A pod of killer whales recently smashed the rudder of a sailing boat near Gibraltar before pursuing the vessel as it was tugged to port. The attack was one of 18 in the month of May off Spain’s southern coast, but is the first recorded instance of orcas following a boat even after damaging it.
Providing a first-hand account of the incident, sailor April Boyes wrote in a blog post that she and her crewmates first spotted the orcas at 9.30 pm on May 24 while crossing the Strait of Gibraltar. Hoping the group would simply swim away, the crew switched off their engine and attempted to divert the animals’ attention by throwing ropes, grain, and sand into the water.
Despite these efforts, Boyes says “it didn't take long for them to start hitting our rudder and the force of this would spin the helm violently and you could feel the vibration through the deck.”
“After an hour of the Orcas continuing to hit the rudder it was evidently now completely destroyed and water started to flow into the boat,” she reveals. At this point, the crew put out a Mayday call for immediate assistance, before being pulled into port at Barbate in Cádiz by a tug boat.
Though this is far from the first time that killer whales have damaged a boat in the region, the cetaceans have always previously lost interest and swam away after destroying the rudder. However, on this occasion, Boyes explains that the orcas “continued to follow the boat until we got inshore”.
According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA), orcas first began attacking boats around the Iberian peninsula in 2020, with 52 interactions reported between July and November of that year. Last year, the organization recorded a total of 207 similar encounters, while a further 46 have taken place since March 2023. Of these, 38 have occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar.
Live Science reports that one in five orca encounters have prevented boats from sailing on, while three have resulted in vessels sinking. At present, it is unclear why the animals have taken to attacking boats, nor is it possible to say whether future interactions will see whales continuing to stalk ships even after the rudder has been destroyed.
Offering a speculative explanation for this new behavior, Boyes writes that “orcas have a migration pattern and there are huge tuna fishing nets at Barbate.”
“I do wonder whether they associate vessels with fishing and taking their Tuna. Is it overfished?” she asks.
[H/T: Live Science]