Orca Pods Confuse Scientists After a Series of Seemingly ‘Orchestrated’ Attacks

At least nine orca have been recorded on the attack along Spanish and Portuguese coasts. The killer whales are ramming sailboats and work vessels in what seem to be ‘orchestrated’ incidents.

Scientists are baffled. Numerous distress calls have surfaced in the last two months from sailors along the Strait of Gibraltar to Galicia. The calls each ring with a sense of life-or-death: crew members sustaining injuries, ships ripping apart – some even requiring towing.

The most recent orca attack involves a sizable 46-foot delivery boat. Nine orcas began surrounding the vessel, just off Cape Trafalgar in Spain. Orcas began ramming the boat continuously for an hour, causing engine failure. According to crew member Victoria Morris, the pod of whales were so strong, they were causing the boat to turn 180 degrees from the direction it was steering.

Morris goes on to tell the Guardian that the attack she and her crew were suffering felt “totally orchestrated.”

“The noise was really scary. They were ramming the keel, there was this horrible echo, I thought they could capsize the boat…. And this deafening noise as they communicated, whistling to each other. It was so loud that we [began shouting].” 

Victoria Morris, Guardian

Moreover, their boat is now missing its bottom layers and has teeth marks along the entirety of the underside.

Coastal Attacks Become “Relentless”

(Sijori Images/Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

Similarly, The Guardian reports of another delivery crew sailor near Barbate alerting port authorities of a force so great it “nearly dislocated the helmsman’s shoulder and spun the whole yacht through 120 degrees.”

In addition to this attack, another man sailing alone off Barbate remembers a sound “like a sledgehammer.” He then saw his wheel “turning with incredible force.” The sailer, Nick Giles, told the the Guardian that his 34-foot Moody yacht twirled 180 degrees as he felt it lift up out of the water. Giles reports:

“[Being] pushed around without steering for approximately 15 minutes. The boat lifted up half a foot and I was pushed by a second whale from behind… nearly chopping off my fingers in [a] mechanism.”

Nick Giles, Guardian

What Causes an Orca Attack?

“For killer whales to take out a piece of a fiberglass rudder is crazy,” Rocío Espada states. He works with the marine biology laboratory at the University of Seville, and specializes in this population of orcas in the Gibraltar Straits. “I’ve seen these orcas grow from babies, I know their life stories, I’ve never seen or heard of attacks [on vehicles],” he tells the Guardian.

How are scientists justifying this radical shift in killer whale behavior, then? What could make a typically passive orca attack? It’s a tough call that requires further study.

Killer Whale (Orcinus Orca). (Photo By Encyclopaedia Britannica/UIG Via Getty Images)

While orcas are naturally playful and overtly curious, their behavior is not typically destructive. The largest member of the dolphin family, orcas are extremely intelligent – like their smaller cousins. This intelligence has made them a popular fixation of pop culture, but it may also be factoring heavily into this behavior.

The more intelligent an animal is, the more directly it can respond to threats within its own ecosystem. Gibraltar orcas are endangered, and heavily threatened by pollution, fishing nets, and depleted food sources in their waters. Are these whales responding directly to the boats and high traffic in the straits as threats?

Another expert to speak to the Guardian, Dr. Ruth Esteban, thinks it is highly likely that these ‘orchestrated’ attacks are all coming from the same orca pod. “It is probable,” she reports, having studied the Gibraltar orcas extensively. She notes it is unlikely two separate groups would display such outlandish behavior. With highly intelligent mammals like the orcas, unusual behaviors are typically products of isolated incidents.

The attacks may come as a sign of stress from the entire species, or one specific pod looking to put an end to their strife.

[H/T The Guardian]