Orcas are curious mammals who sometimes play with boats. But playing doesn’t quite describe what endangered pods have been doing in the Strait of Gibraltar, a major shipping route, this summer. Boaters say hard-hitting whales have spun their vessels up to 180 degrees and caused extensive damage. For more than an hour, orcas rammed the keel of Victoria Morris' 46-foot boat off Spain on July 29, disabling the auto helm and engine, reports the Guardian. "I thought they could capsize the boat," the skipper tells the outlet, noting the action felt "totally orchestrated." The boat drifted into the Strait of Gibraltar shipping lane between Cape Trafalgar and the town of Barbate before it was towed to safety. It had lost a chunk of rudder and had bite marks on the keel. There had been at least three similar incidents in the previous week.
First, four orcas struck a 40-foot boat near Barbate. "The impact tipped the boat sideways," says skipper Alfonso Gomez-Jordana Martin. He told the port authority that the whales "nearly dislocated the helmsman's shoulder and spun the whole yacht through 120 degrees." The previous day, orcas had spun two other vessels just off Barbate in episodes lasting 15 to 20 minutes. Experts aren't yet calling these "attacks," but they agree the behavior is highly unusual. "Sometimes they will bite the rudder, get dragged behind as a game," Rocío Espada, an orca researcher at the University of Seville, tells the Guardian. But "I've never seen or heard of attacks … For killer whales to take out a piece of a fiberglass rudder is crazy." The struggling whales might be frustrated after a period of calm brought by the coronavirus pandemic, per the Hill. But that's only a guess. (Read more orca stories.)