Why are killer whales going ‘Moby-Dick’ on yachts lately? Experts doubt it’s revenge

A group of killer whales partially above the waterline in the ocean.

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The attacks started suddenly and inexplicably in the spring of 2020 — pods of endangered killer whales began ramming yachts and fishing boats in European waters, pushing some off course and imperiling others.

Since then, there have been more than 500 reports of orca encounters off the Iberian Peninsula, the most recent occurring Thursday when a trio of whales rubbed against and bumped a racing sloop in the Strait of Gibraltar.

In most cases, the financial and structural damage has ranged from minimal to moderate: Boats have been spun and pushed, and rudders have been smashed and destroyed. Three vessels have been so badly mauled, they’ve sunk.

As the encounters continue, shaky video captured by thrilled and fearful seafarers has ignited a global internet sensation, while experts have struggled to explain the behavior and its timing. The seemingly militant whales have also won over a legion of adoring fans — many transfixed by the notion that the mammals are targeting rich people and exacting revenge for all the wrongs humanity has waged on their species and their ocean home.

Between 20 and 24 killer whales were spotted near the Farallon Islands, possibly a meeting of six or seven different orca families, or matrilines, celebrating the spoils of a good hunt, Pierson said. May 7, 2023.

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The unusually large group spotted near the Farallon Islands was possibly a meeting of six or seven families.

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Others wonder if the unusually large pods of multi-ton cetaceans now appearing off the coasts of San Francisco , Monterey and Nantucket, Mass., may soon follow suit.

Despite such rampant speculation on social media, most killer whale scientists have offered a very different interpretation. The Moby-Dick “revenge” narrative for the behavior is highly unlikely, they say.

“That just doesn’t sit right with me,” said Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington in Seattle and director of Wild Orca, a Washington-based conservation research organization.

She noted that despite the long history of orcas being hunted by whalers — and more recently marine parks — these top ocean predators have typically demonstrated a lack of aggression toward humans. There are no verified instances of orcas killing humans in the wild. The only deaths have occurred in marine parks and aquariums, where animals taken from the wild and forced to perform for humans in small tanks have attacked their trainers.

“So, I just don’t really see it as an agonistic activity; I just don’t see it going down like that,” said Giles, who has studied killer whales in the Pacific Ocean, Puget Sound and the Salish Sea for nearly 20 years.

Instead, she thinks the animals are engaging with boats because the vessels are “either making an interesting vibration or sound, or maybe it’s the way the water moves past the keels that is intriguing to these animals.”

The scientific literature is rife with anecdotes and research showing high cognition, playfulness and sociality in the species known as Orcinus orca — and examples of what appear to be the cultural transmission of new behaviors, either via teaching or observation.

In 1987, a female orca in the Pacific waters off North America was spotted sporting a dead salmon on her head. Within weeks, individuals in two other pods also began wearing fish hats. The trend lasted a few months and fizzled out within a year.

In South Africa, the killing of white sharks appears to be growing in popularity among a resident group of killer whales in the waters near Cape Town; Giles has watched a local trend of “phocoenacide” — porpoise killing — grow among a group of whales off the San Juan Islands.

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In both cases, the behavior does not appear to be for the purpose of feeding, Giles said. The orcas do not eat the dead animals. For instance, in the case of the porpoises, the killer whales played with them — bandying them about, sometimes surfing with them, other times carrying them on the orcas’ pectoral fins — until the porpoises drowned, at which point they were abandoned, she said.

“Fads” are not unique to orcas. Other animals, including primates and other cetaceans, have also been observed to adopt new behaviors, which then spread through a social group.

Susan Perry, a biological anthropologist at UCLA, has studied a population of capuchin monkeys in Costa Rica, where she has observed and demonstrated the cultural transmission of novel behaviors, including “eye poking” — in which one monkey slips its finger “knuckle deep” between the eyelid and the bottom of another monkey’s eyeball.

But the idea that the whales’ behavior is a response to trauma has gripped many — including the researchers who most closely study this population and first documented the behavior.

In a paper published last year , a team of Portuguese and Spanish researchers suggested the behavior seen in the Strait of Gibraltar orcas could have been triggered by a variety of causes, including trauma.

Alfredo López Fernandez, a killer whale researcher with GT Orca Atlántica, a Portuguese conservation research organization, said it is impossible to know how it started, or which whale or whales may have initially instigated the attacks.

He listed several adult females as the possible original perpetrators — which then taught or showed others how to participate.

There is White Gladis, which seems to be present in most of the attacks; Gladis Negra, which was observed to have injuries in 2020, possibly from a ship strike; and Gray Gladis, which in 2018 witnessed another whale get trapped in fishing gear.

Gladis is a name given to all orcas in the pod that interact with boats; it comes from Orca gladiator, an early nickname given to these boat-jouncing killer whales.

“All of this has to make us reflect on the fact that human activities, even in an indirect way, are the origin of this behavior,” he said.

For Cal Currier’s part, he thinks the whales are entertaining themselves.

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On June 8, as the 17-year-old Palo Alto High School senior sailed through the strait with his father, James, 55, and brother, West, 19, their 30-foot sailboat was accosted and spun in circles.

The rudder was battered, and the trio had to be towed to shore in Spain. “They were playing,” Currier said.

He said that when they pulled in, they were told roughly 30 other boats were ahead of them in line for repairs; half were damaged by the killer whales. He said there were no bite marks on the rudder, and he did not sense aggression from the whales.

For Giles, the Washington killer whale researcher, her biggest concern is that the longer the whales continue this behavior, the more likely it is they’ll get injured or suffer retribution at the hands of humans.

She’s hoping authorities in the region will consider non-traumatic hazing techniques — such as instructing boats to play or make sounds that irritate the whales — to get them to stop. She said studies have shown orcas don’t like the calls of pilot whales and will generally swim away if they hear them. Loud banging sounds, such as hitting a large, metal oikomi pipe underwater, can also be effective.

“Anything that might irritate them, make them lose their interest or swim away,” Giles said.

Currier said he wasn’t too rattled by the whole experience — unlike his dad and brother, who were “scared for their lives.”

The trio have since sold the boat and intend to spend the rest of the vacation on dry land.

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Killer whales are 'attacking' sailboats near Europe's coast. Scientists don't know why

Scott Neuman

orcas attack yachts

An orca pod seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021. Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research hide caption

An orca pod seen in the Strait of Gibraltar in 2021.

Ester Kristine Storkson was asleep on her father's small yacht earlier this month, sailing off the coast of France, when she was violently awakened.

Scrambling on deck, she spotted several orcas, or killer whales, surrounding them. The steering wheel swung wildly. At one point, the 37-foot sailboat was pushed through 180 degrees, heading it in the opposite direction.

They were "ramming the boat," Storkson says. "They [hit] us repeatedly ... giving us the impression that it was a coordinated attack."

"I told my dad, 'I'm not thinking clearly, so you need to think for me,'" the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student says. "Thankfully, he is a very calm and centered person, and made me feel safe by gently talking about the situation."

After about 15 minutes, the orcas broke off, leaving father and daughter to assess the damage. They stuck 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."

orcas attack yachts

A screen grab from a video of the encounter between a pod of orcas and the Storkson boat. Ester Kristine Storkson/ hide caption

A screen grab from a video of the encounter between a pod of orcas and the Storkson boat.

For any vessel, losing steering at sea is a serious matter and can be dangerous in adverse conditions and some sailboats have had to be towed into port after orcas destroyed their rudders. Fortunately, the Storksons had enough of their rudder left to limp into Brest, on the French coast, for repairs. But the incident temporarily derailed their plan to reach Madeira, off northwest Africa, part of an ambitious plan to sail around the world.

There is no record of an orca killing a human in the wild. Still, two boats were reportedly sunk by orcas off the coast of Portugal last month, in the worst such encounter since authorities have tracked them.

The incident involving the Storksons is an outlier, says Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, a cetacean research group based in Spain. It was farther north -- nowhere near the Strait of Gibraltar, nor the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other such reports have originated.

That is a conundrum. Up to now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals are involved in these encounters and that they are all from the same pod, de Stephanis says.

"I really don't understand what happened there," he acknowledges. "It's too far away. I mean, I don't think that [the orcas] would go up there for a couple of days and then come back."

These encounters — most scientists shun the word "attack" — have been getting the attention of sailors and scientists alike in the past two years, as their frequency seems to be increasing. Sailing magazines and websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that orcas seem to be especially attracted to a boat's rudder. A Facebook group , with more than 13,000 members, has sprung up to trade personal reports of boat-orca encounters and speculation on avoidance tactics. And, of course, there are no shortage of dramatic videos posted to YouTube.

Scientists don't know the reason, but they have some ideas

Scientists hypothesize that orcas like the water pressure produced by a boat's propeller. "What we think is that they're asking to have the propeller in the face," de Stephanis says. So, when they encounter a sailboat that isn't running its engine, "they get kind of frustrated and that's why they break the rudder."

Even so, that doesn't entirely explain an experience Martin Evans had last June when he was helping to deliver a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.

About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, "just shy of entering the Strait of Gibraltar," Evans and his crew mates were under sail, but they were also running the boat's engine with the propeller being used to boost their speed.

As Evans was on watch, the steering wheel began moving so violently that he couldn't hold on, he says.

"I was like, 'Jesus, what's this?'" he recalls. "It was like a bus was moving it. ... I look to the side, and all of a sudden I could just see that familiar white and black of the killer whale."

Evans noticed "chunks of the rudder on the surface."

Jared Towers, the director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia, says "there's something about moving parts ... that seem to stimulate them."

"Perhaps that's why they're focused on the rudders," he says.

The population of orcas along the Spanish and Portuguese coasts is small and de Stephanis believes that the damage to boats is being done by just a few juvenile males.

If so, they may simply outgrow the behavior, de Stephanis says. As the young males get older, they will need to help the pod hunt for food and will have less time for playing with sailboats.

"This is a game," he speculates. "When they ... have their own adult life, it will probably stop."

orcas attack yachts

An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021. Renaud de Stephanis/CIRCE Conservación Information and Research hide caption

An orca calf, photographed in the Strait of Gibraltar, in 2021.

Towers says such "games" tend to go in and out of fashion in orca society. For example, right now in a population he studies in the Pacific, "we have juvenile males who ... often interact with prawn and crab traps," he says. "That's just been a fad for a few years."

Back in the 1990s, for some orcas in the Pacific, something else was in vogue. "They'd kill fish and just swim around with this fish on their head," Towers says. "We just don't see that anymore."

Orcas sank three boats off the coast of Portugal, but don't call them 'killer' just yet

Three recent incidents of orcas seemingly attacking and sinking boats off the southwestern tip of Europe are drawing intense scrutiny over whether the animals deliberately swarmed the vessels and if they are learning the aggressive behavior from one another.

Encounters between orcas, or killer whales, and boats have been increasing since 2020, though no human injuries or deaths have been reported. In most cases, the whales have not sunk the boats.

The string of incidents since 2020 prompted one scientist in Portugal to say the attacks may indicate that the whales are intending to cause damage to sailing vessels. Others, however, are more skeptical, saying that while the behavior may be coordinated, it’s not necessarily coordinated aggression.

“I think it gets taken as aggression because it’s causing damage, but I don’t think we can say that the motivation is aggressive necessarily,” said Monika Wieland Shields, director of the Orca Behavior Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in Washington state.

At least 15 interactions between orcas and boats off the Iberian coast were reported in 2020, according to a study published last June in the journal Marine Mammal Science .

In November 2020, Portugal’s National Maritime Authority issued a statement alerting sailors about “curious behavior” among juvenile killer whales. The statement said the whales may be attracted to rudders and propellers and may try to approach boats.

The subsequent sinkings have caused more alarm.

The most recent encounter occurred on May 4 off the coast of Spain. Three orcas struck the rudder and side of a sailing yacht, causing it to eventually sink, as was reported earlier this month in a German publication called Yacht .

One theory put forward by Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, suggested that the aggression started from a female orca that was perhaps struck by a boat — a traumatic experience that caused her to start ramming sailing vessels. López Fernandez, who co-authored the June 2022 study published in Marine Mammal Science, told Live Science that other orcas may have then picked up that behavior through social learning, which whales have been known to exhibit.

But Shields said orcas have not historically been known to be aggressive toward humans, even when they were being hunted and placed in captivity.

“They’ve certainly had reason to engage in that kind of behavior,” she said. “There are places where they are shot at by fishermen, they’ve watched family members be taken from their groups into captivity in the ‘60s and ‘70s. And if something was going to motivate direct aggression, I would think something like that would have done it.”

Shields added that there are no clear instances of killer whales exhibiting what could be thought of as revenge behavior against humans.

She said the recent attacks on boats are likely more consistent with what’s known as “fad” behavior, which describes novel but temporary conduct from one whale that can be mimicked by others.

“It’s kind of a new behavior or game that one whale seems to come up with, and it seems to spread throughout the population — sometimes for a matter of weeks or months, or in some cases years — but then in a lot of cases it just goes away,” she said.

In the Pacific Northwest, for instance, Shields and her colleagues have observed fad behavior among Southern Resident killer whales who started carrying dead salmon around on their heads for a time before the behavior suddenly stopped.

Shields said the behavior of orcas off the Iberian coast may also be temporary.

“This feels like the same type of thing, where one whale played with a rudder and said: ‘Hey, this is a fun game. Do you want to try it?’ And it’s the current fad for that population of orcas,” she said.

While Shields did not dismiss the trauma response theory out of hand, she said it would be difficult to confirm without more direct evidence.

“We know their brains are wired to have really complex emotions, and so I think they could be capable of something like anger or revenge,” she said. “But again, it’s just not something that we’ve seen any examples of, and we’ve given them plenty of opportunities throughout the world to want to take revenge on us for various things. And they just choose not to.”

orcas attack yachts

Denise Chow is a reporter for NBC News Science focused on general science and climate change.

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Orcas Sink Fourth Boat Off Iberia, Unnerving Sailors

Orcas caused enough damage to sink a yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar last week. A small pod has been slamming boats in recent years, worrying skippers charting routes closer to shore.

orcas attack yachts

By Isabella Kwai

The yacht Grazie Mamma II carried its crew along the coastlines and archipelagos of the Mediterranean. Its last adventure was off the coast of Morocco last week, when it encountered a pod of orcas.

The marine animals slammed the yacht’s rudder for 45 minutes, causing major damage and a leak, according to Morskie Mile , the boat’s Polish operators. The crew escaped, and rescuers and the Moroccan Navy tried to tow the yacht to safety, but it sank near the port of Tanger Med, the operator said on its website.

The account of the sinking is adding to the worries of many sailors along the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula, where marine biologists are studying a puzzling phenomenon: Orcas are jostling and ramming boats in interactions that have disrupted dozens of voyages and caused at least four boats in the past two years to sink.

The largest of the dolphin family, orcas are playful apex predators that hunt sharks, whales and other prey but are generally amiable to humans in the wild . The orcas hunting in the Strait of Gibraltar are considered to be endangered , and researchers have noticed an upsurge of unusual behavior since 2020: A small group of the marine animals have been battering boats in the busy routes around Portugal, Spain and Morocco.

While most interactions occur in the waters of southwestern Europe and North Africa, an orca also reportedly rammed a yacht some 2,000 miles north off the coast of Scotland, according to The Guardian.

“Orcas are complex, intelligent, highly social,” Erich Hoyt, a research fellow at Whale and Dolphin Conservation and author of “Orca: The Whale Called Killer,” said. “We’re still at the early stages of trying to understand this behavior.”

Researchers have pushed back at the idea that orcas are attacking vessels. Instead, they theorize that the rudders of boats have become a plaything for curious young orcas and that the behavior has become a learned fad spreading through the population. Another hypothesis, according to biologists who published a study on the population last June, is that the ramming is an “adverse behavior” because of a bad experience between an orca and a boat — though researchers tend to favor the first.

It is unclear what will stop the ramming, whether it’s playful or otherwise, a point that has left anxious skippers traveling these parts sharing advice in Facebook groups dedicated to tracking such interactions .

“It’s been an interesting summer hiding in shallow waters,” said Greg Blackburn, a skipper based in Gibraltar. Orcas slammed into a boat he was commanding in May and chewed at the rudder, he said, though the vessel was able to return to shore.

The encounter left an impression: On a recent trip to Barcelona, Mr. Blackburn had to pass through a patch where orcas had been sighted the week before. “I genuinely felt sick for about three hours,” he said, “just watching the horizon constantly for a fin to pop up.”

Conservationists, maritime rescue groups and yacht clubs are partnering to navigate the challenge of preserving an endangered population and helping sailors avoid calamity. The Cruising Association, a club supporting sailors, has recommended safety protocols for orca encounters, such as disconnecting the boat’s autopilot and staying quiet. Skippers have offered one another anecdotal advice to deter attacks, including throwing sand into the water and banging loudly on the boat.

Before leaving shore, seagoers can also consult digital platforms that now track reported orca sightings and interactions in the region. This can help them avoid the animals, or chart a route closer to shore, said Bruno Díaz López, a biologist and the director of the Bottlenose Dolphin Research Institute based in Galicia, Spain.

“We suggested the boats stay in shallow waters,” he said, adding that they had noticed more boats changing their journeys. “Maybe the trip takes longer, yes. But it is worth it.”

Mr. Blackburn, the skipper, said he had heard of people resorting to throwing firecrackers into the sea to try to scare the animals away, adding that the boats served as people’s homes on the ocean. “At the end of the day, if you’re protecting your home what are you going to do?”

But the ocean is the orcas’ home, and conservationists say scaring the animals is not a solution.

“It is not about winning a battle, because this is not a war,” Mr. López said. “We need to be respectful.”

Isabella Kwai is a breaking news reporter in the London bureau. She joined The Times in 2017 as part of the Australia bureau. More about Isabella Kwai

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Orcas disrupt boat race near Spain in latest display of dangerous, puzzling behavior

In a image from video provided by The Ocean Race, an orca moves along a rudder of the Team JAJO entry in The Ocean Race on Thursday, June 22, 2023, as the boat approached the Strait of Gibraltar. A pod of killer whales bumped one of the boats in an endurance sailing race, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes-aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas. No one was injured. (The Ocean Race via AP)

In a image from video provided by The Ocean Race, an orca moves along a rudder of the Team JAJO entry in The Ocean Race on Thursday, June 22, 2023, as the boat approached the Strait of Gibraltar. A pod of killer whales bumped one of the boats in an endurance sailing race, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes-aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas. No one was injured. (The Ocean Race via AP)

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A pod of killer whales bumped one of the boats in an endurance sailing race as it approached the Strait of Gibraltar, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes-aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas.

The 15-minute run-in with at least three of the giant mammals forced the crew competing in The Ocean Race on Thursday to drop its sails and raise a clatter in an attempt to scare the approaching orcas off. No one was injured, but Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said in a video posted on The Ocean Race website that it was “a scary moment.”

“Twenty minutes ago, we got hit by some orcas,” he said in the video. “Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team.”

Team JAJO was approaching the mouth of the Mediterranean Sea on a leg from the Netherlands to Italy when at least three orcas approached the VO65 class sloop. Video taken by the crew showed one of the killer whales appeared to be nuzzling the rudder; another video showed one of them running its nose into the hull.

Scientists have noted increasing reports of orcas, which average from 16-21 feet (5-6½ meters) and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms), bumping or damaging boats off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the past four years.

Tom Slingsby, CEO and driver of Australia SailGP Team, and Kyle Langford, wing trimmer, celebrate as they win the KPMGAustralia Sail Grand Prix in Sydney, Australia. Sunday, Feb. 25, 2024. (Felix Diemer/SailGP via AP)

The behavior defies easy explanation. A team of marine life researchers who study killer whales off Spain and Portugal has identified 15 individual orcas involved in the encounters — 13 of them young, supporting the hypothesis that they are playing. The fact that two are adults could support the competing and more sensational theory that they are responding to some traumatic event with a boat.

The sailors were warned of the hazard.

“We knew that there was a possibility of an orca attack this leg,” Team JAJO on-board reporter Brend Schuil said. “So we had already spoken about what to do if the situation would occur.”

Schuil said there was a call for all hands on deck and the sails were dropped to slow the boat from a racing speed of 12 knots. The crew made noises to scare the orcas off, but not before it had fallen from second to fourth on the leg from The Hague to Genoa, where it is expected to arrive this weekend.

“They seemed more aggressive/playful when we were sailing at speed. Once we slowed down they also started to be less aggressive in their attacks,” he said. “Everyone is OK on board and the animals are also OK.”

The Ocean Race involves two classes of sailboats at sea for weeks at a time, with the IMOCA 60 boats competing in a six-month, 32,000-nautical mile (37,000-mile, 59,000-km) circumnavigation of the globe. Boats have already contended with a giant seaweed flotilla , catastrophic equipment failure, and a collision that knocked the leader out of the decisive seventh leg.

Although the race course navigates around exclusion zones to protect known marine habitats, there have been previous encounters with whales in The Ocean Race and other high-speed regattas.

However, they usually involve the boats crashing into the animals, and not the other way around.

One of the boats in the around-the-world portion of this year’s Ocean Race triggered its hazard alarm after hitting what they suspected was a whale off the coast of Newfoundland in May; two crew members were injured in the collision. At the beginning of the 2013 America’s Cup on San Francisco Bay, a whale was reported in the bay and organizers were prepared to delay a race if it wandered onto the course. In 2022, the start of SailGP’s $1 million, winner-take-all Season 2 championship race on the same area of San Francisco Bay was delayed when a whale was spotted on the course.

In 2005, the first South African yacht to challenge for the America’s Cup hit a whale with its 12-foot keel during training near Cape Town, stopping the 75-foot sloop dead in the water, injuring two crewmembers and snapping off both steering wheels.

AP Sports Writer Bernie Wilson contributed to this story.

AP sports: https://apnews.com/hub/sports and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports

orcas attack yachts

Vengeance—or playtime? Why orcas are coordinating attacks against sailboats

The common denominator in dozens of incidents appears to be a mature female named White Gladis.

Three orcas are seen just below the water's surface.

Orcas, or killer whales , are well known for their intelligence and for their remarkable hunting techniques: whether it’s turning great white sharks upside down or working cooperatively to take down large whales . And a population of orcas off the Iberian Peninsula has been gaining attention over the last three years—and causing angst among sailors—by attacking and even sinking boats in the area.

The first recorded attack occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar in May 2020, with dozens of cases recorded since then. Most of the incidents are remarkably consistent, generally involving a small group of whales attacking the rudders of small sailboats before breaking off and swimming away.

In June and November 2022, a pair of attacks caused two boats to sink; earlier this month, a badly damaged boat sank while it was being towed to shore .

Why the attacks may have started

A recent paper in the journal Marine Mammal Science found that the attacks involved nine whales in two groups: a trio, sometimes a quartet, of juveniles; and a mixed-age group led by a mature female named White Gladis. Given that White Gladis was the only mature female involved, the paper’s authors speculated that she had been involved in an accident with a boat and engaged in retributive behavior, which was then copied by the younger whales.

“When it started happening, I did think that maybe a female or her calf had been nicked by a propeller or rudder on a boat, because every single time they seem to go for the rudder. And it's all on sailboats,” says Dan Olsen, a field biologist with the North Gulf Oceanic Society in Alaska .

However, not everyone is convinced that the orcas’ actions have any malevolent intent. Notably, the orcas’ focus is very specifically on the boats; none have shown any interest in the people on board, even when those people have had to scramble into lifeboats when their vessels started sinking.

"I think it's just as reasonable to suggest that they're doing this because they can, because it's fun,” says Hanne Strager , co-founder of the Andenes Whale Center in Norway and author of the recently published book The Killer Whale Journals .


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A new form of play

Strager spoke to a biologist who was on board the boat that sunk in November, "and he said, ‘We didn't feel any aggression.’ And, to me, that's actually a strong testimony. Because I think when you are interacting regularly with animals, and you're used to reading them, you can feel an aggressive intent, and they didn't.”

If the orcas are indeed playing, it may suggest that, in time, the boat attacks could end when the whales get bored. Orca populations around the world have been observed engaging in a new behavior for no obvious reason than that they appear to enjoy it and then, just as suddenly, dropping it and moving onto something else. Orca researchers call these play routines “fads.”

Olsen, for example, has observed killer whales off Alaska playing with a piece of kelp for an hour: dragging it around on their fins, dropping it, circling back around and then picking it up in their teeth and swimming around with it some more. Strager has observed similar behaviors in orcas off the coast of Norway.

“For a while we saw them playing around with jellyfish,” she says. “They would swim with them on their snouts and would try to keep them on for as long as possible.”

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There's no benefit from this behavior, and the orcas were not eating the jellyfish, Strager notes.

“Sometimes we also see them whack little auks … small Arctic birds, they just lie on the surface of the sea to rest, and the orcas will come and whack them,” which she thinks is also a form of play.

Olsen questions whether we will ever truly understand the motivation behind the behavior, or whether we even really have the capacity to figure it out.

“The whale brain has been evolving separately for 50 million years,” Olsen says. “It’s hard to get a whale into an MRI, we don't even know which parts of the brain are dedicated to which activity. It's hard enough for us to explain behavior in humans and in primates that are closely related to us.”

Facing retaliation

Only this population has shown any interest in attacking boats, and it is a small one: the Marine Mammal Science paper cited an estimate of just 39 individuals.

The population in this region is under threat, says Strager, from tuna fishing, pollution, noise and, indeed, ship strikes.

“They are among the most polluted marine mammals in the world, so their breeding success is not good. It’s a very stressful environment for them,” she says.

And now, added to the existing stressors is the prospect of retaliation.

“Now they are becoming feared in the area,” notes Strager, “and there are reports of people suggesting you should pour diesel on top of them if they attack your boat, that you should put firecrackers in the water or ignite dynamite. I understand if people are afraid. But it's really a very dangerous situation for the killer whales.”

One local group, the Atlantic Orca Working Group , catalogues interactions between whales and boats so that sailors can learn which areas to avoid.

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Watch CBS News

Killer whales sink yacht after 45-minute attack, Polish tour company says

By Emily Mae Czachor

November 6, 2023 / 9:58 AM EST / CBS News

A group of orcas managed to sink a yacht off the coast of Morocco last week, after its 45-minute attack on the vessel caused irreparable damage, a Polish tour company said.

The incident happened Tuesday, Oct. 31, as a crew with the boat touring group sailed through the Strait of Gibraltar. The narrow waterway bridges the Mediterranean Sea and the Atlantic Ocean, which separates the southern tip of Europe from northern Africa. 

A pod of orcas, colloquially called killer whales, approached the yacht and "hit the steering fin for 45 minutes, causing major damage and leakage," the tour agency Morskie Mile, which is based in Warsaw and operated the yacht, wrote on  Facebook in a translated post.

Although its captain and crew were assisted by a search-and-rescue team as well as the Moroccan Navy, the yacht could not be salvaged. It sank near the entrance to the port of Tanger-Med, a major complex of ports some 30 miles northeast of Tangier along the Strait of Gibraltar. None of the crew members were harmed, said the Polish tour agency, adding that those on board the sunken yacht were already safe and in Spain by the time their Facebook post went live. 

"This yacht was the most wonderful thing in maritime sailing for all of us. Longtime friendships formed on board," wrote Morskie Mile. The company said it was involved in other upcoming cruises in the Canary Islands and would work to make sure those boat trips went ahead as planned.


Last week's incident in the Strait of Gibraltar was not the first of its kind. Reported attacks by killer whales that seem to be trying deliberately to capsize boats off the coast of Spain and Portugal have more than tripled over the last two years, according to data  released in the spring by the research group GTOA, which studies orcas around Gibraltar.

"Nobody knows why this is happening," Andrew W. Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News in May. "My idea, or what anyone would give you, is informed speculation. It is a total mystery, unprecedented." 

GTOA recorded 52 maritime interactions with orcas between the Strait of Gibraltar and Galicia, a coastal province in northwestern Spain, between July and November 2020. The incidents picked up in the years that followed, with 197 interactions recorded in 2021 and 207 recorded in 2022, GTOA said, noting that the interactions mainly affected sailboats. 

Then, in June of this year, one of two sailing teams involved in an international race around the world reported a frightening confrontation involving multiple orcas as they traveled through the Atlantic Ocean to the west of Gibraltar. The teams, which were competing in The Ocean Race, said the orcas did not damage their boats or harm crews, but recalled the sea creatures pushing up against and, in one instance, ramming into one of the boats. The orcas also nudged and bit the rudders, one crew member said.

Caitlin O'Kane and Kerry Breen contributed to this report.

Emily Mae Czachor is a reporter and news editor at CBSNews.com. She covers breaking news, often focusing on crime and extreme weather. Emily Mae has previously written for outlets including the Los Angeles Times, BuzzFeed and Newsweek.

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Why orcas keep sinking boats

Scientists have some theories why killer whales have seriously damaged boats about a dozen times this year off the coast of spain and portugal.

orcas attack yachts

In the early morning Thursday, killer whales smashed into a sailboat off the southern coast of Spain, puncturing its hull and damaging its rudder. Spanish authorities raced to save the sinking vessel, according to Reuters , but it was in such disrepair it had to be towed ashore.

It wasn’t the first attack by an orca, or killer whale, off the coast of Spain and Portugal this year. And it may not be the last time one chews a rudder or crashes into a hull. Normally, killer whales aren’t considered dangerous to humans. But pods of killer whales have done serious damage to boats in the region about a dozen times already this year, according to the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica, or GTOA, a research group studying the region’s killer whales, part of a rise in attacks first observed in 2020.

Stories and videos of the attacks widely shared on social media have turned the orca into a meme. After the marine mammals struck some fancy yachts, some observers are calling the strikes concentrated around the Strait of Gibraltar, where the whales congregate in the spring and summer, an act of anti-capitalist solidarity from “orca comrades” and “orca saboteurs.” For others, the series of strikes is eerily similar to a scene in James Cameron’s latest “Avatar” movie , “The Way of the Water.”

So what is happening? The scientists studying the whales themselves aren’t entirely sure, either. But they have two leading ideas:

Theory No. 1: The orcas are playing around

Closely related to bottlenose dolphins, orcas are highly intelligent and curious marine mammals. Using a series of underwater pulses and whistles, the whales communicate with such sophistication that pods form their own dialects and parents teach their young hunting methods that are passed along for generations.

After learning a new behavior, juvenile orcas often keep repeating it ad nauseam. (In that way, they are a lot like human youngsters.) Playing around is just a part of learning how to be an apex predator.

That matches the pattern of attacks whale scientists have witnessed this year, according to Alfredo López Fernandez, a researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal working with GTOA.

In this case, the behavior is “self-induced,” López Fernandez said, and not caused directly by some outside (i.e., human) provocation. “Which means that they invent something new and repeat it,” he added.

But there’s another potential motivation that sounds straight out of “Moby Dick.”

Theory No. 2: The orcas want vengeance

Orcas off the Iberian Coast like to follow fishing vessels to snag bluefin tuna before fishermen can reel them in, putting the aquatic mammals at risk of being struck or entangled. Scientists have seen killer whales in those waters with fishing lines hanging from their bodies.

So it is possible, López Fernandez said, an orca had a bad run-in with a boat in the past, and is now teaching other killer whales how to attack vessels as well. The team suspects a female adult named White Gladis may be the one doing so.

López Fernandez emphasized we don’t have enough information to know the real reason behind the attacks yet. Even assuming the second theory is true, “we don’t know what that triggering stimulus could have been,” he said.

With only 39 orcas counted in 2011, the Iberian orca subpopulation is considered critically endangered by the International Union for Conservation of Nature. The impact that entanglements and boat strikes are having on all sorts of whales and dolphins around the world underscores that humans are a bigger threat to them than they are to us.

“All this has to make us reflect on the fact that human activities, even in an indirect way, are at the origin of this behavior,” López Fernandez said.

orcas attack yachts

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Scientists Edge Closer to Understanding Why and Where Orcas Attack Boats

Orcas are continuing to attack sailboats off the coast of Spain and Portugal, and scientists might be closer to understanding why.

Since 2020, there have been hundreds of interactions between orcas and boats off the coast of both Spain and Portugal. The encounters have ranged from orcas simply approaching boats to actively interfering with them.

While many encounters have not been life-threatening, some interactions have been severe. In July, orcas sank a sailboat with five people on board off the coast of Sines, after they rammed the boat. Orcas also attacked a family sailboat twice in August and September.

Recent attacks have occurred off the coast of Sines, Portugal—an area that appears to be a hotspot for the attacks.

Norma Russell , who was sailing from Cascais, Portugal to Sines, said on a Facebook post that there had been a "very scary moment" during the voyage on October 5, when an orca measuring 16 to 19 feet surfaced behind the boat.

For 15 minutes, she said the orca bumped the boat 4 to 5 times and "lifted the boat at the back."

"No damage apart from a few scrapes to the rudder and a few more grey hairs. An amazing experience but once is enough," Russell said in the Facebook post. "I kept the rudder centralized and didn't feel any significant impact although with hydraulic steering the wheel does not transmit much if any feedback at the best of times. After approximately 15 minutes the Orca was seen swimming away to the northwest."

The attacks also appear to be happening off the coast of Lagos, Portugal.


A boat that had been sailing five miles off the coast of Lagos was towed in with a damaged rudder on October 8, a Facebook user reported in a post to the group Orca Attack reporting.

The user said "at least one other boat" had been rammed by an orca, but had managed to drop its sails and motor away in reverse.

The Atlantic Orca Working Group—a collective of scientists tracking the interactions—is working to understand what is causing these interactions.

  • World's loneliest orca kept isolated for 11 years: "Tantamount to torture"
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  • Great white sharks gather at site of fatal attack

Alfredo López, an orca expert at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, told Newsweek that all attacks have occurred in a particular area.

"Unfortunately everything remains the same, the connections are maintained in a very dispersed area that goes from French Brittany to the Strait of Gibraltar, but numerically they did not increase compared to last year," López said.

While the location is large, it can offer scientists some insight into what could be attracting the orcas' behavior in this area.

Orcas often come to the coast of Portugal during the summer months, to feed on the tuna that live around the Gibraltar Strait. There was a period recently where attacks seemed to decrease—scientists believed this was down to the orcas moving further north.

But the attacks then began again.

López previously said that the attacks do not appear to be aggressive. Orcas are socially complex animals and have frequently been observed adopting strange behaviors. Scientists believe they may approach boats out of curiosity, or as part of a game.

Luke Rendell, a lecturer in biology at the Sea Mammal Research Unit and the Centre for Social Learning and Cognitive Evolution of the University of St. Andrews, Scotland previously told Newsweek that the behavior might be a "cultural fad," and "idiosyncratic behavior that has developed socially in a specific group of whales."

"[It possibly has] its roots in play, and possibly a history of undocumented and less dramatic interactions that has developed into this current problematic behavior," Rendell said.

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About the writer

Robyn White is a Newsweek Nature Reporter based in London, UK. Her focus is reporting on wildlife, science and the environment. Robyn joined Newsweek in 2022 having previously worked at environmental publication LetsRecycle. She has also worked on a range of consumer magazines at Damson Media focusing on pop culture, art and health. She is a journalism graduate of Kingston University. Languages: English.

You can get in touch with Robyn by emailing [email protected]

To read how Newsweek uses AI as a newsroom tool, Click here.

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Orca attacking boat near Scotland marks first in North Sea, following Iberian coast incidents

orcas attack yachts

An orca hit a seven-ton yacht carrying a 72-year-old multiple times on Monday off the Shetland Islands in Scotland, the sailor told The Guardian.

Retired Dutch physicist Dr Wim Rutten said he was sailing solo from the town Lerwick to Bergen, Norway, according to the Guardian. While fishing for mackerel off the back of the boat, Rutten said he came face to face with an orca that he initially saw through the clear water. The mammal soon repeatedly rammed the stern of the boat.

“What I felt most frightening was the very loud breathing of the animal,” Rutten told the Guardian.

The University of Twente professor said the whale stayed behind the boat and then disappeared before returning faster two or three times and later circling him, according to the Guardian. He added the mammal created “soft shocks” through the aluminum hull.

Orcas attacking boats: Spain's coast are seeing more killer whales touch, push and even turn vessels

Incident follows aggressive behavior near Spain, Portugal

Rutten said he immediately thought of the recent orca attacks on Spanish and Portuguese coasts . The Strait of Gibraltar waters were home to 20 orca incidents last month, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group and orcas have sunk three boats in Southern Europe since last summer.

The Atlantic Orca Working Group reported over 500 orca boat interactions from 2020 to 2023 yet Rutten’s encounter marks the first recent incident reported in the northern seas.

“Maybe he just wanted to play. Or look me in the eyes. Or to get rid of the fishing line,” Rutten said.

USA TODAY has reached out to Rutten for additional comment.

Experts say the orcas could be teaching each other to adapt this behavior. Juvenile Iberian killer whales — a "unique subpopulation of killer whales that lives in the northeast Atlantic," — were first documented touching, pushing, and even turning vessels, including some fishing and inflatable boats, in 2020, according to research group GT Orca Atlántica.

Andrew Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News the reason for the attacks remains to be an “unprecedented” mystery. Trites said something is positively reinforcing the orcas’ behavior suggesting that it’s possible they’re engaging in form of whale “play” or that they’re reacting to traumatic boat injuries.

"Yes they're killer whales. And yes their job is they're the apex predator in the ocean. However, there's never been a documented case of an orca attacking and killing a human being," whale expert Anne Gordon told USA Today in May, adding that the attacks are isolated incidents. "In normal circumstances there is absolutely zero threat to humans in a boat."

Experts recently gathered to address an "urgent need for specific actions based on international coordination between administrations, mariners and scientists to prevent future damage to people, orcas and vessels," GTOA said.

Cetacean clash: Photos capture group of orcas attacking a gray whale calf along the Oregon Coast

March 1, 2024

A Lone Orca Killed a Great White Shark in First Documented Attack of Its Kind

For the first time, scientists observe a single killer whale killing a great white shark, and then eating its liver

By Stephanie Pappas

Action shot of orca coming out of ocean with open mouth

A killer whale breaches the sea surface.

blickwinkel/Alamy Stock Photo

An infamous orca killed a great white shark by itself last year in South Africa and devoured the shark’s nutritious liver. It’s the first time a killer whale has been observed preying on a great white shark alone, and the entire attack took less than two minutes.

“While killer whales can hunt large prey individually, this is the first documented instance in South Africa involving white sharks as prey,” says Alison Towner, a senior white shark biologist at the conservation and ecotourism organization Marine Dynamics.* “The surprising element was how quickly the killer whale immobilized and consumed the liver of the shark.”

The killer whale involved is well known in Mossel Bay, South Africa. Dubbed “Starboard” for his bent-to-the-right dorsal fin, this orca has been observed preying on white sharks in the area with its travel partner, “Port,” for years. (Port, another male, has a dorsal fin that bends to the left.)

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The researchers aren’t sure why Starboard went after the shark on his own or how frequently this behavior occurs, they report today in the African Journal of Marine Science . Before now Port and Starboard had always been observed working together in attacking white sharks, sometimes leading groups of up to six total orcas in drawn-out pack hunts. Towner and her colleagues previously reported that these hunts usually end in a feast of shark liver for the predatory whales .

But on the afternoon of June 18, 2023, when onshore observers spotted the two orcas, that wasn’t the case. The researchers studying the pair launched a small vessel and followed them. In the killer whales’ wake, they discovered a slick of gore on the ocean surface, accompanied by the smell of shark liver. “Shark liver has a unique and recognizable scent—oily,” Towner says. “Once you’ve encountered it, you won’t mistake it for anything else.”

The carcass of a great white shark on a beach.

A great white shark carcass.

Credit: Christiaan Stopforth, Drone Fanatics SA ( CC BY )

The slick suggested that the orcas had attacked and killed something. The boat followed the animals, which were swimming apart from each other. Suddenly a great white shark appeared at the surface, with Starboard in hot pursuit. As researchers watched, the orca grabbed the shark’s left fin and thrust forward with its mouth, eviscerating the shark. Several minutes later, observers aboard a nearby shark-diving boat watched as Starboard swam a victory lap by their vessel, holding a bloody piece of shark liver in his mouth.

The shark killed in the attack was also known to biologists. “After 24 years of working with the great white, to see an orca—that, before [this], I loved a lot—killing my preferred shark, I was really stressed, is the minimum that I can say,” says Primo Micarelli, a marine biologist at the University of Siena in Italy who was on the shark-diving vessel. At the same time, he said, he knew the solo attack was unusual and important.

The vanquished shark was a juvenile about 2.5 meters (8.2 feet) long. The next day a slightly larger great white shark measuring 3.55 meters (11.6 feet) long washed ashore nearby, also liverless. This shark may have been the one killed in the first, unobserved attack that left the gory slick, the researchers wrote in their paper.

Port and Starboard are a “gift that keeps on giving,” says Isabella Reeves, a doctoral candidate in marine biology at Flinders University in Australia, who has collaborated with Towner but was not involved in the current research. The whales are rewriting some of what biologists thought they knew about orcas, she says. “I think perhaps what surprises me most is that there seems to be some degree of ‘leadership’ from these two male killer whales during these hunts, which is unusual and not recorded much in the wild,” she says. “Females generally take the lead while hunting.”

Orcas in South Africa are not unique in their shark-hunting tendencies, says Jennifer Tennessen, a senior research scientist at the Center for Ecosystem Sentinels at the University of Washington. In the Pacific Northwest, offshore bands of orcas include a variety of sharks in their diets, she says. But these animals are found far off the coast of Oregon, Washington and British Columbia, so their behaviors are hard to observe, she says.

“There’s much to learn still about how many individuals are involved in these shark predations in South Africa and the frequency of these occurrences,” Towner says. “In fact, there is a whole lot we need to learn about killer whales in this part of the world in general. Most of them are difficult to access as they move at high speed and spend a lot of time away from the coasts. Citizen scientists and drones are contributing such valuable information.”

* Editor’s Note (3/4/24): This sentence was edited after posting to correct the description of Alison Towner’s current position.

A single orca killed a great white shark in a shocking 2 minutes. This hunting behavior could mean problems for the fishing industry and tourism.

  • A killer whale was observed hunting and eating the liver of a great white shark alone.
  • Scientists said the event revealed new insights about the hunting proficiency of orcas.
  • The ecosystem impacts of shark-hunting killer whales could affect commercial fishing and tourism.

Insider Today

Researchers observed a single killer whale slaying a great white shark and eating its liver , providing new insights about the hunting practice that could foreshadow potential problems for the fishing industry.

A paper published Friday in the African Journal of Marine Science detailed the event, which occurred in June 2023 off the coast of South Africa.

The research team watched as a male killer whale known as Starboard approached the juvenile white shark and "gripped the left pectoral fin of the shark and thrust forward with the shark several times before eventually eviscerating it," the study said, adding: "Remarkably, the period from seizing the shark by the pectoral fin to eviscerating it lasted less than 2 minutes."

Shortly after the attack, researchers on another boat captured photos of Starboard with "a bloody piece of peach-colored liver in its mouth," according to the paper.

Starboard has been observed killing white sharks in the past however, he usually hunts with a male companion named Port. The study said Port was present during the attack, but he kept his distance, and Starboard acted alone.

The orcas have been hunting white sharks and eating their livers off the coast of South Africa for years. Rare drone footage captured for Discovery Channel's Shark Week in 2022 showed killer whales preying on a white shark .

But the lone orca attack was a rarer phenomenon.

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"This sighting revealed evidence of solitary hunting by at least one killer whale, challenging conventional cooperative hunting behaviors known in the region," Alison Towner, lead author on the study and a doctoral researcher at Rhodes University, told CNN .

In a video post of the incident shared by the Earth Legacy Foundation , Towner said the predation "represents unprecedented behavior underscoring the exceptional proficiency of the killer whale."

Researchers say much is still unknown about the larger ecosystem implications of shark-hunting killer whales.

In 2022, another study published by the African Journal of Marine Science , for which Towner was also the lead author, suggested white sharks were fleeing a common aggregation site off South Africa because of the killer whales.

But scientists still don't know exactly where those white sharks are going.

"As they relocate, they might end up overlapping with heavy commercial fisheries," Towner told CNN.

A study published in October in the journal Ecological Indicators suggested that some of the white sharks migrated east of the area where they were being hunted by orcas.

The loss of white sharks in South Africa's waters could also impact tourism, as visitors from all over the world travel to the area to observe the predators.

"Over two decades of annual visits to South Africa, I've observed the profound impact these killer whales have on the local white shark population," Primo Micarelli, a marine biologist and an author on the paper, told CNN.

"Despite my awe for these predators, I'm increasingly concerned about the coastal marine ecology balance," he added.

Watch: Shark expert rates ten shark attack scenes in movies and tv

orcas attack yachts

  • Main content

'It shows the power of the matriarch': Heartbreaking footage shows orca mom and son team up to drown another pod's calf

1st of its kind footage captures the moment an orca mom and her son drown a calf in an extremely rare case of infanticide.

Heartbreaking footage shows an orca mom and her adult son drowning a young calf from a neighboring pod. The dramatic video is likely the first time this rare behavior has been filmed. 

In the video, a female orca ( Orcinus orca ) and her daughters begin to play with the calf — a behavior that is not unusual when two pods come together. However, the play soon turns violent. The son hits the calf with force, then he and his mother trap the calf between them, forcing it underwater to drown it. 

The brutal clip was filmed as part of National Geographic's new series " Queens ," which looks at the behaviors of matriarchs in the animal kingdom. 

Orca infanticide is extremely rare, and it wasn't something the production team was expecting to capture. "This behavior is so rare — in fact we think this is probably the first case of filmed orca infanticide," Chloe Sarosh , executive producer on the series, told Live Science. "We didn't plan to film it, it was just a case of right place, right time."

The team filmed the encounter over several hours, Sarosh said. A few days later, an orca that matched the size and description of the drowned calf washed up dead on a shore 5 miles (8 kilometers) away. It's assumed this was the same drowned calf.

Related: Orcas are learning terrifying new behaviors. Are they getting smarter?

Because the encounter was so unexpected, the team contacted several scientists to help interpret the behavior and confirm it was a case of infanticide. While the behavior of the matriarch and her son is clear, understanding the reactions of the other pod members and their roles will require further analysis. "That's why this footage is so important because it gives scientists a chance to study it to identify fins and markings of who and what role they're playing in this behavior," Sarosh said.

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Infanticide among orcas is so rare it has only been documented once in published scientific literature, Charli Grimes , a researcher in animal behavior at the University of Exeter in the U.K., told Live Science in an email. "A lot of time is spent observing killer whales in the Pacific Northwest and given that it has only been documented once in the literature does appear to make it a rare event," she said.

The study, published in Scientific Reports in 2018, records a case of calf-killing among a population of transient killer whales in the North Pacific. Like the latest encounter, this involved an orca mother and her adult male son. Researchers captured footage of the aftermath of the 2018 event, but it doesn't show the moment the calf was killed. 

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— Watch orca tear open whale shark and feast on its liver in extremely rare footage  

Scientists believe infanticide among orcas may enable the male to breed with the mother of the deceased calf. "The assumption is that this was done so that the mother would come back into estrus [a period of sexual receptivity] and the male would be able to mate with her and have more calfs in another pod to the matriarch — furthering the genes, furthering the genetic life," Sarosh said. 

"It's phenomenal behavior, really important behavior," she added. "It shows the power of the matriarch and the lengths that she'll go to, to do what is best for her pod and her son and her lineage."

Hannah Osborne

Hannah Osborne is the planet Earth and animals editor at Live Science. Prior to Live Science, she worked for several years at Newsweek as the science editor. Before this she was science editor at International Business Times U.K. Hannah holds a master's in journalism from Goldsmith's, University of London.

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Orcas May Be Attacking Larger Fin Whales as a More Efficient Food Source

Are orcas attacking fin whales biologists robert pitman and alisa schulman-janiger share insights into the unique hunting behavior of killer whales..


In 2019, a fin whale beached itself along the Gulf of California in Mexico. The gigantic creature was so frightened by the team of orcas trying to take it down that it ran itself into the ground on the beach and later died.

While there have been only two documented instances of fin whales beaching themselves to escape killer whales, these giant mammals are being attacked more often, according to experts like Robert Pitman , a biologist who specializes in the study of killer whales at Oregon State University.

Do Killer Whales Normally Attack Fin Whales?

We don’t know for sure how often orcas attack fin whales because we still live in an era when large whales are recovering from commercial whaling. While their numbers are bouncing back, says Pitman, they aren’t where they once were, so it’s difficult to know whether this is normal behavior.

The U.S. officially outlawed whaling in 1970. Before that, in 1946, the International Whaling Commission (IWC) moved to protect whales, which had seen their numbers drop drastically as a result of whaling, a multi-million dollar industry in the 1900s. The use of other fossil fuels also became more reliable than whale oil.

As numbers of large whales plummeted, killer whales may have preyed on other things like dolphins in order to survive.

“We are starting to see killer whales attack large whales again as their numbers increase, and we may be in for some surprises,” Pitman says. 

Read More: Orcas May Devour Marine Mammals, But They Typically Avoid Harming Humans

Killer Whale Hunting

As whale watching becomes more prevalent and people are able to observe them in their habitat, we’re also more likely to witness attacks. We have better cameras and drones that show us a side of killer whales that we might not have seen before.

These images show that many fin whales have signs of attacks in the form of bite marks and what are called “tooth rakes.” A study Pitman authored in the 2023 issue of Aquatic Mammals documented records of seven recent fatal attacks on fin whales, including four in British Columbia.  

Read More: Instead of Hunting in Groups, Orcas May be Attacking Great White Sharks Alone

Pitman says that it’s exclusively for hunting purposes. Known as the “wolves of the sea,” killer whales hunt in packs, and as a result, they can bring down larger prey. Their hunting pods are all related, so they know each other well, which makes them better equipped to work together. But it’s not just fin whales that they go after.

They’ve even tried to chase down blue whales, though it’s much harder to bring them down because while fin whale adult females average 45 tons, blue whale adult females average a whopping 150 tons. And both of these giants are also incredibly fast swimmers.

Still, killer whales are agile hunters, says Pitman. “Pretty much anything that’s large and swims in the ocean has been shown to be prey of killer whales.” Keep in mind that different types of killer whales hunt different types of food. Some focus on fish, others on seals, and others on dolphins and whales.

Read More: Orcas Feasted on the Lips of Humpback Whales, Hunting with Ancient Whalers

Why Do Killer Whales Attack Large Whales?

According to Alisa Schulman-Janiger , lead biologist for the Killer Whale Project and a research associate for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, it’s all about food and socializing. One fin whale feeds a number of killer whales. An adult killer whale needs to eat about 300 pounds of meat daily, about the size of one common dolphin.

That means they have to bring down a lot of dolphins to feed their pod, while a large whale provides a lot more meat and an opportunity to get together and feast.

“It’s tougher to kill a large whale, and, in some cases, you’re not successful, but if you are successful, it’s like Thanksgiving,” says Schulman-Janiger, who co-authored the Aquatic Mammals study with Pitman.

She says they’ve seen as many as 50 killer whales come together who may not have seen each other for a long time. These could be extended families with children, parents, and grandparents who are all related. It’s like a family reunion but with a giant whale to feast on. Keep in mind that killer whales are intelligent, long-lived, and very social beings. The average male killer whale can live a maximum of 50-60 years, and females can live up to 80-90 years.

As large whales become more prevalent, killer whales are getting better at hunting them. But do not worry; these giant mammals will also likely get better at escaping. Sad as it may be, it’s the circle of life, a fascinating story from all angles.

Read More: Orcas Have Social Trends Like Us, And This One Could Get Dangerous For Boats

Article Sources

Our writers at Discovermagazine.com use peer-reviewed studies and high quality sources for our articles, and our editors review for scientific accuracy and editorial standards. Review the sources used below for this article: 

Science Media Museum.  A History of Whaling .

Aquatic Mammals 2023. Records of Fatal Killer Whale (Orcinus orca) Attacks on Fin Whales (Balaenoptera physalus) with an Emphasis on Baja California, Mexico .

Alaska Fish and Game. Fin Whale .

Oceana. Blue Whale .

  • animal behavior
  • marine biology

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Orca Whale Spotted Killing Great White Shark in Under 2 Minutes in 'Unprecedented' Attack

Scientists say the implications of a killer whale hunting solo, rather than in a group, could be huge for the local ecosystem

Charlotte Phillipp is a Weekend Writer-Reporter at PEOPLE. She has been working at PEOPLE since 2024, and was previously an entertainment reporter at The Messenger.

orcas attack yachts

  • Since at least 2017, scientists have observed two killer whales living near South Africa team up to attack and kill great white sharks
  • In a recent article, scientists shared that they recently observed one of the orca whales in the shark-hunting pair kill a great white shark by itself in less than 2 minutes
  • Experts believe this new hunting tactic could be a response to climate change and may have an impact on other ocean species

Scientists have observed an orca whale killing a great white shark alone off the coast of South Africa, and the attack could offer insights into how the whale species' hunting tactics have changed.

Since at least 2017 , a pair of orcas in the waters around South Africa have been killing great white sharks for their livers — a nutrient-dense meal for the whales — and leaving the rest of the sharks' bodies behind. The hunting tactic has been driving sharks away from the coastal waters around Cape Town, according to scientists studying the shark-hunting duo.

But this solo orca attack, observed by scientists in June 2023 and featured in an African Journal of Marine Science article published in March, showed one of the orcas killing an 8.2-foot-long shark by itself in under two minutes. According to one of the biologists who observed it, the ferocity of the attack was "unprecedented" and "astonishing."

Speaking with BBC , Rhodes University shark biologist Dr. Alison Towner told the outlet that the male orca, nicknamed Starboard, grabbed the young great white by its fin and "thrust forward several times before eventually eviscerating it" to get at its liver.

A newly released video of the attack shows Starboard quickly killing the shark before swimming away with the nutrient-rich liver in his mouth, passing by a nearby boat full of tourists.

According to the recent article about the shocking killer whale attack, this is the first widely observed occurrence of an orca hunting and killing a great white shark by itself.

This occurrence also challenges existing theories about the hunting strategies of killer whales, as previous research led scientists to believe that orcas primarily hunt in groups rather than by themselves. Previous killer whale attacks on the sharks involved multiple orcas — including Starboard’s partner, another male named Port — and took up to two hours, the researchers wrote.

Dr. Luke Rendell, another scientist from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, told BBC that it was "unsurprising" that whales had learned to target great white sharks, as orcas may be facing challenges finding food due to issues like climate change and other human-led changes in their ecosystem.

"A great white shark is a nice, big concentration of food, so it's perhaps unsurprising that some populations [of orcas], where these sharks occur in sufficient numbers, have learned to exploit that," he said.

"Human activities, like climate change and industrial fishing, are exerting significant pressures on our oceans," Towner added.

The scientists behind the recent article on the solo killer whale attack first reported their findings about Port and Starboard in 2022. They wrote in the African Journal of Marine Science that they had traced at least 8 great white shark killings back to the pair. According to the researchers, several sharks had their hearts and livers removed.

Dr. Primo Micarelli, a biologist at Italy's Sharks Studies Centre and the University of Siena, told CNN in a statement that while seeing such a powerful attack was "unforgettable," he also worries about the ecological implications it has for both orcas and great white sharks.

"Despite my awe for these predators, I'm increasingly concerned about the coastal marine ecology balance," Micarelli told the outlet.

Never miss a story — sign up for PEOPLE's free daily newsletter to stay up-to-date on the best of what PEOPLE has to offer, from celebrity news to compelling human interest stories.

Orcas are the great white shark's only predator, aside from humans. Killer whales grow up to 30 feet in length and can weigh more than six tons, while great white sharks can reach up to 22 feet long and weigh around 2.5 tons.

Towner told BBC that the orcas' new hunting habits could impact other species, such as African penguins, which could face more danger from cape fur seals — as great white sharks usually hunt the seals.

"These are groundbreaking insights into the predatory behavior of this species," Towner told CNN. "The presence of these shark-hunting killer whales possibly ties into broader ecosystem dynamics. Rapid developments in this phenomenon make it challenging for science to keep pace."

orcas attack yachts

Witness This Powerful Killer Whale Knock a Dolphin Over Mid-Air

Watch the video.

You may think that dolphins are super cute sea creatures to view from the shore and boats but, for killer whales , they are food! That makes them a legitimate hunting target. This dolphin found out the hard way just how ruthless killer whales (orcas) can be. Don’t miss this dolphin being hurled into the air by the skillful hunter.

Killer Whale Head Butts Dolphin

The short YouTube clip of the attack is at the top of this blog post. It captures the exact moment of the attack, slowing it down so that we can appreciate the power and accuracy of the orca’s strike on the dolphin. It was shared by Domenic Biagini on his Dolphin Drone Dom channel and has already received over 47,000 likes. Domenic uses the channel to share footage of “Whale Watching Tours, Wildlife Photography, and Ocean Fun”.

Dolphin Overpowered by Attack from Below

The above footage shows a killer whale (orca) attack on a dolphin. According to the Whales and Dolphins Conservation charity , killer whales and dolphins are actually members of the same family. They are two of the most recognizable species in our oceans.

Killer whales are described as generalist eaters – they eat several different types of fish as well as seals and sea lions . As you can see in the above clip, they hunt dolphins and porpoises . Some will even attack sea birds. A group of killer whales is called a pod, and it is common to see pods that focus on just one or two types of prey. They become experts at catching them.

Are Killer Whales under Threat?

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries explains that some killer whale populations are endangered. The US Southern Resident killer whales are one such population. Their range extends from central California to southeast Alaska.

The threats faced by killer whales include entanglement – they get caught up in fishing gear. They get so caught up that they cannot swim or hunt and may die from injuries. Killer whales also face a lack of food because of over-fishing. When creatures like this do not get enough food, they are less likely to reproduce and die at a younger age. This reduces their population numbers further.

Unfortunately, killer whales are also adversely affected by the pollution that we release into the oceans. This can be anything ranging from wastewater treatment plants to pesticides. Oil spills also have a large impact on their health.

Several initiatives are underway to protect their populations. This includes minimizing harassment, preventing oil spills, and protecting fish stocks and habitats.

Click here to watch the video.

Sharks, lions, alligators, and more! Don’t miss today’s latest and most exciting animal news.  Click here to access the A-Z Animals profile page  and be sure to hit the  Follow  button here or at the top of this article!

Have feedback? Add a comment below!

  • Killer Whale Takes Out a Dolphin With a Power Slam to the Neck
  • Coordinated Orcas Isolate Dolphins When Hunting
  • Watch This New Zealander Kayak With Killer Whales and Paddle Straight Towards Them

The post Witness This Powerful Killer Whale Knock a Dolphin Over Mid-Air appeared first on A-Z Animals .

An endangered Southern Resident Killer Whale, an icon of the Pacific Northwest, breaches near Henry Island in Washington State.


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