The battle between Orcas and yachts off the coast of Gibraltar continues to rage.
Earlier this year, scientists and media both descended upon the Strait of Gibraltar to understand why Orcas have developed a passion for attacking boats.
Theories popped up immediately, including the notion that anti-fouling paint may be somehow triggering the highly intelligent whales.
The problem with that theory, like the others that have been proposed, is that even if anti-fouling paint entices an attack, scientists still can’t explain why it’s a trigger.
Now with a year of data collection amidst the ongoing drama, scientists have determined that a single group of whales is likely responsible for over 500 ‘interactions’ within a small region off the coast of Portugal and Spain. Nevertheless, they’re still no closer to finding the root cause.
Most attacks have occurred in shallow water and focus on small to midsize sailing yachts traveling at low speeds. In most cases, the Orcas systematically attacked the rudder, continually bumping the boat to spin it around or otherwise prevent it from escaping. In several cases, the Orcas succeeded in breaking the rudder off the boat or rendering the vessel inoperable. In a few cases, the Orcas have succeeded in sinking the boat outright.
What scientists have learned from this gradual progression in tactics is that the whales are teaching the skill to others. After disrupting a yacht race in Spain June, scientists also identified individual whales now believed to be responsible for the bulk of the attacks. They’ve also determined that the ringleaders are passing their knowledge down to their offspring.
Meanwhile, sailors, commercial ship captains, and recreational boaters have been testing various methods to quell the attacks. Everything from maintaining a higher speed through the Strait, to blasting heavy metal music below the surface, has been attempted with varying degrees of success.
Now an attack off the coast of Morocco which claimed another yacht has put increased pressure on scientists and governments to solve the problem.
In the latest attack, Orcas encircled a charter sailboat named the Grazie Mamma for 45 minutes, ultimately damaging the rudder and causing a leak. The captain and crew, as well as tugboats from the Moroccan Navy, attempted to tow the vessel to shore, but it sank before reaching the port of Tanger Med, about an hour east of Tangiers.
The crew was unharmed, but it marked yet another downturn for the safety of wildlife and human travelers alike.
The question that remains is whether the Orcas are being playful or seeking revenge for a perceived slight. Some experts believe the behavior may be rooted in an Orca having been previously injured by a passing boat, which in turn prompted it to lash out. That hostility then spread to others. Other experts believe it may be playfulness that isn’t intended to harm, but inadvertently damages boats. No humans have been injured in the attacks thus far.
Marine ecologist Robert Pitman told CBS News, “My personal opinion is that people do revenge, animals don’t do revenge.”
“I think they are just playing around. They tried it once and turned it into a game. As it is with killer whales, things tend to spread among the group,” he told CBS.
“The matriarch is definitely in charge of the group. If she is in favor of it or will let it happen then it will and if she says no it will stop,” he added.
Until a solution is reached in the Strait, the internet has been filling the void with Orca memes — a sarcastic take on the dilemma that, while not helping to find a truce, is helping to spread awareness about the situation.