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Ocean life and fishing boats aren’t friends. “Killer whales” – or orcas – are already the ocean’s top predator, so making an enemy out of them is a no-go, but humans kind of already have. Humans used to hunt orcas themselves and still do in small numbers in some countries – for food and population control. Now, the fishing industry causes some major problems for the species: overfishing the orca’s prey, chemically contaminating the ocean and disturbing them with boat traffic and sound.
Actually members of the dolphin family, orcas are known for hunting in packs, like wolves. They’ve also caused problems for fishing boats before, even though these events are definitely considered extremely rare. And, in 2020, reports started coming in about orcas attacking sailboats in the Straits of Gibraltar by ramming into the hulls of ships over the course of that summer. Experts theorized that the animals were doing this out of some expression of stress, which could’ve come from the boating traffic, accidental orca injuries by fishermen or a lack of prey from overfishing. At the time, some researchers described the orca’s behavior as “pissed off.”
Now, off the Iberian coast in Europe, boats are being targeted by orcas again, and the behavior is spreading among the animals. As of last week, orcas had successfully sunk three boats in the area recently. They seem to team up in small groups to do so.
"There were two smaller and one larger orca," the skipper of the latest sunk boat, Werner Schaufelberger, told the German publication Yacht. "The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side." The smaller orcas seemed to be copying the behavior of the adult.
One thing coming from most reports is that the orcas seem more focused on the boat itself than any humans, as they tend to ignore people who have fled the vessels in lifeboats. And the majority of encounters between boats and orcas are harmless. But, the rise in this type of behavior is a recent phenomenon that has people scratching their heads.
“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,” Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro and a representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group) told LiveScience.