Orcas Spain boat race
In a image from video provided by The Ocean Race, an orca moves along a rudder of the Team JAJO entry in The Ocean Race on Thursday, June 22, 2023 Image Credit: The Ocean Race via AP

A pod of killer whales bumped one of the boats in an endurance sailing race on Thursdat as it approached the Strait of Gibraltar, the latest encounter in what researchers say is a growing trend of sometimes-aggressive interactions with Iberian orcas.

No one was injured, but Team JAJO skipper Jelmer van Beek said in a video posted on The Ocean Race website that it was “a scary moment.”

“Twenty minutes ago, we got hit by some orcas,” he said in the video. “Three orcas came straight at us and started hitting the rudders. Impressive to see the orcas, beautiful animals, but also a dangerous moment for us as a team.” The 15-minute run-in with at least three of the giant mammals forced the crew competing in The Ocean Race on Thursday to drop its sails and raise a clatter in an attempt to scare the approaching orcas off.

Increasing reports of inexplicable behaviour

Scientists have noted increasing reports of orcas, which average from 16-21 feet (5-6½ meters) and weigh more than 8,000 pounds (3,600 kilograms), bumping or damaging boats off the western coast of the Iberian Peninsula in the past four years.

The behavior defies easy explanation. A team of marine life researchers who study killer whales off Spain and Portugal has identified 15 individual orcas involved in the encounters — 13 of them young, supporting the hypothesis that they are playing. The fact that two are adults could support the competing and more sensational theory that they are responding to some traumatic event with a boat.

Recent sightings in the UAE

They might look beautiful but the truth is that they are the apex predators of the oceans. Killer whales - hunters par excellence with exceptional skills for strategic thinking.

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Orcas, as all wild animals usually mind their own business, unless man decides to interfere. So, why are they apparently downing boats off the Iberian coast, near Spain, Portugal and France. And rumour has it that it’s without any apparent provocation.

Also, there have been recent sightings of orcas off the coast of UAE.

We decided to take a deeper look into the animal’s behaviour to decode what might be happening and perhaps achieve a better understanding of this intriguing member of the whale family.

Orcas off the coast of UAE – why are they being sighted?

Major Ali Saqer Al Suwaidi, Chairman of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), explained, “In the wild, orcas, also known as killer whales, exhibit complex and fascinating behaviours. They are highly social animals that live in close-knit family groups called pods.

“Orcas live in matrilineal societies, where pods are led by older females, often the mother or grandmother. These pods consist of several related individuals, including offspring and sometimes the offspring’s offspring. Pods can vary in size from a few individuals to larger groups of 30 or more.” And they love to chat!

“Orcas are highly vocal animals and use a wide range of clicks, whistles, and calls to communicate with each other. These vocalisations are thought to serve various purposes, such as coordinating hunting strategies, maintaining contact within the pod, and social bonding.”

How long do orcas live?
The orca, also called killer whale, is the largest species in the dolphin family. Orcas are apex predators, which refers to the predators at the top of the food chain.
The average lifespan of an orca, or killer whale, varies between genders in orcas, according to Orca Conservancy, a US-based non-profit organisation working on behalf of Orcinus Orca, the killer whale.
“Females can outlive males by as much as 20 years. Several female Southern Resident killer whales have lived to a presumed age of 80+ but only one male is known to have lived beyond 50,” according to the conservancy.

Orcas are highly mobile and can cover vast distances in their search for food. “Some populations undertake long-distance migrations, while others exhibit more localised movements. They are known to traverse both coastal and open ocean environments.”

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Speaking about the recent sighting of orcas off the coast of the UAE, Al Suwaidi said that this was not an uncommon occurrence.

“It is not a recent phenomenon or because of El Nino [upper levels of ocean water warm up due to climatic changes]. Orcas have been spotted in UAE waters since 2003. They come here during colder months usually – even up until the water is 30°C they are fine. But they don’t stay in one place. Orcas have been known to travel around 200 kilometres in a day.

“Killer whales are found in all oceans and most seas. While they are most abundant in colder waters like Antarctica, Norway, and Alaska, they are also found in tropical and subtropical waters. The ones that visit UAE shores usually come from the Indian Ocean, they usually come following tuna and king fish which migrate here during cooler months. They find their food in abundance here during that time. Orcas are skilled hunters that coordinate attacks as a group.”

They have a diverse diet that includes fish, squid, and marine mammals such as seals, sea lions, and even other whales. They employ different hunting techniques, such as cooperative hunting and wave-washing, where they create waves to knock prey off ice floes, or sheets of floating ice.

Orcas have been spotted in UAE waters since 2003. They come here during colder months usually – even up until the water is 30°C they are fine. But they don’t stay in one place. Orcas have been known to travel around 200 kilometres in a day.

- Major Ali Saqer Al Suwaidi, Chairman of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG)
Spyhop, lobtailing and breaching: Orca communication systems
Major Ali Saqer Al Suwaidi, Chairman of the Emirates Marine Environmental Group (EMEG), explained, “Orcas are known for their acrobatic behaviour, including breaching, where they leap out of the water and then crash back down. While the exact reason for breaching is not fully understood, it could be a form of communication, play, or hunting technique.
“Spyhopping is when an orca vertically lifts its head out of the water, allowing its eyes and the top part of its body to emerge above the surface. This behaviour may help them observe their surroundings and investigate objects or prey above the water.
“Orcas often engage in tail slapping, where they repeatedly slap their tails against the water's surface. This behaviour may serve as a means of communication, a way to stun or herd prey, or a form of play. Lobtailing is similar, but instead of slapping the tail, the orca hits the water with its flukes.”

Orcas and their reaction to boats – the many reasons

According to Al Suwaidi the behaviour of orcas, in the presence of boats or people can vary depending on the context, the individual orca, and the specific circumstances. He shared four different types of behaviours that have been observed among orcas.

“Orcas are known to be curious animals and may approach boats to investigate them. They might swim alongside or under boats, spyhop (lift their heads above the water to observe), or circle around them. This behaviour can be a natural response to a novel object in their environment.

“They sometimes exhibit a behaviour called bow riding, where they swim in the wake or the bow wave created by moving boats. This behaviour can be seen as a form of play, but it may also provide energy-saving benefits for the orcas as they use the boat's movement to their advantage.”

Orcas are highly vocal animals, and when they encounter boats or people, they may increase their vocalisations. “This behaviour could be a means of communication within their pod or a response to the presence of the boat,” Al Suwaidi said.

“In some cases, orcas may display avoidance behaviours and keep their distance from boats or people. This can happen if they feel threatened or if previous negative experiences have conditioned them to associate boats with danger.”

Why then are orcas attacking boats off the Iberian coastline?

Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (GTOA) or the Atlantic Orca Working Group studies cetaceans – which refers to the group of marine mammals including whales, dolphins and porpoises – and their interaction with fishing and human activities.

Alfredo Lopez Fernandez, a member of GTOA and a biologist and researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal, spoke to Gulf News about the Orca-boat incidents that they have recorded in the past three years.

“Since 2020, we have recorded 744 encounters – sightings and interactions, with orcas from the North African coast to France’s northwestern-most region of Brittany. Of these, 239 are sightings, where the orcas are observed far from the boats, and 505 are interactions, in which killer whales react to the presence of approaching boats. In some cases they are interactions without physical contact, in other cases they are interactions with physical contact, without damage and in other cases these physical contacts cause damage that becomes serious, preventing the navigation of ships. This happens in 19.9 per cent of the interactions.

“The frequency increased between 2020 and 2021, since the events started in July 2020. But between 2021 and 2022 there was no significant increase.” He didn’t make any observation of a marked increase from 2022 to 2023 either.

They are not attacks but interactions

Talking about the downing of boats by orcas, Fernandez said that it was wrong to term them as attacks. He called them “interactions”.

“It is very common for dolphins to interact with boats and get close. Before 2020, orcas did it frequently and no one called this an attack, but now they sometimes touch the boats and all encounters are unfairly classified as attacks. They are socially judged before understanding what they do,” he said.

It is very common for dolphins to interact with boats and get close. Before 2020, orcas did it frequently and no one called this an attack, but now they sometimes touch the boats and all encounters are unfairly classified as attacks. They are socially judged before understanding what they do.

- Alfredo Lopez Fernandez, biologist and researcher at the University of Aveiro in Portugal

Then what exactly is happening in these interactions?

Fernandez said that the group has two theories. “We have developed two hypotheses. One that it could be self-induced behaviour, which means that they invent something new and repeat it. This behaviour matches the profile of juveniles. Another could be that they are responding to an aversive situation, that is that one or several individuals have had a bad experience [with either human or boats] and they are trying to stop the boat so as not to repeat it. This behaviour coincides with the profile of adults.”

Even if the second theory is accepted, Fernandez said that they did not know what the exact trigger for such behaviour could have been.

However, he provided some instances which might lead to the theory that younger orcas are imitating the behaviour of an older orca, who was named White Gladis.

“Gladis refers to the orcas which interact with boats and touches them. There are 15 different Gladis that we were able to document, of which three were first identified and one of them is the White Gladis.”

Humans might be at the heart of the problem

Here is what the group has observed about the White Gladis, who was the older orca involved with the first documented interaction in 2020.

“She is the only adult that started in 2020 with interactions in the middle of seven other juveniles. Then, in 2021, she even interacted with her newborn daughter, so the motivation that moves her to interact is even greater because of the maternal instinct to protect [her newborn from the boat or humans].

“We know that many boats use fishing lines from the stern to fish – orcas come to examine them. Last year, a boat carrying fishing lines caught an orca and this year, in 2023, an orca was observed carrying a line hanging from her body,” he said.

“Even though it is a mere hypothesis, we believe that there are many arguments that indicate that an incident caused by entrapment is feasible. It is possible that the orca that initiated this behaviour [in the first place] was the White Gladis.”

She essentially communicated her unhappiness with boats and humans to the orca community, who then decided to step up – probably.

However, White Gladis is not the only Gladis that is being studied by the group. Two other Gladis – Negra and Grey, have also had traumatic experiences with marine vessels.

“Gladis Negra had injuries in 2020, which could have been caused by an assault, and also injuries in 2021 as a possible anthropogenic [originating in human activity] origin. In both cases she is progressing favourably and this orca has reduced the frequency and intensity of interactions, possibly due to changing roles in the group and not so much due to injuries.”

As per an NBC news report, British researchers have concluded that “female killer whales become key leaders in their pods only after they age out of fertility” thereby changing their function within a pod.

The American Smithsonian magazine explains that “orcas have evolved complex culture: a suite of behaviours animals learn from one another”. So, they will interact based on what they learn from within their pods, based on its hierarchy.

“There is a third Gladis – Gray Gladis, which we know witnessed a mate entrapment in fishing gear in 2018. All this makes us reflect on the fact that human activities, even in an indirect way, are at the origin of this behaviour.

“It is a problem for the conservation of the species – as long as we do not have more information on how, when and where these cases occurred, we will not be able to find a solution,” he added.

Be responsible when interacting with wildlife

A sentiment reiterated by Major Al Suwaidi. “Approaching or interacting with wild orcas should always be done with caution and in accordance with local laws and guidelines to minimise disturbance and ensure the well-being of the animals.

“Responsible boating practices often include maintaining a safe distance, reducing speed, minimising engine noise, and avoiding abrupt changes in direction or speed when near orcas or other marine wildlife. These practices help to minimise potential stress and disturbance to the animals while still allowing for respectful observation and appreciation of their natural behaviours,” Al Suwaidi concluded.

This story was originally published online on June 6, but was updated on June 24 with the latest global events and updates.