Orcas attack boats off coast of Spain and Portugal, leaving scientists stumped : NPR

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An orca pod seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research


An orca pod seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research

Ester Kristine Storkson was sleeping on her father’s small yacht, sailing off the coast of France, earlier this month when she awoke violently.

She clambered on deck and saw several killer whales or killer whales surrounding them. The steering wheel swung wildly. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was pushed 180 degrees, in the opposite direction.

They “rammed into the boat,” Storkson says. “She [hit] us repeatedly … giving the impression that it was a coordinated attack.”

“I said to my father, ‘I don’t think clearly, so you have to think for me,'” says the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student. “Fortunately, he is a very calm and centered person, and he made me feel safe by talking softly about the situation.”

After about 15 minutes, the orcas broke off and had father and daughter assess the damage. They taped a GoPro camera in the water, she says, and could see that “about three-quarters of the [the rudder] had broken off and some metal was bent.”

A screenshot of a video of the encounter between a group of orcas and the Storkson boat.

Esther Kristine Storkson/


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Esther Kristine Storkson/


A screenshot of a video of the encounter between a group of orcas and the Storkson boat.

Esther Kristine Storkson/

For any vessel, losing control at sea is a serious matter and can be dangerous in adverse conditions and some sailboats had to be towed into harbor after killer whales destroyed their rudders. Fortunately, the Storksons still had enough of their helm to stumble into Brest, on the French coast, for repairs. But the incident temporarily derailed their plan to reach Madeira, off the coast of northwest Africa, as part of an ambitious plan to circumnavigate the globe.

Over there is not an account of an orca killing a human in the wild. Still, two boats were reportedly sunk by orcas off the coast of Portugal last month, in the worst encounter since authorities tracked them down.

The incident with the Storksons is a outlier, said Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group in Spain. It was further north — nowhere near the Strait of Gibraltar, nor the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other such reports have arisen.

That’s a mystery. Until now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals are involved in these encounters and that they all come from the same group, de Stephanis says.

“I really don’t understand what happened there,” he admits. “It’s too far away. I mean, I don’t think that” [the orcas] would go there for a few days and then come back.”

These encounters — most scientists eschew the word “attack” — have captured the attention of sailors and scientists alike over the past two years, as their frequency appears to be increasing. Sailing magazines and websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that killer whales seem to be particularly attracted to the rudder of a boat. A Facebook group, with more than 13,000 members, has emerged to exchange personal messages about encounters with boat killer whales and speculation about evasion tactics. And of course, there are no shortage of dramatic videos posted on YouTube.

Scientists don’t know the reason, but they do have some ideas

Scientists hypothesize that killer whales like the water pressure produced by a boat’s propeller. “What we think is they ask to have the propeller in the face,” says de Stephanis. So when they come across a sailboat that won’t run its engine, “they get a little frustrated and that’s why they break the rudder.”

Still, that doesn’t quite explain the experience Martin Evans had last June when he helped bring a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.

About 40 miles off the coast of Spain, “just afraid to enter the Strait of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crewmen were under sail, but they also ran the boat’s engine while the propeller was used to increase their speed. feed.

While Evans was on guard, the steering wheel started to move so violently that he couldn’t hold it, he says.


Martin Evans
YouTube

“I thought, ‘Jesus, what is this?’” he recalls. “It was like a bus was moving. … I look to the side and all of a sudden I could just see that familiar white and black of the killer whale.”

Evans noticed “chunks from the rudder on the surface.”

The population of orcas along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is quite small. Scientists believe the damage to boats is caused by just a few young males, says Jared Towers, the director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia.

“There’s something about moving parts…that seems to stimulate them,” he says. “Maybe that’s why they’re focused on the helm.”

When it comes to a small number of killer whales, they may simply outgrow the behavior, de Stephanis says. As the young males get older they will have to help the pod forage and will have less time to play with sailboats.

“This is a game,” he speculates. “If they… have their own adult life, it will probably stop.”

An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research


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Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research


An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research

Towers points out that such “games” tend to go in and out of fashion in orca society. For example, right now, in a population he’s studying in the Pacific, “we have young males that… often interact with shrimp and crab traps,” he says. “That’s been all the rage for a few years now.”

In the 1990s, something different was in vogue for some orcas in the Pacific. “They would kill fish and just swim around with this fish on their heads,” Towers says. “We just don’t see that anymore.”

The Valley Voice
The Valley Voicehttp://thevalleyvoice.org
Christopher Brito is a social media producer and trending writer for The Valley Voice, with a focus on sports and stories related to race and culture.

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