Orcas Sink 50-Foot Yacht Off the Coast of Morocco

The vessel’s two passengers were evacuated onto an oil tanker in the Strait of Gibraltar. The incident marks the fifth vessel the mammals have sunk in recent years

a pod of four orcas swims, their backs, heads and fins visible from above the surface of the water
A subpopulation of orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar (not pictured) have interacted with roughly 700 boats since 2020, causing five of the vessels to sink. Francois Gohier / VW Pics / Universal Images Group via Getty Images

The boat-ramming orcas are back in action: Two people had to be rescued from a sailing yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar after the black-and-white marine mammals damaged the vessel so badly it later sank, reporters Reuters’ David Latona.

The incident occurred around 9 a.m. local time Sunday, some 14 miles north of Cape Spartel in northern Morocco. Passengers aboard the 50-foot Alboran Cognac felt blows to the yacht’s hull and saw that the rudder had been damaged. As water began leaking onto the ship, they contacted the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Tarifa, Spain, which directed them to prepare for an emergency rescue.

About an hour later, a nearby oil tanker picked up the two crew members, who were customers of Spain-based Alboran Charter, which owns the yacht, reports the Washington Post’s Dan Rosenzweig-Ziff.

The boat took on more water and sank soon after. It’s not clear how many orcas targeted the vessel.

The sinking of the Alboran Cognac is the latest in a string of incidents involving orcas and ships in the Strait of Gibraltar. The highly intelligent, social marine mammals made headlines last spring, when they sank a Swiss yacht called Champagne off the coast of Spain. In November, they brought down another ship, a Polish sailing yacht called the Grazie Mamma.

But the animals’ unusual behavior goes back even further: Since 2020, mariners have reported 700 interactions between orcas and ships in the Strait of Gibraltar, per Reuters. The Alboran Cognac is the fifth vessel orcas have sunk in the last three years, reports Live Science’s Harry Baker.

Most of the incidents have been recorded in the Strait of Gibraltar, a waterway linking the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. The strait, which is bordered by Morocco to the south and by Spain to the north, is home to a distinct—and critically endangered—subpopulation of fewer than 50 orcas.

However, last June, orcas also rammed into a ship in the North Sea between Scotland and Norway, roughly 2,000 miles away from the Strait of Gibraltar. Scientists weren’t quite sure what to make of that incident, which raised the possibility that the destructive behavior was spreading to different groups of orcas.

In the meantime, authorities are urging mariners in the Strait of Gibraltar to exercise caution this summer. Spain’s Maritime Safety and Rescue Society recommends avoiding a large area between the Gulf of Cádiz and the Strait of Gibraltar; the agency also suggests that mariners sail as close to the coast as possible, especially from May to August, when orcas are more likely to be in the region.

If sailors do encounter orcas, the agency recommends they keep the vessel moving and head toward shallower waters. People onboard the ship should remain in the middle of the vessel and not approach the sides, where they may be at risk of falling overboard.

The agency also asked mariners to notify authorities of any orca encounters and, if possible, to take photographs of the creatures for identification.

Scientists remain puzzled by the orcas’ destructive behavior. A leading hypothesis is that a female nicknamed “White Gladis” started ramming into ships after having some sort of traumatic run-in with a vessel; she may also have been pregnant when she first started targeting ships. Since orcas are social creatures, other members of White Gladis’ group may have simply followed her lead and mimicked her actions.

“The idea of revenge is a great story, but there’s no evidence for it,” said Lori Marino, a neuroscientist and the founder and president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, to BBC Newsbeat’s Shaun Dacosta last year.

Another possibility is that the orcas are curious about ships, or maybe, they’re just having fun.

“They’re probably socializing, yucking it up with each other about their adventures without realizing the terror they’re creating in their moments of joy,” said Andrew Trites, a marine mammal researcher at the University of British Columbia in Canada, to Business Insider’s Erin Heger last summer.

Orcas have also been known to temporarily exhibit other unusual behaviors, like placing dead salmon atop their heads. The boat-ramming behavior may be another, similarly short-lived fad that the Strait of Gibraltar orcas will eventually move on from.

And they may already be doing just that: Between January and May 2024, the number of reported interactions with orcas was 65 percent lower than during the same period in 2023 and 40 percent lower than the average for those months across 2021, 2022 and 2023, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group.

Whatever the orcas’ motivations, scientists have urged onlookers to avoid assigning human emotions to the animals’ behaviors. Though the boat-ramming killer whales have given rise to internet memes and merchandise that suggests they’re plotting an “orca uprising,” researchers argue that the marine mammals are not acting with malicious intent.

Get the latest stories in your inbox every weekday.