Orcas Sink 49-Foot Yacht in Mystifying Trend Around the Strait of Gibraltar

Orcas Sink 49-Foot Yacht in Mystifying Trend Around the Strait of Gibraltar

An unknown number of orcas sunk a sailing yacht in Moroccan waters in the Strait of Gibraltar over the weekend, according to Spain’s maritime rescue service. While orcas are typically peaceful, this is the latest in a string of attacks that have hit the region in the past four years.

Reuters reports that a 49-foot-long vessel, named the Alboran Cognac, carried two people and encountered the high social apex predators at 9 am local time on Sunday. The passengers reported sudden blows to the hull and rudder before the water started seeping into the ship. A nearby oil tanker rescued the two onboard and transported them to Gibraltar. The yacht was left to sink into the ocean.

Experts believe the orcas involved to be a subpopulation of about 15 individuals given the name “Gladis.” This group of juvenile males has sunk several yachts in the Strait of Gibraltar over the last four years, but experts are somewhat baffled as to why. While typically peaceful animals, the Gladis pod has plagued the small strip of water separating Europe and Africa for years.

There have been nearly 700 interactions between orcas and ships in the Strait of Gibraltar region since May 2020, according to Reuters. At the time, it seemed like one of many dystopian things going on in the world during the global pandemic. But the trend continues today, and we still don’t have much more of an explanation as to why this happens.

In 2020, photos of the Gladis pod revealed several injuries on the orcas’ bodies, possibly indicating previous run-ins with fishing boats. In a 2023 interview with NPR, director of the Orca Behavior Institute Monika Wieland Shields said we don’t know the motivation, but this could be a defense behavior based on previous trauma. It’s possible the orcas had negative experiences with a fishing boat, so now they see all large boats as a threat.

“I definitely think orcas are capable of complex emotions like revenge,” she told NPR. “I don’t think we can completely rule it out.”

However, Shields doesn’t completely subscribe to the “revenge” hypothesis. There have been plenty of other times when orcas around the world were targeted by boats, and they’ve never responded in this way before. Further, it doesn’t seem that this behavior is spreading to other orca pods.

Another theory is that ramming boats is just the latest orca fad, according to Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. He told NPR in 2022 that “this is a game” for the orcas, and when they “have their own adult life, it will probably stop.” As orcas grow older, they have to help the pod hunt for food and have less time to play with sailboats.

Director of Bay Cetology, Jared Towers, told NPR that fads like this come and go in the orca society. Towers said some orcas in the Pacific in the 1990s would kill fish and swim around with it on their head. Now we don’t see that anymore. Hopefully, the boat ramming phenomenon will come and go like any other trend.

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