“I’m not easily scared, but what happened to us was terrifying,” recalls boat skipper David Smith one afternoon in October when what at first looked like dolphins surrounded his boat.
It quickly became apparent that they were animals much larger than dolphins. And they were behaving very strangely.
“I looked at them and saw that they were jet black and bright white.”
For about two hours, a group of killer whales rammed the bottom of his yacht sailing off the coast of Portugal.
“It was continuous,” he says. “I think there were six or seven, it seemed like the youngest were the most active. They seemed to go for the helm. The wheel turned very fast every time there was an impact, “says David, who is dedicated to bringing recently purchased boats to their owners.
“Do not attract attention”
In this case, he was part of a team that was taking a catamaran from France to Gibraltar.
The ship was 32.2 km from Porto, at least three hours from the Portuguese coast.
With their radio out of range, they had to use the satellite phone to contact the coast guard.
He advised them to turn off the engine and put the candles away.
Be it “less flashy” that they can, they were told.
“We were adrift. And while talking on the phone, I could hear how they rammed the ship. At one point, one of the larger animals went straight to the stern and rolled over on its back, you could see its bright white underside. “
The repetitive pounding on the ship, disturbing as it was, was not David’s greatest fear.
As the rudder spun back and forth, he thought the animals might be about to break steering column that goes through the hull of the ship.
“If it fractures, are you really in trouble“he says.” I was preparing to ask the Portuguese Coast Guard to send a helicopter. “
This encounter is one of at least 40 incidents similar events occurred in the area.
During the summer of 2020, the strangest of summers for many of us, a group of killer whales off the coast of Spain and Portugal he started to act very strange.
The accounts of the incidents agree that the animals were deliberately for the sailing ships.
As David says: “They came to us, not the other way around.”
The first reported incident was in July. The most recent in late October.
Behind the international headlines about “rogue killer killer whales,” “planned” killer whale attacks, and videos shared thousands of times on social media is a marine science forensic investigation.
Smart and sociable
The team is still trying to figure out what is driving these complex, intelligent and highly social marine mammals to behave in this way.
On Davis’s boat, after two hours everything was silent and the rudder stopped turning.
Damage to the ship became another piece of evidence in the ongoing investigation.
“At first I couldn’t believe it,” says Ruth Esteban, a soft-spoken marine scientist who chooses her words carefully, not wanting to speculate on something so complex like the behavior of killer whales.
Esteban now works at the Madeira Whale Museum, but he studied this population of killer whales for six years; they were the subject of his Ph.D.
“These killer whales always are curious by the boats and that’s why they approach them, “he says.
“But touching them and causing harm? When I heard it I just thought that people were scared and misunderstanding what was happening.”
But news of attacks kept coming.
“It is getting worse more and more, “says Renaud de Stephanis, another biologist involved in the research and who used to work with Ruth.
Renaud has been studying this orca population since the 1990s.
The two scientists are now part of the group conducting informal research on this strange and potentially dangerous behavior.
Identifying the culprits
They began collecting evidence in September.
They compared the images of the incidents with a catalog of images recorded and used by CIRCE to identify the animals.
Each orca has the dorsal fin in a unique way, which serves to identify them.
The videos showed that three specimens were involved in most of the incidents, all young boys and males.
The official record appear with the name of Black Gladis, White Gladis and Gray Gladis.
And there is one conclusion that scientists have confidently drawn from their research and years of observing these killer whales: they were playing.
A dangerous game
“They always seem to go for the helm, and I think it’s because it is a moving part of the ship“explains Ruth.” In some cases they can move the whole boat with it. We see, in some of the videos, how a sailboat has turned almost 180 degrees “.
“If they see that they have the power to move something really big, maybe that is impressive to them.”
There are no records of a wild orca killing a human. But when orcas play, it can be scary.
“They can weigh four to five tons and when they play, they do it really hard,” says Renaud.
The mind of an orca
Neuroscientist Lori Marino, president of the Whale Sanctuary Project, is one of the few people who has seen the inside of an orca’s brain.
She and her colleagues scanned the brain of a deceased captive orca for a study in 2004.
Lori thinks we are misinterpreting the species completely by trying to pigeonhole their behavior into simple categories like good or bad, aggressive or playful.
But there is a more important reason for Ruth, Renaud, and the team to try to adjust the language associated with these incidents.
“It was really scary for people, I can understand that,” says Ruth.
“But we don’t want to call it an attack. We call it interaction“.
Ruth says the language used in the news and posts on social media, including by the Coast Guard, has been accusatory and captivating.
She and the other researchers are concerned that these descriptions may provoke the persecution of the orcas, which are already in danger of extinction.
Renaud, however, admits to being frustrated and genuinely concerned about the orcas’ behavior.
“From what I’m seeing, it’s mainly two of them. [de los Gladis] the ones with crazy behavior, “he says.
“Simply they play, play and play. And the game is getting worse. “
Renaud himself suffered this disturbing behavior while on his own boat.
Last year, one of the younger specimens – probably one of the same animals – repeatedly chased his boat by pushing the propeller on his outboard motor.
“They love it. And I don’t know why”, sighs. “It just seems to be something that really they like it and that’s it“.
Despite these explanations, the scientific community remains genuinely concerned about some of the more recent incidents.
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