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Thu. Jul 18th, 2024

Why do killer whales attack boats near Gibraltar? Scientists finally have an answer

By Vaseline May31,2024

Killer whales ramming and sinking boats in the Strait of Gibraltar could simply be killer whales at play and following a behavioral trend, a marine biologist says.

Since May 2020, researchers have documented nearly 700 incidents of killer whales ramming into boats near the Iberian Peninsula.

The behavior has baffled sailors and scientists, with many suspecting that orcas are teaching each other how to attack boats passing in the region.

Theories trying to explain the strange behavior range from food shortages – orcas treating the boats as competition for their preferred prey – and the sudden resumption of nautical activities after the pandemic.

Now leading marine biologist Alex Zerbini, chairman of the International Whaling Commission (IWC) scientific committee and member of a working group put together by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, says that orca behavior is most likely a new “cultural tradition” with no clear purpose. .

In other words, the orcas may simply be following a new ‘fad’, scientists now suspect.

A photo taken on May 31, 2023 shows the rudder of a ship damaged by killer whales (Orcinus orca) while sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar and taken for repairs at the Pecci shipyards in Barbate, near Cadiz, southern Spain
A photo taken on May 31, 2023 shows the rudder of a ship damaged by killer whales (Orcinus orca) while sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar and taken for repairs at the Pecci shipyards in Barbate, near Cadiz, southern Spain (AFP via Getty Images)

“Different populations often have different dietary specializations maintained through cultural transmission, and these ‘ecotypes’ typically have a variety of persistent behavioral traditions associated with their diverse foraging behavior,” the marine biologists’ paper explains.

“Some populations may also develop unusual and temporary behavioral ‘fads’ and other quirks that appear to serve no apparent adaptive purpose.”

Groups of killer whales have rammed hundreds of small boats off the coast of Spain in recent years, with 'terrifying' behavior that has baffled scientists.  The attacks began in 2020 and took place mainly between Cadiz and the port of Tangier in northern Morocco, near the Strait of Gibraltar.
Groups of killer whales have rammed hundreds of small boats off the coast of Spain in recent years, with ‘terrifying’ behavior that has baffled scientists. The attacks began in 2020 and took place mainly between Cadiz and the port of Tangier in northern Morocco, near the Strait of Gibraltar. (AFP via Getty Images)

Researchers highlight several strange behavioral practices observed in killer whales at different times over the years.

Citing one example, they say that in 1987, killer whales in the South Pacific developed the habit of carrying dead salmon on their heads. This practice started among younger individuals and spread through the population, despite having no clear end goal.

The behavior “disappeared” shortly thereafter, returning in the summer of 2008 and then disappearing again.

In another case of strange behavior that appeared and disappeared within a span of twenty years, pairs of teenage and adult male killer whales have been documented engaging in ritual ramming or head-bumping.

Spain advises small boats to stay close to the coastline because of killer whales

In recent incidents, most killer whales approaching damaged or sunken ships were juveniles that typically approached slowly as if they were trying to gently bump the rudder with their snouts.

“There is nothing in the animals’ behavior to indicate that they are aggressive,” said Dr. Zerbini The Washington Post.

“Not all interactions ended in damage to blood vessels,” the scientists emphasized.

Researchers suspect that this new behavior in orcas may disappear at some point and reappear at a later time.

“While they are playing with the rudder, they do not understand that they can damage the rudder and that damaging the rudder has consequences for people. It’s more playful than intentional,” Dr. Zerbini said.

“It may be that the current fixation of Iberian killer whales on boats, and especially on their rudders, is such a short-lived fad and that, should it suddenly cease, it could reappear at a later date.”

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