On October 31, 2023, an orca pod undertook a relentless attack on a Polish yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar. The incident lasted for 45 minutes and resulted in severe damage to the vessel, which eventually sank near the port of Tangier Med. Throughout the ordeal, the crew, port tugs, and the Moroccan Navy all attempted to save the yacht, but with no success.
According to a Facebook post by Morskie Mile, the operators who owned the yacht and run sailing holidays in the Mediterranean, the orcas “hit the rudder blade for 45 minutes, causing major damage and leakage.”
Thankfully, despite the harrowing nature of the assault, no one was hurt. “The crew is safe, unharmed and sound already in Spain”, Morskie Mile added.
The motivations behind this behavior are currently unclear, but orcas have become increasingly forceful towards boats along the Iberian Peninsula since 2020. Over the last few years, there have been numerous similar encounters with orcas reported from the waters around Spain and Portugal. These encounters vary in their content. Sometimes the animals merely bump the boats, but in others, they have been more relentless in their behavior and have inadvertently sunk the vessels.
Are these the first skirmishes in a marine uprising?
Although some might classify these encounters as aggressive, the experts see them as a sign of more complex behavior. In particular, they think the orcas are exhibiting “playful social behavior”.
In essence, scientists believe these marine hunters are actually taking part in a newly developed “fad” that has spread among their population, like something from TikTok. They are not attacking vessels or humans with any form of blood lust, despite appearances.
Although some have posited that the first encounters of this type were expressions of cautionary behavior by animals that had previously been injured by sea vessels, this does not represent a sudden “uprising” of these marine mammals.
This is an important point because how we describe and understand these encounters can have a huge impact on how we respond to them. The fear among marine biologists and other scientists is that, if we project human motivations onto these animals, then it could lead to retaliation whereby people start to hunt them or “fight back”.
The scientists involved in studying these behaviors all stress that we need to avoid making this an antagonistic narrative. It is crucial that we understand the complex behaviors of these animals so that we can ensure a harmonious coexistence, especially as the Iberian orca are critically endangered.
[H/T: Interesting Engineering]