Near the coast of Europe, killer whales are ‘attacking’ sailboats. Science is baffled as to why.

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Ester Kristine Storkson was sleeping on her father’s small yacht off the coast of France when she was rudely woken up earlier this month.

As she ran up to the deck, she saw several orcas, which are also called killer whales, swimming around them. The wheel swung all over the place. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was pushed 180 degrees in the opposite direction.

Storkson says that they were “ramming the boat.” “They hit us over and over, which made us think it was a planned attack.”

The 27-year-old Norwegian medical student says, “I told my dad, ‘I’m not thinking straight, so you need to think for me.'” “Thank goodness, he is a very calm and level-headed person. By talking to me gently about the situation, he made me feel safe.”

After about 15 minutes, the orcas went their separate ways, leaving the father and daughter to see how bad the damage was. They put a GoPro camera in the water, she says, and could see that “approximately three-quarters of the rudder was broken off and some metal was bent.”

Losing steering at sea is bad for any ship and can be dangerous in bad weather. Some sailboats have had to be towed back to port because orcas broke their rudders. The Storksons were lucky enough to have enough of their rudder left to limp into Brest, on the coast of France, where they could get it fixed. But the accident stopped for a while their ambitious plan to sail around the world and reach Madeira, which is off the coast of northwest Africa.
No one has ever heard of a wild orca killing a person. Still, orcas are said to have sunk two boats off the coast of Portugal last month. This was the worst time this has happened since people have been keeping track of them.

Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator of the Spanish cetacean research group CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, says that the incident with the Storksons is an outlier. It was farther north, not near the Strait of Gibraltar or the coasts of Portugal or Spain, where other similar reports have come from.

That is a puzzle. Scientists have thought up until now that only a few animals are involved in these meetings and that they all come from the same group.

“I really don’t know what went on there,” he admits. “It’s just too far. I mean, I don’t think [the orcas] would go up there for a few days and then come back.”

Most scientists don’t like the word “attack” to describe these events, but sailors and scientists are paying more attention to them because they seem to be happening more often. Sailing magazines and websites have written about this, pointing out that orcas seem to be drawn to a boat’s rudder in particular. More than 13,000 people have joined a Facebook group where they talk about their own experiences with orcas and make guesses about how to avoid them. And, of course, YouTube is full of videos with a lot of drama..

Scientists don’t know why, but they have some ideas.

Scientists think that orcas like the pressure that a boat’s propeller puts on the water. We think they want the propeller to hit them in the face, de Stephanis says. So, when they come across a sailboat whose engine isn’t running, “they get kind of angry, which is why they break the rudder.”

Even so, that doesn’t fully explain what happened to Martin Evans when he was helping to bring a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece last June.

About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, “just short of entering the Strait of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crew were sailing, but they were also running the boat’s engine and using the propeller to speed up.

Evans says that while he was on watch, the steering wheel started moving so fast that he couldn’t hold on.
“I was like, ‘What the hell is this?'” he says. “It moved like it was being pulled by a bus. I turned to the side and all of a sudden saw the killer whale’s white and black pattern.”

“Chunks of the rudder were on the surface,” Evans said.

Along the coasts of Spain and Portugal, there aren’t that many orcas. Scientists think that just a few young males are causing the damage to boats, says Jared Towers, the head of a research group in British Columbia called Bay Cetology.

“Something about moving parts seems to get them going,” he says. “Maybe that’s why they’re paying so much attention to the rudders.”

If only a few orcas are doing it, de Stephanis says, they might just grow out of it. The young males will have less time to play with sailboats as they get older and have to help the pod hunt for food.

Towers says that these kinds of “games” come and go in orca culture. For example, in the Pacific, he is studying a population where “we have juvenile males who often interact with prawn and crab traps,” he says. “That has only been in style for a few years.”

In the 1990s, some orcas in the Pacific were into something different. Towers says, “They would kill fish and swim around with the dead fish on their heads.” “That just doesn’t happen any more.”
He thinks, “This is a game.” “It will probably stop when they have their own lives as adults.”

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