Are orcas training younglings to attack? Latest attack on yacht raises questions

A series of orca attacks, mainly aimed at sailing boats, resulted in the sinking of a yacht. Are orcas reclaiming their "killer whale" name?
Amal Jos Chacko
Are orcas attacking boats.jpg
Are orcas attacking boats?


Orca attacks on ships have been reported since 2020. A study published in the journal Marine Mammal Science in 2022 observed similar attacks to be increasingly frequent in the Strait of Gibraltar.

A recent attack on May 4 involving three orcas resulted in the sinking of a yacht. Skipper Werner Schaufelberger, told Yacht that switching the engine off and keeping calm did not lead to the orcas giving up. “The two little ones shook the rudder while the big one kept running and then rammed the ship from the side with full force,” said Schaufelberger. 

What was more puzzling, however, was that the attacks stopped for a few minutes before resuming. “The two little orcas copied the big one and now, with a slight run-up, shot towards the ship. Mainly on the rudder, but also on the keel,” added the skipper.

While no loss of life was reported, with the Spanish coast guard coming to the rescue of the crew, the yacht sank while being towed to Barbate.

Although orcas belong to the dolphin family and aren’t widely considered dangerous to humans, they are apex predators known for their intelligence and social behavior. 

The attacks on boats seem aimed at sailing boats and follow a trend, with the orcas striking the rudder approaching from the stern until the boat stops moving.

Vicious attacks or playful jabs?

Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro, representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group), and co-author of the study published in 2022, said that most of these encounters were harmless.

“In more than 500 interaction events recorded since 2020 there are three sunken ships. We estimate that killer whales only touch one ship out of every hundred that sail through a location,” he told LiveScience in an email.

“The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course , we don’t know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day,” López Fernandez disclosed.

Experts believe White Gladis— a female orca who suffered an injury in a collision with a boat during illegal fishing— to have started these attacks. 

Although López Fernandez does not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, he believes the young imitate this behavior because they perceive it as advantageous and something important in their lives. 

However, some believe that acts could be playful and a temporary fad. “They [orcas] are incredibly curious and playful animals and so this might be more of a plaything as opposed to an aggressive thing,” Deborah Giles, a leading killer whale biologist and researcher at the University of Washington, told LiveScience.

This article was written and edited by a human, with the assistance of Generative AI tools. Find out more about our policy on AI-powered writing here.

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