Orcas sink another yacht near Gibraltar in relentless 45-minute attack

Killer whales have sunk yet another boat in southwestern Europe, marking the fourth such incident in the region in the last two years.

The latest attack saw a pod of orcas target a yacht in the Strait of Gibraltar for about 45 minutes, Polish cruise company Morskie Mile said in a Facebook post on 31 October.

The boat’s operator said the relentless attack focused on the yacht’s steering fin and caused extensive damage and leakage.

“Despite attempts to bring the yacht to the port by the captain, crew and rescuers from the SAR (Search and Rescue), port tugs and the Moroccan Navy, the unit sunk near the entrance to the port of Tanger Med,” the company said, while adding that the crew was “safe, unharmed, and sound”.

The attack is the latest reported case of killer whales targetting boats in Gibraltar – a phenomenon that has intrigued animal behaviour scientists.

Cases of orcas harassing boats passing by in the Strait of Gibraltar, which runs between Spain and Morocco and connects the Atlantic Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea, began being reported in 2020.

The strange behaviour has perplexed scientists, with some theorising that the killer whales may be teaching each other to attack boats passing by in the region.

Researchers have floated a number of theories to explain the behaviour of the aquatic mammals.

These explanations range from food scarcity and the disruptive resumption of post-pandemic nautical activities to playful interactions.

There have been documented cases of “play behaviour” among different orca populations as some killer whales in previous studies were shown to “harass” porpoises.

Researchers suspect these were likely orchestrated by orcas as a form of social play to bond, communicate or simply for fun among themselves, and that the behaviour would provide benefits such as improved group coordination and teamwork.

But scientists have also begun to investigate whether the Gibraltar attacks are linked to past trauma.

Whatever the orcas’ motivation, such incidents have highlighted the more widespread concerns of scientists around the impact of human nautical activity on intelligent marine mammals.