Last month, five people had to be rescued after a pod of orcas attacked and sank their sailboat off the coast of Portugal. As the boat took on water, they deployed a life raft and were picked up by a nearby fishing vessel, writes Raffaella Ciccarelli for 9News.
Such an encounter would have been almost unheard of more than a few years ago, but since 2020, marine experts have been noticing these odd human-orca interactions along the coasts of Portugal and Spain. The animals have started approaching sailboats, sometimes striking the rudders and even breaking them off.
Conservationists urge the public not to view these incidents as malicious. "They are not attacks, they are interactions, that is, killer whales detect a foreign object that enters their lives and respond to its presence, but not in an aggressive way,” Alfredo López of Iberian Orca, a conservation group, tells Newsweek’s Robyn White.
Orcas—also called killer whales—are actually the largest member of the dolphin family. There are no known deadly orca attacks on humans in the wild, though in captivity, the animals have been known to injure or kill people.
The orca subpopulation living in the waters around the Iberian Peninsula consisted of just 39 individuals in 2011. Three years ago, this group of orcas was declared critically endangered.
It’s unclear why these animals seem to be drawn to the boats, though researchers have a few hypotheses. Perhaps they enjoy the pressure created by a moving propeller, Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a Spain-based cetacean conservation group, tells NPR’s Scott Neuman. When the propeller isn’t running, the orcas might get frustrated and break off the rudder.
Or, maybe this is just a new “fad” for juvenile orcas that could go out of fashion as they grow up, Jared Towers, director of Canadian research organization Bay Cetology, tells NPR. In the 1990s, scientists observed another strange orca trend, but it has since faded away.
"They'd kill fish and just swim around with this fish on their head," Towers tells NPR. "We just don't see that anymore.”
But some researchers say the new trend could pass on to more orcas, creating a risk for both mariners and the endangered whales.
“We cannot discard that more individuals are going to learn this new behavior, interacting with the vessels, and that probably the situation is going to aggravate,” wrote the authors of a paper about these orca encounters in Marine Mammal Science earlier this year. “There is an urgent need to conduct dedicated research that would help better understand the behavior of the animals and implement mitigation measures.”