Orcas Attacking Boats

Most fears associated with denizens of the deep are largely overblown, perhaps due to the unseen nature of the threat.

Sharks, for example, despite Jaws and all the negativity associated with them, have only killed 633 people since records on the subject began in 1958. That’s under 10 per year. Documents indicate at least 27 people died after being attacked by dogs in the United States in 2022; on average, between 30 and 50 die across the world each year. Every trip around the sun, in just the United States, approximately 28 people die from lightning strikes. The chances of getting nipped by a shark are extraordinarily low.

Since 2020, however, one monster of the ocean has rightly earned an aggressive reputation. At least those living near the Iberian Peninsula.

The Iberian Peninsula - graphic by Peter Fitzgerald

Orcinus orca –  AKA the orca AKA the killer whale – is the largest member of the dolphin family and the toothed whales. The “killer” nomenclature is simultaneously warranted and unfortunate. Orcas are fierce apex predators that live in every ocean on the planet. If you’re a fish, shark, ray, seal, or another species of dolphin or whale, you might find yourself dinner for orcas. These intelligent creatures are known for their ruthlessness, pursuing prey in packs to the point of exhaustion. Yet, no account exists of a wild orca ever killing a human. The only people to meet death at the mouth of an orca were handlers of captive animals.

Still, their striking appearance and intimidating physicality have impressed upon the psyches of humanity since time immemorial. The genus Orcinus comes from an Ancient Roman term for “of the kingdom of the dead” or “belonging to Orcus,” who was the god of the underworld. For all the Tolkien fans out there, the connection between orcas and orcs is likely not coincidental. Other cultures revered orcas as human benefactors or custodians of the sea. To some Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest, orcas manifested as the souls of dead chiefs.

Gorgeous orcas - photo by Robert Pittman

Statistics and histories display that humans think about orcas far more than they regard us. 

Starting in 2020, however, orcas off the coasts of Portugal and northern Spain started to pay attention to the inventions of humans. Reports started to arrive in the dozens that orcas were attacking boats. The harassment began in a mild fashion. Pods of orcas would approach a skiff, ram the rudder, nudge the side, and nibble at the rudder. The steering mechanism took the brunt of the attention.

In 2021, the behavior spread south to the Strait of Gibraltar. The incidents remained curious until July 2022, when orcas finally sank a boat. That November, they claimed a second floating victim. In May 2023, orcas harried a yacht that escaped immediate capsizing but succumbed when towed into a harbor. Since 2020, more than 500 orca attacks have been reported. In addition to the three scuttled ships, 250 have received significant damage. The incidents seem to be increasing in frequency.

Orca boat attacks in 2020
Through June 2023 - data by Grupo de trabajo Orca Atlántica/graphics by USA Today

Why are orcas suddenly attacking boats and why is it only happening in Iberia?

The second half of the question seems to have an easier answer than the first. Despite the cosmopolitan nature of their existence throughout the globe, genetically distinct super-pods tend to inhabit distinct areas. The Iberian section of the oceans is by no means tiny, yet researchers believe as few as 39 orcas inhabit these waters, following Atlantic bluefin tuna. This tiny set allowed for an interesting possibility: researchers might be able to identify the culprits thanks to academic tracking of the population.

As it turns out, just one orca family might be wreaking all the havoc. Based on photographic evidence and witness statements, scientists have identified 31 orcas in the vicinity of the attacks. At least nine are known to have physically contacted ships.

Thanks to the killer association, the orca once had a different scientific name: Orca gladiator. This combative vestige inspired modern scientists to christen the boat batterers Gladises. Each one receives the title Gladis and an additional tag. Gladis Bianca, or White Gladis, her children – Gladis Filabres and Gladis Tarik – and her sisters – Gladis Dalila and Gladis Clara – are responsible for many of the incidents. Another pod, composed of juveniles Gladis Gris (Grey Gladis) and the siblings Gladis Peque and Gladis Negra, have taken an interest in attacking ships. The matriarchs of these two groups –  Gladis Lamari and Gladis Herbille, respectively – are not known to have attacked; they simply sit back and watch.

So, the geographic reason for the happenings seems to be related to the specific orcas of the region.

An old classification of the orca - Smithsonian Libraries and Archives

The motivation behind the aggression is far less concrete.

The internet took off, filling with tales of orca uprisings. Perhaps White Gladis taught her children to take revenge on the machines that harmed a member of their family, they posited.

Until we learn to speak to oceanic mammals, the real reason might never be known. Researchers published an article in Marine Mammal Science offering several possibilities. Though the notion of “revenge” for orca motivation might be highly unlikely, they called one prospect a response to a “punctual aversive incident.” If one of the orcas had a rough encounter with a boat, they may have learned to view them as potential threats. However, far less serious causes are feasible, too. Even if an injury-inducing encounter didn’t transpire, they could still be participating in protective behavior. A marine biologist named Eric Shaw pointed to the propensity to attack the rudders, a mechanism they would view as the “tail” of another being, hoping to disable its propulsion. Despite being apex predators, orcas also tend to be rather playful. Perhaps curious orcas are playing with the boats. Dogs and cats sometimes play in manners we find rough. Other theories include a combination of the above or aberrant behavior connected with the depletion of natural prey.

Another scenario is more intriguing: fads. Orcas display rather complex intelligence and behavior. Across the decades of observing these whales, scientists have noticed conduct widespread enough to be termed cultural to certain pods. Every so often, orcas will engage in oddities with no seeming practicality, a rarity in the animal world. For example, in 1987, a group of orcas from Puget Sound decided they wanted to swim around with dead salmon on top of their heads.

They wore dead salmon as hats.

And, just as suddenly, they stopped.

Why did they wear dead salmon as hats? Why did people give themselves nasal spray tans on TikTok? Why did people start eating Tide Pods? The salmon hats seem more reasonable.

Many researchers believe the likely culprit for the boat attacks is curiosity, meaning we don’t really need to live in fear of the Revenge of Gladis Bianca or the coming of orca hegemony.

Or do we?

In June 2023, an orca rammed a yacht near the Shetland Islands in the North Sea. Is the behavior “leapfrogging through the various pods?” Are they scheming to take over the world?

The odds are still greater that we’ll overthrow ourselves with an ill-fated, social-media fad!

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