Killer whales may be attacking boats as revenge for injured matriarch: scientists
The first orca may have suffered a 'critical moment of agony' that caused the aggression
Orcas have reportedly attacked and sunk three boats off the coast of Spain in apparent acts of revenge that experts worry other whales in their pod might copy.
"The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side," Werner Schafelberger told German publication Yacht. "The two little orcas observed the bigger one's technique and, with a slight run-up, they too slammed into the boat."
Hundreds of incidents between orcas and boats off the Iberian coast have occurred since May 2020, with all but a handful resulting in only minor injuries or damage. However, the attacks have grown more frequent and a few have led to the boats sinking – the latest such attack happening just this month.
Marine biologist Alfredo Lopez Fernandez told Live Science that the lead whale, a female orca scientists have called White Gladis, suffered a "critical moment of agony," likely a collision with a boat or entanglement with a fishing line, that turned her more aggressive.
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The whales approach the boats from behind, striking the rudder or hull of the boat, sailors and other eyewitnesses have said.
"That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat," Fernandez said.
"We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behavior has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives," he added.
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Fernandez speculated that the orcas might perceive the behavior as "advantageous" despite the risks associated with such brazen attacks. He said that four orcas from the same subpopulation have died since May 2020.
The behavior may have spread even beyond that population, with a British couple recently sharing their own experience of an orca attack near the coast of Morocco.
Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell of Cambridge, in eastern England, were enjoying a sailing course off the coast of Morocco recently when they spotted a pod of orcas, they said.
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The attack lasted for an hour as the whales repeatedly bumped the boat, but the crew managed to navigate to calmer waters and safety. Morris said that he was worried they were "sitting ducks."
"We were amazingly calm but underneath we were thinking, ‘Oh my God,’" Morris told British news service SWNS.
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Scientists have documented orcas exhibiting violent behaviors and appearing to teach them to others, according to Marine Mammal Science: One incident saw a group of orcas attack, kill and eat blue whales.
Fox News Digital’s Maureen Mackey contributed to this report.