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Several killer whales 'interact' with a Salvamento Marítimo coastguard boat in Barbate in 2021.
'Interactions' between 'copycat' killer whales and boats in Spanish waters on the increase

'Interactions' between 'copycat' killer whales and boats in Spanish waters on the increase

This week, four crew members of a boat radioed Spain's coastguard for help after an orca rammed their vessel and damaged it while it was sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar

Álvaro Soto

Madrid

Friday, 26 May 2023

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The number of interactions between killer whales and boats is increasing in Spanish waters, particularly in the Strait of Gibraltar and off the shores of Galicia, with 500 recorded in just the past three years.

The latest incident occurred this week, when four crew members of the Mustique boat asked for help from Salvamento Marítimo after an orca rammed the vessel and damaged it while it was sailing in Tarifa.

Earlier, on 4 May, the waters of Barbate experienced one of the most serious incidents recorded. Three killer whales, one large and two small, attacked (although experts prefer to use the expression 'interacted with') a yacht.

"The small ones shook the rudder from behind while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the boat with full force from the side," Werner Schaufelberger, the German captain of the yacht, told Yacht magazine.

He said the smaller killer whales seemed to mimic the larger one. "They were watching the technique of the big one and with a slight upward stroke, they also rammed the boat,” he added.

The Spanish coastguard rescued the crew and towed the boat to Barbate, but it sank at the entrance to the harbour, the third shipwreck caused by killer whales in the past three years.

'Copycat effect'

Scientists have long questioned the reasons for this change in behaviour, which before the last three years never seemed to occur. But now they seem to outline an answer along the lines of Schaufelberger's observation; that there has been a probable 'copycat effect' following a traumatic incident involving a killer whale that researchers have named, Blanca Gladis.

Blanca Gladis suffered a "critical moment of agony" during an incident with a boat where it was trapped during illegal fishing. This triggered a change in her behaviour. "This traumatised killer whale is the one that initiated this behaviour of physical contact with the boat," López Fernández, a biologist at the University of Aveiro, in Portugal and member of the Orca Atlántica Working Group said.

In most of the reported cases, now reported by the publication 'Live Science', orcas have pounced on the rudder of a boat and bitten, bent or broken it, says the article, which points out that orcas are social creatures that can easily learn and reproduce behaviours performed by others.

"The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course, and although we are not sure of the causes of this situation, the hypothesis that is gaining more and more strength is that the origin of this defensive behaviour is some kind of trauma," López Fernández said.

The researcher, however, does not believe that the older orcas are teaching the younger ones to approach the boats. "The behaviour has spread to the youngsters by imitation and later, among themselves, because they consider it important for their lives," he added.

The encounters between killer whales and boats have increased concern about this species. "If this situation continues or escalates, it could become a real concern for the safety of boaters and a conservation problem for this endangered subpopulation of killer whales," the researcher warned.

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