Killer whale attacks: Are orcas coming after people when they ram boats or are they just misunderstood?

Clashes where killer whales have purposefully struck boats are increasingly common, but do the powerful and highly intelligent predators have dastardly intentions or is it just a bit of fun?

Experts are warning people against vilifying orcas after the latest in a spate of attacks by the animals resulted in the sinking of another yacht off the Spanish coast at the weekend.

Sunday’s incident involved a group of the creatures, which repeatedly rammed the 15m-long vessel and tore at its rudder, causing it to take on water.

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The two people on board were rescued, shocked but unhurt, by a passing tanker.

How many recent cases has there been of Orca attacks?

Sunday's encounter, in the Strait of Gibraltar, adds to almost 700 similar occurrences recorded in the Iberian region since May 2020. Only one similar incident is known to have happened in Scottish waters, which are commonly frequented by the iconic species.

It took place in July last year, when an orca bombarded the boat of a Dutch sailor while he was fishing for mackerel during a solo voyage from Shetland to Norway.

The killer whale, or orca, is a toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family, of which it is the largest member – it is the top ocean predator, hunting in packs and having no natural enemiesThe killer whale, or orca, is a toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family, of which it is the largest member – it is the top ocean predator, hunting in packs and having no natural enemies
The killer whale, or orca, is a toothed whale belonging to the dolphin family, of which it is the largest member – it is the top ocean predator, hunting in packs and having no natural enemies

Why are the Orcas behaving in this way?

So what is driving this previously unknown behaviour?

Scientists are unsure, but there have been numerous suggestions, ranging from ‘revenge’ for past collisions with boats to playfulness, social interaction, copycat actions or even just a fad they are going through.

There has been a dramatic increase in the number of strikes by orcas on boats in the Strait of Gibraltar – one of the world’s busiest waterways – and off the Atlantic coast of Portugal and north-western Spain, in the past four years.

Experts believe a particular group of about 15 orcas are the main culprits, with the first incidents involving just one or two of the animals, but others taking part in later clashes.

Speculation has circulated on social media that the pod was seeking revenge for injuries to a leading female, White Gladis, who was supposedly hit by a boat.

But experts have disputed the claim.

What have experts said about the attacks?

Danny Groves, a spokesperson for the charity Whale and Dolphin Conservation, fears spreading the idea that orcas are somehow vindictive or malevolent could be harmful to the survival of the species, which already faces a variety of threats – from entanglement in fishing nets to poisoning from pollution and strikes by shipping traffic.

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He said: “We need to change the narrative of much of the reporting on the stories around the group of Iberian orcas who are damaging rudders, which has disabled and even led to the sinking of several vessels.

“There is absolutely no evidence that these are attacks or the result of revenge. These orcas have been showing a wide range of behaviours, many of them playful social behaviour.

“This could be a cultural fad and could disappear as fast as it arrived in a similar way to our own trends, but none of this should be characterised as attacks. If this negative language is used, then the only attacks will be on the orcas themselves as sailors attempt to take matters into their own hands.”

What are Orcas and how do they live?

Orcas – also commonly known as killer whales, although they are in fact the largest member of the dolphin family – are the top predators in our oceans, hunting in packs and with no natural enemies.

They are highly intelligent and social creatures, travelling in pods often made up of extended family members and led by a matriarch.

Their main diet depends on where they live in the world, but ranges from fish to seals, porpoises and dolphins to sharks and rays, large whales, octopus, squid and even seabirds.

They have advanced communication methods, with knowledge on what to eat, where to find it, how to catch it and what to avoid passed down to younger individuals by their elders.

Orcas also have sensitive hearing, navigating by echo-location, and talk to each other using complicated vocalisations and calls that are unique to pods and family groups, with a distinct ‘accent’ of the population.

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Do Orcas pose any threat to humans?

The species is not usually considered a threat to humans in the wild, although there have been a small number of deadly encounters with captive animals – most notoriously by a male named Tilikum, who was responsible for three out of the four known fatalities.

“Orcas are highly intelligent and incredibly behaviourally complex, but they have never killed one of us in the wild,” Mr Groves said. “They have only been known to harm humans in captivity because we push them to breaking point by putting them in small concrete tanks for our entertainment.

“We should not punish wildlife for being wild.’

What methods have been used to stop Orca attacks?

Mariners have tried various methods to deter orcas from hitting their boats, including blasting out heavy metal music, sounding fog horns, throwing firecrackers, pouring oil and diesel, chemicals or urine into the water or even flinging handfuls of sand at them.

However, most of the activities had little effect or no effect – and were also potentially harmful as well as illegal.

Are Orcas present in Scottish waters?

Scotland is home to the UK’s only resident pod – known as the West Coast Community, first identified in the 1980s. But the group, which once numbered around 20, has never produced any surviving offspring and is now on the brink of dying out completely.

It is thought a maximum of eight individuals remain, although only two well-known males – John Coe and Aquarius – have been sighted in the past couple of years.

Other pods in the northern isles are considered semi-resident, including some that visit from Iceland – best-known are the 27s, 64s and 65s, which visit Shetland and Orkney year-round.

Mr Groves highlighted the importance of safeguarding orcas and other cetaceans which frequent Scottish waters – around 26 species – many of which are rare and endangered.

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He said: “The fact that Scotland’s resident population of orcas is now down to single figures, and could go extinct soon, highlights just how precious these incredible marine beings are. We should be doing all we can to protect them, not demonise them.”

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