A series of attacks and harassment of boats by orcas in the waters off of Spain and Portugal is baffling scientists. Several incidents between late July and early August have been documented, The Guardian reports.
In one incident, “they started ramming the hull, spinning the boat 180 degrees, disabling the autohelm and engine.” The onslaught continued for more than an hour and the boat was later “lifted to reveal the rudder missing its bottom third and outer layer, and teeth marks along the underside.” In another incident, they brought a 40-foot boat to a halt, ramming it for nearly 50 minutes and tipping it sideways.
In another incident, “Beverly Harris, a retired nurse from Derbyshire, and her partner, Kevin Large, were motor-sailing their 50ft boat, Kailani, just off Barbate at eight knots, when they came to a sudden standstill. It was flat calm, pitch black. They thought they’d hit a net. ‘I scrambled for a torch and was like, ‘Bloody hell, they’re orcas,” says Harris. The couple checked their position and found the boat pointing the opposite way. They tried to correct several times, but the orcas kept spinning them back.’I had this weird sensation,’ Harris says, ‘like they were trying to lift the boat.’ It lasted about 20 minutes, but felt longer. ‘We thought, ‘We’ve sailed across the Atlantic, surely we’re not going to sink now!’’ Their rudder was damaged but got them to La Línea.”
A cetacean researcher said that the incidents should not be classified as “attacks” but that the whales are likely stressed over something specific: “The Gibraltar Straits is, Cazalla points out, ‘the worst place for orcas to live’. This narrow stretch of water is a major shipping route. And the presence of orcas attracts more marine traffic – highly profitable whale-watching. Theoretically, it is regulated, but some operators flout rules about speed and distance to chase the animals. Constant harassment by boats affects the orcas’ ability to hunt. Which brings us to the biggest stress of all: fishing. ‘The fishermen hate the killer whales,’ says Selling. The orca are protected, but ‘unobserved, the fishermen do what they want. They see them as competitors.’ … Stories persist of fishermen stunning orca with electric prods, throwing lit petrol cans, cutting dorsal fins.”
But “the orca have endured harassment for decades” so it’s puzzling why this new behavior has started. One theory is that during the COVID lockdown the highly intelligent mammals experienced silence for months as fishing slowed down, and may be enraged as the noise of fishing and boats starts up again and the crowding of waters resumes.
In any case, they are “pissed off,” according to reports. Can anyone blame them?
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