Orcas sink yacht in Strait of Gibraltar in latest incident of killer whales attacking boats

Orcas sink yacht in Strait of Gibraltar in latest incident of killer whales attacking boats

A pod of orcas has sunk a sailing yacht near the Strait of Gibraltar in the latest incident of killer whales attacking boats in these waters.

The orcas reportedly started attacking the yacht, Alboran Cognac, at around 9am local time on Sunday and sank it soon after.

Spain’s maritime rescue service said on Monday that the yacht measured about 15m in length and had two passengers onboard.

The passengers felt sudden blows to the hull and rudder before water started seeping into the vessel. They made a call to the rescue service but were quickly found by an oil tanker and transported to safety.

This was the latest in a series of attacks by orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar.

Marine experts believe it is a subpopulation of about 15 orcas known as "Gladis” that is carrying out these attacks.

They are uncertain about the motive behind the attacks, however, with theories ranging from playful curiosity to competition for prey, particularly bluefin tuna.

Despite being referred to as killer whales, orcas belong to the dolphin family. They can grow up to eight metres long and weigh up to six tonnes.

Since May 2020, when attacks by orcas on ships in the region were first reported, research group GT Atlantic Orca, which monitors populations of the Iberian orcas, has documented nearly 700 such incidents.

In November last year, the crew of a yacht called Grazie Mamma faced a 45-minute ordeal when a pod of orcas targeted the boat’s rudder, causing it to sink in the Strait of Gibraltar. The crew members were rescued safely.

At the time experts wondered whether there was a more complex reason like trauma or revenge behind the attacks.

Some researchers said it may be that the orcas like the feel of the rudder. “What we think is that they’re asking to have the propeller in the face,” Renaud de Stephanis, president at the CIRCE Conservation Information and Research in Spain, said in an interview with NPR last year.

He added that when they encounter a sailboat without its engine on, “they get kind of frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder”.

Another hypothesis suggests that the behaviour might stem from a form of revenge possibly triggered by past traumatic encounters with fishing boats.

“I definitely think orcas are capable of complex emotions like revenge,” Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute previously told NPR.

She said she doesn’t think “we can completely rule it out”.

Additional reporting with agencies