The waters off the Atlantic coast of the southern Iberian Peninsula can be tough enough as it is, but in recent months resident pods of orcas have created a whole new kind of challenge, ramming boats and chewing off rudders. Though initially confined to smaller vessels, larger boats and catamarans are also now reporting encounters, which can last from 20 to 90 minutes.
One such “attack” happened to the Nauticat 44 ketch Tuuletar this past September. “[My husband] was awoken by the sound of the hydraulic ram overworking,” Tuuletar owner Catherine Watts says. “Once he realized it was orcas, he immediately put the boat in reverse, which successfully stopped them playing with the rudder.”
By then, though, it was already too late. The orcas continued bumping the boat for around 40 minutes, and when they moved on and the crew tried to get the boat going again, the rudder fell off completely. “The boat was 27 miles east of Portugal and 80 miles north of any attacks that had been reported this year, so we’re just terribly unlucky to be the first hit as the orcas migrated north,” Watts says.
Though no deaths or sinkings have resulted from the incidents, some of the encounters have been truly terrifying and, as was the case with Tuuletar, resulted in significant damage. An informal poll in late September showed that roughly a third of boats passing between Portugal and the Strait of Gibraltar had encountered orcas (though these results may be skewed higher due to the fact the survey was taken among members of an orca-encounter reporting group). At press time, about 50 percent of the affected boats needed to be towed back to shore. In response, Spanish authorities have issued multiple bans in recent months on small boats sailing between Cape Trafalgar and Barbate.
It’s still not clear what’s causing these interactions, which began with a series of encounters during the summer of 2020. A number of theories are circulating, including injured whales acting aggressively, humans closing in on breeding grounds, motors disrupting the sea life and play/training for adolescent whales. The Gibraltar orca is an endangered species, and the stress of scarce food and surviving in a heavily populated area could also be factors.
Despite the sobriquet “killer whale,” orcas typically don’t pose a threat to humans or boats, and there have been zero documented cases of orcas actually killing anyone in the wild. Technically not a whale at all, but a kind of dolphin, orcas are known for their intelligence and power (at least one video online shows an orca launching a seal 80ft into the air, seemingly just for fun), suggesting that in the case of these boat encounters, “killer whales” are not intent on doing any actual killing. Many of the sailors involved in these interactions have reported it seemed more like roughhousing than true predatory behavior, even spotting the orcas swimming on their backs—a behavior associated with play. A Facebook group ORCA Attack Reporting has been created to help keep track of the encounters and share information on how best to avoid becoming an orca plaything. Many have already said they will be steering clear of the area until there are more answers as to what exactly is going on, not a bad idea.