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Killer whales attack boats off European coast, scientists say

A series of orca-boat encounters off the Iberian coast have puzzled scientists and sailors recently, as apparently coordinated ambushes by the orcas led to the sinking of three ships. The reason for the attacks, according to a scientist who has studied the phenomenon, could be revenge.

The main theory is that a female killer whale suffered a traumatic incident with a boat – a “critical moment of agony” – which led her to start attacking ships, said Alfredo López Fernandez, a marine biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal. industry publication Live Science.

The majority of “disruptive” interactions between killer whales and boats off the Iberian Peninsula in recent years – López Fernandez said they numbered in the hundreds – have been brief and caused minimal physical damage to vessels, according to a report co-authored by López Fernandez and published in the journal Marine Mammal Science. But on at least three occasions, including an incident this month involving a sailboat, orcas have sunk boats.

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The female killer whale, which scientists named White Gladis, appears to have taught other adult killer whales aggressive behavior, whose offspring began to imitate the behavior, López Fernandez said.

In most interactions, orcas strike the rudder or hull, the underbody, of the boat, according to the report, which included interviews with sailors and other witnesses to the phenomenon.

Apart from “a one-time aversive incident” that could have triggered the attacks, the report says they could be caused by factors such as loss of prey or disturbance from boats. If not, according to the report, it may simply be because of the killer whales’ “natural curiosity”.

Orcas are known to be extremely intelligent and able to teach each other certain behaviors, including actions that could be interpreted as violent. A 2016 episode involving an orca drowning another’s calf left scientists “horrified” by describing a “first of its kind” sighting of orcas practicing infanticide, which has been documented in other species.

Scientists ‘fascinated and horrified’ saw a killer whale drowned the calf of another orca

Another report published in Marine Mammal Science documented orcas attacking, killing and then eating blue whales. Jeremy Goldbogen, a biologist who studies whales at Stanford University, told Stanford News that the coordinated killings were “arguably one of the most dramatic and intense predator-prey interactions on the planet.” The phenomenon “amazed” scientists, a marine biologist told The New York Times.

So what about coordinated attacks against ships? The report warns that if the situation ‘continues or escalates, it could become a real concern’ for the safety of sailors, but also for orcas, which are endangered in the region, as they could harm themselves while attacking boats or be injured. by sailors trying to protect their ships.


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