Scientists are baffled by the behavior of killer whales lately. In July, a pod of killer whales (also known as orcas) attacked a yacht where 27-year-old Ester Kristine Storkson, a Norwegian medical student, and her father were sleeping. The family was sailing their yacht off the coast of France when Ester was awoken by loud sounds. Ester and her father were planning to travel around the world, and they were heading to Madeira which is off the northwest of Africa.
When Ester awoke from loud sounds, she ran onto the deck to see what was causing it. She found that the yacht was surrounded by a pod of killer whales who appeared to be ramming into the side of the boat. This caused the yacht’s steering wheel to spin widely, indicating that the yacht’s rudder was taking damage.
Panicked, Ester told her dad what was happening, and fortunately, he was the one who was able to think clearly during this situation, as scary as it was. After 15 minutes, the pod of killer whales seemed to have swum off and Ester and her father were able to examine the damage to the yacht.
Since they could not see the yacht’s damage underneath the water, they had to use a GoPro camera to capture the footage and found that nearly half of the rudder was damaged and some of the metal parts were damaged. The damaged rudder meant that they were not going to be able to complete their journey and they needed to stop along the French coast for repairs.
This was not the first attack from killer whales that experts have been made aware of. A month prior to this, two boats were sunk off the coast of Portugal, which is a distance away from where Ester and her father were “attacked”. Another situation that a sailor named Martin Evans encountered with killer whales was equally as scary.
Evan had noticed that his boat’s steering wheel was spinning uncontrollably, and he know that the boat’s rudder and propeller were taking damage. When he peered down, he noticed the white and black markings of a killer whale, along with damaged metal parts floating in the water.
What is quite noticeable about these attacks is that the rudder or boat’s propeller seems to be the target for killer whales, seeming to always be the most damaged.
What Do Scientists Say?
So far, scientists can only assume that the same killer whales that the two boats were part of the same pod that attacked Ester and her dad’s yacht. These strange encounters with killer whales have been engaging scientists’ and sailors’ interest for the last two years, as the frequency of these attacks is increasing.
This is evoking fear in the sailing community, especially since no one knows the reason for these attacks or how to prevent them. People have even created a social media group to speak about their experiences with killer whales and try to share ways to prevent this from happening.
Renaud de Stephanis who is the president coordinator of Conservacion Information and Research (CIRCE) in Spain doesn’t really understand why these events are happening, but there are some theories. The killer whales seem to only be attacking the rudder or propellers, which are moving objects underwater that cause water pressure. It is possible that the water pressure is an irritation to the killer whales, or they see it as a toy that they can play with.
This theory can be backed up by the fact that the killer whales causing these disturbances to sailors is a pod of juvenile males. Most of the killer whale populations off the Portuguese and Spanish coast are juvenile males, which is why scientists believe they could be responsible for these coordinated attacks, and de Stephanis hopes that these juvenile males will outgrow this behavior and soon begin working with their pod to hunt for food rather than playing with boats.
It could be down to the propeller’s water pressure that intrigues their interest or perhaps frustration, or it could be the rudder moving parts that make the juvenile killer whales think it is a game.
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- NPR, Available here: https://www.npr.org/2022/08/20/1117993583/orcas-attacks-spain-portugal-killer-whales