“They seemed to be playing with the rudders,” said the sailor, who admitted it “inadvertently” left the boat in a “dangerous situation”
In the latest dramatic interaction between orcas and boats, a pod of killer whales left a yacht marooned in Gibraltar, but a sailor said the interaction didn’t strike him as being aggressive.
Iain Hamilton told BBC Radio 4’s “Today” show on Monday that he was sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar about 20 miles from the coast when the group of curious whales began bumping up against the back of the boat and “trying to bite the rudder.”
“Then one of them managed to take off the rudder,” he said, adding that soon both rudders had been removed. “We had no mechanism for steering the boat,” he shared, noting the orcas then “pushed us around like a rag doll.”
Hamilton did note that the orcas— there was one large whale and four younger ones — seemed to be “almost playful” instead of aggressive.
“They seemed to be playing with the rudders, just inadvertently rendering the boat very vulnerable and in a fairly dangerous situation,” Hamilton said.
This is the latest in a rash of more than 20 similar incidents in that region within the past month.
Reports of these encounters between orcas and sailboats in the Iberian coast off of Europe began in 2020, according to Maritime Executive, and the incidents have escalated since then.
Killer whales have since sunk three boats there, usually targeting the rudders of boats less than 15 meters in length, according to Live Science, which previously reported “experts now believe the behavior is being copied by the rest of the population.”
Alfredo López Fernandez, a marine biologist the University of Aveiro in Portugal, told the publication he believed the interactions began when one orca, called “White Gladis” by scientists, had a “critical moment of agony” with a boat.
“That traumatized orca is the one that started this behavior of physical contact with the boat,” the biologist said.
But some experts think the behavior is simply playful.
Marine biologist Dr. Renaud de Stephanis previously told the BBC, “They just play, play and play. . . . It just seems to be something they really like and that’s it.”
“I’ve seen them hunting,” the biologist added. “When they hunt, you don’t hear or see them. They are stealthy, they sneak up on their prey. I’ve seen them attacking sperm whales – that’s aggressive….but these guys, they are playing.”
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There has never been a fatal orca attack on a human in the wild, per Maritime Executive. And though the boat attacks are alarming for both sailors and whales — Iberian orcas are deemed critically endangered by the IUCN Red list — the risk of an encounter is still low.
It’s possible that the Iberian orcas’ recent preoccupation with ambushing boats is just a “fad” — a behavior they adopt for a short period of time and then abruptly stop, per Live Science.
“They are incredibly curious and playful animals,” Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington, told the publication.
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