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Orca Behavior Investigated as Three Boats Are Sunk in Europe

In October 2020 we shared the story of orcas seemingly attacking sailboats and damaging their rudders. The circulating stories suggested that orcas had been ramming boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal for several months. The attacks were thought to be a form of retaliation or stress. Now, in the wake of three boats having been sunk due to orcas, scientists believe the behavior is being copied and learned among the orca population. Their theories are published in a recent article on the website Live Science.

According to the article, three orcas struck a sailboat on the night of May 4 in the Strait of Gibraltar, off the Spanish coast. Live Science shared an excerpt from a sailing magazine that had spoken with the boat’s captain. “‘There were two smaller and one larger orca,’ skipper 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.'” This is reportedly the third boat to be sunk as a result of orcas.

The story continues with the account of another sailboat that two days earlier had been navigating the strait when six orcas approached the vessel. “Greg Blackburn, who was aboard the vessel, looked on as a mother orca appeared to teach her calf how to charge into the rudder. ‘It was definitely some form of education, teaching going on,’ Blackburn told 9news.”

Orcas seen off the bow
In our 2020 story we included the experience of biology graduate Victoria Morris, who was crewing aboard a 45-ft sailboat off the coast of Spain when a pod of nine orcas surrounded the boat. Morris said she could hear the orcas communicating through the hull. “It was like a whistle, like a very, very loud whistle.”
© 2023 Victoria Morris

Orca attacks have been reported since May 2020 and are apparently becoming more frequent. The alarming thing for us is that they appear to be targeting sailboats in particular. “Assaults seem to be mainly directed at sailing boats and follow a clear pattern, with orcas approaching from the stern to strike the rudder, then losing interest once they have successfully stopped the boat,” Live Science writes.

Alfredo López Fernandeza, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group) said it is possible that the behavior stems from a female orca that has been named White Gladis suffering a “critical moment of agony,” (perhaps collision with a boat or entanglement in illegal fishing nets), which caused a “behavioral switch.”

The article goes on to explain that scientists don’t believe the behavior is being taught, but imitated. According to one study in 2022, “Orcas are social creatures that can easily learn and reproduce behaviors performed by others.” And in that way, López Fernandez explains, the behavior is spreading among the orcas “because they consider it something important in their lives.”

Fortunately, not all orca encounters have been bad. In 2010 sailor Tim Sell reported having seen hundreds of orcas in Alaska and B.C., but none played with him as this one did off Pt. Arena.
© 2023 Tim Sell

While the boat sinkings are alarming, the reality is that out of the “500 recorded interaction events since 2020″ only three vessels have sunk. Of course, that information doesn’t help those whose boats now sit on the ocean floor. One glimmer of hope in what appears to be an increasing problem is that the behavior may also be a playful fad” — a behavior initiated by one or two individuals and temporarily picked up by others before it’s abandoned,” researchers have said. Whatever it is, we hope the orcas get tired of it and leave the boats to share their waters without harm.

You can read more about the orcas and how their behavior is affecting cruisers in a report published online by the Cruising Association at


  1. Doug Hosford 1 year ago

    Could it be because sailboats are too stealthy and hitting too many whales? A few years ago I wondered if sailboats ought to be transmitting something in concept like the back-up beep from heavy equipment to give a whale data about a boat’s speed and direction. The idea went nowhere. It might have worked before before the whales declared war but now it seems like painting a sonic target on your boat if you are in a whale war zone. Still, it’s an area for research grant applications.

  2. Dennis Bailey 1 year ago

    As humpback season approaches and I know I’ll probably end up amongst them, I remind myself to turn on my classical music station and hope they pick up on the vibes and know where I am. My friend on their crossing to Hawaii thought that it might have helped avoid any collisions. At least I don’t think it’ll hurt….

  3. Ross Angel 1 year ago

    Orcas are very protective of their Pods. They are extremely smart, can communicate across half the pacific (without the need of an SSB) and we are land animals, invading their kingdom. With the smaller vessels we call ‘yachts’, Orcas are using us to make a statement. They are sentient beings. When sailing home from Catalina with my wife years ago, there was a pod of ‘killer whales’ ahead cruising south bout 5 miles west of Palos Verdes when we decided to get a closer look at this extraordinary sight when out of nowhere my boat was slammed from the bottom lifted maybe a meter in the air ( baby choate boat CF 27) then came around to starbard heading in the direction of his pod, flipped about 60 degrees, made eye contact and literally telepathically said to me “don’t ever get that close again… Needless to say, I’ve kept my distance ever since with the full understanding that I am a guest in their realm and if I wish to continue to enjoy it, stay out of my way… They are not to be underestimated in any way. I firmly believe they communicate freely as we do, have have mastered their environment, and WE are their guests and should act accordingly with utmost respect or yachting is in for a major battle, with the next ‘transpac’ sailing in 200 ft steel yachts with double rudders…
    Ross angel

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