A traumatized orca called White Gladis may be behind the rise in killer whale attacks on boats in the Atlantic Ocean, scientists believe.
While most orca interactions with boats are harmless, there has been a spike in aggressive behavior towards boats since 2020, biologist Alfredo Lopez Fernandez told LiveScience. As Insider recently reported, there have even been three cases of the distinctive black and white creatures sinking vessels by ramming into them.
As Lopez Fernandez said, it seems that orcas are imitating the aggressive behavior of other killer whales.
Experts think White Gladis had “a critical moment of agony” such as colliding into a boat, or getting trapped in illegal fishing. LiveScience reported. It is possible that this event traumatized White Gladis and led her to ram other boats.
Orcas being highly social creatures, Lopez Fernandez suggested that they may be passing the behavior on through imitation.
“We don’t interpret the orcas as teaching their young. The behavior spread vertically to them by simple imitation and then horizontally because it is important for them,” Lopez Fernandez said in an interview with LiveScience.
A collaboration of researchers found more than 200 reports of “interactions,” where orcas approach or touch a vessel in the ocean around the Iberian Peninsula since 2020.
Other experts believe that the change in behavior may just be a “fad.”
“They are incredibly curious and playful animals, and so this might be more of a plaything as opposed to an aggressive thing,” Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington, told LiveScience.
While the vast majority of the attacks do not cause boats to sink, the encounters can still be terrifying, as one British couple on vacation in Morocco recently discovered.
The couple told The Times how they had considered escaping on a life raft after a pod of orcas attacked their yacht during a sailing trip off the coast of northwestern Africa.
Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell were on an already-bumpy ride when the crew spotted the killer whales on May 2 in the Strait of Gibraltar.
The couple was awoken from a nap by crew members shouting: “Orcas! Orcas!” as a pod of killer whales began banging into their 46-foot boat, per The Times.
Morris said that he was shocked when he saw the killer whales. It’s very rare. We were sitting ducks. We were amazingly calm, but underneath, we were thinking, ‘Oh my god.'”
“We were petrified. It wasn’t until afterward that we talked about being very scared,” the 58-year-old added, mainly because it was hard to distinguish the turbulent weather from the movement of the whales.
The Strait of Gibraltar connects the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. It has also been called “orca Alley ” because of the number of killer whales that inhabit the area.