feet (12.2 meters) in length discreetly before swimming under it, lightly touching it, and in the most extreme circumstances, attempting to grab the rudder.

Animals can swiftly cause a boat to spin around its axis, putting its passengers in harm’s way and inflicting undue stress. If the boat stops or the rudder is broken by the killer whales, the encounter is over.

Alfredo López Fernández, a biologist who works part-time as a researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and is one of the study’s writers, said, “It seems more and more likely that this behavior started after an animal had a run-in with a boat.” As evidence, he cites the background of a female orca named White Gladis: “She is the only adult who began interacting with seven other juveniles in 2020.”

White Gladis may have become trapped in fishing gear, a typical threat to orcas, López Fernandez added. This might have happened accidentally or during an unlawful fishing attempt. Orcas have been observed approaching boats with fishing lines trailing off the back, maybe because they are curious about the bait. Another local killer whale was sighted earlier this year with fishing line attached to its body, he said.

Based on Kriz’s observation of the change in behavior between his two encounters, it appears that two adult killer whales had begun teaching juveniles how to approach boats and disable their rudders since White Gladis’ claimed traumatic occurrence.

“Orcas are a very matriarchal society, and all of the young ones look up to these very important females in the pod. The young ones are copying their behaviors because they think that if these very important people do something, they need to do the same thing to make sure their own survival,” González said.

The disturbing trend of the encounters appears to be upward: “There has been growth from January to May compared to the same period last year, but it’s still too early to tell if this trend will continue for the rest of the season,” according to López Fernández.

Nobody is harmed.

Marine researcher and author Hanne Strager, who wrote “The Killer Whales Journals,” says that while trauma could be the cause of the behavior, play is more likely.

She explained that the creatures are drawn to the adjustable rudder because it allows them to create cracks in the hull, which is widely held to be the cause of the demise of several vessels.

They might consider it amusing, like kicking a ball onto a lawn for kicks. The people on board the multimillion dollar boat, however, are not having a good time. It’s a bit unsettling.

Strager emphasized, however, that there is no proof that the whales intend to hurt humans.

She asserted, “After speaking with a marine scientist who was on board one of the sunken vessels, I learned that he had no impression of any violence.” One might express, “They didn’t give a hoot about the passengers, and they all got off the sinking ship at the first sign of trouble.”

Kriz also dismissed the possibility that the mammals harbored any overtly aggressive intentions.

“This is not, in my opinion, a hostile stance against human beings. This is how they learn to remove the rudders,” he explained. “They saw us recording and photographing them from the boat, but nobody said anything to each other. The ship was not jolted in any other locations. The helms alone.”

Conduct of play

Killer whales are social mammals with a tiny population that might develop cultural trends due to their high intelligence and playful nature. González described an incident that occurred in 1987 in Pacific Northwest seas, in which one orca began carrying a dead salmon on her head and the practice gradually spread to the rest of the pod.

They play, and they play with all sorts of stuff, Strager added. I’ve seen them a number of times swimming around with a jellyfish stuck on their snout. Several of them engaged in this behavior, and the only rationale given was that it was enjoyable. I’ve also witnessed them whacking tiny seabirds off the water’s surface, which they then discard. They interact socially by playing together.

If you are planning on crossing the Strait of Gibraltar by boat, you should visit the Atlantic Orca Working Group’s website and download an app called GT Orcas to find out where there is a high concentration of orcas and where you should steer clear. It’s preferable to do nothing if you ever come across this situation.

If you want to be as unappealing as possible to the killer whales, the official advise is to do nothing. Avoid using loud voices, Strager said.

A bad name might be disastrous for the highly endangered whales. For example, “some sailors are recommending that you throw chloride, diesel, firecrackers, or even dynamite in the water,” Strager added. However, the survival of this small, endangered population of killer whales is contingent on our compassion for them. They are totally reliant on us for safety.

Criz concurred. We are, he replied, “basically” on their land.

The ability to follow the creatures’ movements is limited because “they’ve been all around,” therefore he suggested designating a corridor via which boats may approach or leave Gibraltar, analogous to maritime lines.

When might we expect the whales to tire of bashing rudders? González advised against betting on it. She predicted that the attacks will continue for the foreseeable future. “Perhaps gradually, though not immediately.”

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