Killer whales attack ships off the coasts of Spain and Portugal, leaving scientists stumped: NPR


A pod of killer whales seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


A pod of killer whales seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Ester Kristine Storkson was asleep on her father’s small yacht earlier this month, sailing off the coast of France, when she was violently awakened.

Climbing up the deck, he saw several orcas, or killer whales, surrounding them. The steering wheel swung wildly. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was pushed 180 degrees, heading in the opposite direction.

They were “crashing the boat,” says Storkson. “They [hit] repeatedly… giving us the impression that it was a coordinated attack.”

“I told my dad: ‘I’m not thinking clearly, so you have to think for me,'” says the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student. “Fortunately, he is a very calm and focused person, and he made me feel safe by speaking kindly about the situation.”

After about 15 minutes, the orcas parted ways, leaving father and daughter to assess the damage. They glued a GoPro camera in the water, he says, and could see that “approximately three-quarters of [the rudder] It was broken, and some metal was bent.”


A screenshot of a video of the encounter between a pod of killer whales and the Storkson boat.

Ester Kristine Storkson/


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Ester Kristine Storkson/


A screenshot of a video of the encounter between a pod of killer whales and the Storkson boat.

Ester Kristine Storkson/

For any vessel, losing control at sea is serious business and can be dangerous in adverse conditions and some sailboats have had to be towed to port after killer whales destroyed their rudders. Fortunately, the Storksons had enough rudder left to limp to Brest on the French coast for repairs. But the incident temporarily derailed his plan to reach Madeira, off northwest Africa, as part of an ambitious plan to sail around the world.

There There is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild. Still, two ships were supposedly sunk by killer whales off the coast of Portugal last month, in the worst such encounter since authorities have tracked them.

The incident involving the Storksons is a atypical, says Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator of CIRCE Conservation Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. was further north — nowhere near the Strait of Gibraltar, nor off the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other similar reports have originated.

That is a puzzle. Until now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals are involved in these encounters and that they are all from the same herd, says de Stephanis.

“I really don’t understand what happened there,” he admits. “It’s too far. I mean, I don’t think [the orcas] I would go there for a couple of days and then come back.”

These encounters (most scientists avoid the word “attack”) have drawn the attention of sailors and scientists alike in the last couple of years, as their frequency appears to be increasing. Navigation journals Y websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that killer whales seem especially drawn to the rudder of a ship. A facebook group, with more than 13,000 members, has sprung up to exchange personal reports of boat-orca encounters and speculation about avoidance tactics. And, of course, there is no lack of drama. videos posted on YouTube.

Scientists don’t know why, but they have some ideas.

Scientists hypothesize that killer whales like the water pressure produced by a ship’s propeller. “What we believe is that they are asking to have the propeller shoved in their face,” de Stephanis says. So when they come across a sailboat that won’t start its engine, “they get a little frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder.”

Still, that doesn’t fully explain an experience Martin Evans had last June when he was helping deliver a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.

About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, “just to get into the Strait of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crewmates were sailing, but they were also running the ship’s engine with the propeller used to increase their speed.

While Evans was on call, the steering wheel began to move so violently that he couldn’t hold on, he says.


Martin Evans
Youtube

“I was like, ‘Jesus, what is this?'” he remembers. “It was like a bus was moving it… I looked to the side and all of a sudden I could see that familiar black and white of the orca.”

Evans noted “rudder pieces on the surface”.

The orca population along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is quite small. Scientists think the damage to the boats is being done by a few young males, says Jared Towers, director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia.

“There’s something about the moving parts… that seems to stimulate them,” he says. “Maybe that’s why they’re focused on the rudders.”

If it’s a small number of killer whales, they may just outgrow the behavior, says de Stephanis. As the young males get older, they will need to help the pride forage for food and will have less time to play with the sailboats.

“This is a game,” he speculates. “When they… have their own adult life, it will probably stop.”


An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research


An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservation Information and Research

Towers notes that such “games” tend to come and go in orca society. For example, right now in a population she studies in the Pacific, “we have juvenile males that … often interact with shrimp and crab traps,” she says. “That’s been a fad for a few years.”

In the 1990s, for some Pacific orcas, something else was in style. “They would kill fish and just swim around with this fish on their heads,” says Towers. “We just don’t see that anymore.”

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