Orcas: Thoughts After an Attack on Our Clients’ Boat

We have been getting a lot of media attention for an Orca encounter one of our captains had when delivering a clients’ boat. While it can happen, we also want to shed light on recent Orca attacks on boats.

Crews of small boats near the Strait of Gibraltar have become increasingly wary of Orcas. It seems that the orcas in that region between the small island of Spain’s Cadiz and Tangiers, Morocco, have become stealthy pirates over the last 3 years attacking many small boats.

One such boat was a Bali 4.8, being delivered to a Catamaran Guru client by Captain Dan Kriz from Reliance Yacht Management.

Captain Kriz reported to several news outlets that in 2020, he was attacked by a small pod of orcas. And in April 2023, the crew of the Bali 4.8 he was skippering near the Strait of Gibraltar felt like it took a hard hit from a wave, then another. Immediately the skipper thought, “Oh no, not again!”. 

Because Captain Kriz knew what was happening, the crew was able to video the encounter that left them rudderless. The crew aboard the brand new Bali 4.8 limped to Barbate, Spain, using its motors. Kriz said it seemed that the whales were getting more strategic as during his first cetacean assault 3 years ago, he could hear them communicating beneath the boat during a full hour as they pushed the boat around the sea and took its rudder. The most recent attack took only 15 minutes in silence with both rudders being bitten off, with a whale returning to take the last bit of rudder that remained after the initial removal.

Killer whale attacks in the area are increasing in frequency and sophistication and are occurring offshore and in coastal areas of the region.  As of mid-2023, an estimated 500 boats have been rendered unsteerable with 3 sinking since 2020 when the attacks began. Many researchers have studied the reports of the orca attacks on small vessels. 2 main theories have arisen as to why these whales have become vandals of the sea: revenge and training their young.

The Revenge Theory

On researcher, Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and a representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group) suggested that a whale named White Gladis may have been traumatized by an encounter with a boat. She was the first orca to start begin making purposeful physical contact with boats in the area according to López Fernandez.

He suggests the other whales may be being taught by her and those she has already taught to siege small vessels with the primary goal of removing its rudders (which look like fins). Currently it is believed that about 15 of the region’s 35 orcas participate in these encounters with small vessels.

Killer whales are extremely social animals that often copy and learn behaviors from each other. Whales are highly intelligent and live in groups of between 10 to 20 led by the eldest females. Given the nature of orcas and the fact that the 25-foot-long female, White Gladis, started it all, the theory is easy to believe.

The revenge theory is the most exciting theory so it gets the most press and social media exposure. But, another theory is that the whale group is using these convenient small boat targets as hunting training tools for their young.

The Hunting Training Theory

Sébastien Destremau, a captain who was involved in a similar attack on May 22, 2023, said of the revenge theory, “They could crush the boat in a heartbeat if they wanted to, but they were not aggressive, they’re not wanting to have a piece of you.” Destremau believes the whales may be using the boats to teach their young to hunt. He proposes that the overfished waters have limited stock of food for these huge mammals and that instead of wasting the actual food source on training, they use the boats as hunting targets. Rudders look like fins and can be grabbed and played with. In the most recent attacks, once the rudders are gone, they leave.

Captain Kriz who was delivering the Bali 4.8 to our clients agrees that the whales mean no harm to the humans aboard and are either training their young on hunting maneuvers or playing.

Orcas are Intriguing animals

It is no doubt that sitting in a boat while being bumped about, de-ruddered, and in a few cases having hulls breached must be frightening. But, we, like some of the knowledgeable captains who have been unfortunate enough to be involved in these instances over the last 3 years, want others to remember that we are in their world and our lack of understanding of them results in fears and bad choices about how to resolve problems. So we thought we would share some details to help you form a more curious position rather than jumping to the conclusion that eliminating the orcas in that region is a good idea.

  • Ancient sailors called orcas “whale killers” because they observed them hunting other whales. Over the centuries, they became known as killer whales, but have never injured or killed a human in the wild. There have been a handful of instances in captivity.
  • Orcas eat a diverse carnivorous diet including: seals, sea lions, smaller whales and dolphins, sharks (including Great Whites), fish, squid, octopi, sea turtles, sea birds, sea otters, river otters, and other animals. They eat on average 100 pounds of food a day, but can hold much more than that. They swallow small prey whole and tear up larger prey to eat.
  • Killer whales often hunt in groups and use coordinated social behavior and communication to hunt. They use special behaviors to hunt different prey. An example is that when a group of whales settle on a Great White shark to be their next meal, the turn the shark upside down to paralyze it before chomping out its liver.
  • Killer whales are found in every ocean on our planet. They prefer colder waters but do live in tropical regions.
  • Orcas’ home range is unknown but they don’t migrate based on temperature or weather patterns like other whale species. But they will move into new areas in search of new food sources.
  • Killer whales are at the top of the food chain with no natural predators. Though baby and juvenile killer whales may be attacked by other killer whales or large sharks.
  • The average lifespan for male orcas is 30 years, but they can live up to 60 years. Females average 50 years, but can live at least 90 years in the wild. Females reach sexual maturity between 10 and 13 years of age.
  • Killer whales expend a great deal of time to rear young. They are pregnant for 15 to 18 months giving birth to a single calf. Calves get all of their nutrition from nursing for at least a year and remain in close association with their mother after weaning in the second year. Females go into estrus several times a year so there is no distinct calving season with birth possible place in any month though summer is a popular breeding time with many births in the fall. Though data is limited on birth rate, for some of the orca populations, it is estimated that a female gives birth on average every 5 years for about 25 years.
  • Orcas, beluga whales, narwhals, short-finned pilot whales, and humans are the only known species that go through menopause.
  • Currently, the conservation status of orcas is in a protective mode, not being prone to extinction, but needing humans to make wise choices to prevent the species from moving toward endangerment of extinction. Because orcas stay in the same region, there are some populations that are endangered and steps are being taken to address those declines in population. The largest threats are man-made: chemical contaminants, vessel traffic and noise, fishing gear entanglement, loss of food supply, and oil spills.

Action to Protect the Attacking Orcas

We hope that the authorities and sailors at large in the Strait of Gibraltar region promote actions that preserve these intelligent creatures. Some of the evasion tactics recommended are deemed useless by some skippers in the area such as some suggested by the Cruising Association that include having the crew bang pots and pans on deck while sprinkling 10-20 pounds of sand in the water near the rudder to confuse the whales.

But some high tech efforts offer more promise such as tracking the region’s whales with GPS tags will help vessels to avoid areas where the orcas are hunting in.

We hope you will join us in taking actions that prevent our oceans from becoming too dirty, plastic-laden, and warm for orcas and other vital sea creatures to survive.

Please leave your comments below. We would love to hear your thoughts!


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