Scientists Suspect Orcas Are Teaching Each Other to Ram Boats

Recent attacks on boats off the Iberian coast by orcas may be a result of learned behavior from traumatic encounters

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Scientists believe that orcas may be learning aggressive behavior from each other following three recent attacks on boats by pods of orcas.

Orcas have been observed approaching the stern of boats and attacking the rudder of the vessel until it stops and the orcas move on. Biologist Alfredo López Fernandez said that while most encounters are harmless, three out of 500 recorded encounters have resulted in sunken ships since 2020.

“We estimate that killer whales only touch one ship out of every hundred that sail through a location,” López Fernandez told Live Science. He explained that defensive behavior in orcas is based on trauma and that the orcas are doing this intentionally. Though the exact motivation is not known, there is a theory.

According to López Fernandez, a female orca called White Gladis either collided with a boat or was ensnared in traps during illegal fishing, and the event caused what scientists call a “critical moment of agony.” The orca then started to ram boats.

The behavior has spread among orcas, though López Fernandez said it's likely that young orcas are copying their parents rather than being directly taught. Other scientists, including orca researcher Deborah Giles, suggest that the behavior may be playful in nature rather than aggressive.

In early May, a pod of three orcas pierced the rudder of a yacht off the coast of Spain, causing the vessel to sink when it returned to port after being towed by rescue cruisers. Days prior to that, another aggressive encounter was reported on the waters near Tangier, Morocco in the Strait of Gibraltar, where two large orcas began to attack a yacht, and four more orcas soon joined.

Sailor Greg Blackburn told 9News that "it was definitely some form of education, teaching going on."

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