A group of orcas repeatedly rammed a boat in the Strait of Gibraltar this week, destroying it enough for Spanish rescuers to rescue its four crew members.
It was the latest in a series of disturbing trends in the behavior of orcas living along the Atlantic coast of the Iberian Peninsula that have left researchers scrambling to find the cause.
Spain’s Maritime Rescue said orcas repeatedly ran aground on the Mustique, a 20-metre vessel sailing under the UK flag, late on Wednesday, causing its rudder to malfunction and breaking its hull. Rescuers had to pump out seawater before pulling him to safety.
The warning reached the Spanish mission through their British counterparts, who made the call, the Spaniards said. A helicopter and a rescue boat were sent to help the damaged boat to anchor in Barbate.
This was the 24th event registered by the conference this year. The service did not provide data for the previous year.
But the Atlantic Orca Working Group, a group of Spanish and Portuguese marine biologists who study orcas near the Iberian Peninsula, says such incidents were first reported three years ago. In 2020, the group registered 52 such events, some of which resulted in damaged steering wheels. This increased to 197 in 2021 to 207 in 2022.
The orcas seem to be watching the boats in the vast area that covers the west coast of the peninsula, from the waters near the Strait of Gibraltar to the northwest of Galicia in Spain.
According to the group, these orcas are a small group of about 35 that spend almost the whole year near the Iberian coast in search of red fish. The so-called Iberian orcas average from five to 6.5 meters in length, compared to the orcas of Antarctica which can reach nine meters.
There have been no reports of swimmers. The interaction of the boats seems to stop when the boat stops moving.
Biologist Alfredo Lopez, from the University of Aveiro and a member of the research team, said the phenomenon is common – and surprising.
“There are no cases that we’ve seen on video that we haven’t seen anything that could be seen as brutal,” Lopez told The Associated Press by phone Friday. “They look calm, nothing like they’re on a hunt.”
Lopez said that although the cause of the behavior is unknown, his team has identified 15 whales that were affected. He said 13 are small whales, which may support the idea that they are playing, while two are large, which may support the conflicting theory that this behavior is the result of some dangerous events with the boat.
In any case, he said the whales also show that they are social animals.
“Orcas are animals that have their own culture,” he said. “They share knowledge.”