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Orcas Attacking Boats Off Spanish Coast Or Are We Attacking Orcas

Orca gets attaked by humans
Orca gets attaked by humans

Killer whales or Orcas have been attacking boats off the coast near Spain and Portugal. This subpopulation is becoming known as the Iberian Orcas. The incident on the 4th of May, 2023, resulted in severe ship damage, causing it to sink. It is the third time in three years that an Orca attack has resulted in a vessel sinking. Orcas attacking boats are occurring more frequently in this area. The reasons why are not completely clear, but we are exploring a few theories in the video below with a wildlife expert and vet student.


Orca behavior towards vessels varies, but they are generally known for their playful curiosity. This curiosity is often observed in ‘bow-riding’ – swimming in the pressure wave created by a ship’s bow. However, the recent shift from curious interaction to seemingly aggressive assaults is fascinating and alarming. 

In these unusual encounters, orcas have been seen to ram the rudders and keels of moving boats, causing significant damage. They’ve been described as swimming in tightly coordinated formations before launching their attacks. This coordinated attack displays exceptional levels of collective intelligence and strategic capability.

killer whale attack

Key Points – Orca Attack

  • Orcas, specifically known as the Iberian Orcas, have increasingly been attacking boats off the coast near Spain and Portugal, causing significant damage and some vessels to sink.
  • Orcas are shifting from their usual curious behavior towards boats, such as ‘bow-riding’, to what appears to be aggressive attacks. These attacks show a high level of coordination and strategy, leading some to believe they are deliberate actions.
  • Several theories attempt to explain this behavior: a response to the depletion of their natural prey due to overfishing, an act of retaliation against increased boat traffic and noise pollution, a form of play or training for their young, or a reaction to a traumatic encounter with a boat.
  • The case of a female orca named White Gladis suggests that the orcas may learn aggressive behavior towards boats through cultural transmission, implying one orca’s traumatic experience could influence others’ actions.
  • The rise in orca attacks stimulates new research into these creatures’ behavior. The situation serves as a reminder of the fragile balance in our ecosystems and the impact human activities can have on the natural world. The article emphasizes the need for marine conservation and sustainable co-existence with these intelligent creatures.

Where are Orcas attacking boats?

Incidents involving orcas attacking boats off the coasts of Spain and Portugal have increased. This part of the Atlantic Ocean, particularly the Strait of Gibraltar, is a known hotspot for orca activity. The aggressive behavior of orcas towards vessels has taken many by surprise. Since 2020 there have been 500 reported events where an orca interacted with a boat. 

Why are Orcas attacking boats?

Orcas are attacking boats in a highly coordinated manner. Pods of orcas have rammed the keels and rudders of sailboats. Causing significant damage and occasionally leaving the vessels inoperable. They strike so precisely that some scientists suspect the behavior is deliberate, perhaps a coordinated effort among the pod members. Orcas are learning to attack boats via cultural transmission.

Depleted food stocks

A theory is that the depletion of their natural prey due to overfishing is causing orcas to attack boats. This could be out of frustration or mistaken identification as potential food sources. Orcas attack and eat other marine animals, such as seals, sharks, and other whales. Which might bear a superficial resemblance to smaller boats. 


A proposed explanation is that the orcas retaliate against increased boat traffic in their habitat. The noise pollution from engines may disrupt communication, leading to stress and increased aggression.

Playing and Training

The attacks could be a form of play or training. Orcas teach their young hunting techniques by playing with their prey. They are using boats as substitutes in these practice sessions. This behavior could be a form of play or a teaching technique to educate their young, using the boats as moving targets. 

Trauma from a previous incident

Lastly, one orca may have had a traumatic encounter or moment of severe pain. This could have been with a ship, resulting in them behaving aggressively toward boats. Because Orcas learn by cultural transmission, the behavior of this one orca has led to others following suit. A female orca named White Gladis is suspected of being the victim of a traumatizing collision or entrapment with boats. This event could have resulted in her attacking ships; as she did this, other orcas followed suit. 

Wrapping it up – Orca Attack

Ultimately, it’s essential to remember that orcas are not the villains in this story, merely responding to changes in their environment. The increasing incidence of orcas attacking boats is not just a tale of interspecies conflict but also a reminder of human activities’ profound impact on the natural world.

The Orca, or “killer whale,” has moved from an object of wonder to a cause for concern. This story is a stark reminder that the balance in our ecosystems is fragile. The intelligence they display, even in aggression, is a testament to their adaptive capabilities. Keeping the balance of marine ecosystems and orca intelligence in mind as we work toward solutions is crucial. 

The rise in orca attacks on boats has stimulated new research into these magnificent creatures’ behavior. Hopefully, it will shed light on these incidents and further insight into orca behavior. 

killer whales

To learn more about Orcas, click one of the links below to read more about them.

How and Why Orcas are Dominating False Bay

A Rare Spectacle as Orcas are Spotted off Cape Cod

Watch How These Cunning Orcas Outsmart an Unsuspecting Seal

Boaters Survive an Attack by a Killer Whale

Frequently asked questions of Orcas attacking boats

Why are the orcas attacking boats?

The reasons for the recent rise in orca attacks on boats remain speculative. Scientists suggest that the noise from boats and increased maritime traffic could be causing stress and disruption in their communication. This may lead to aggressive behavior. Another hypothesis proposes that overfishing has depleted the orcas’ natural prey, causing them to mistake boats for potential food sources. The attacks could also be a form of play or a teaching technique adult orcas use to educate their young.

Have orcas ever attacked boats?

There have been several reported incidents of orcas attacking boats in recent years. Especially occurring off the coasts of Spain and Portugal. Orcas often ram into the vessels’ hull or rudder, which causes significant damage, and have left some boats inoperable.

Why are orcas attacking fishing boats off the coast of Gibraltar?

As with other boat attacks, the exact reasons for the rise in orca attacks on fishing boats are unknown. The Strait of Gibraltar is a known hotspot for orca activity. Increased fishing activity in this area might disrupt the orcas’ natural behavior and habitats. Overfishing could deplete their natural prey, leading to frustration or mistaken identification of the boats as potential food sources. It seems these orcas are learning to attack boats from others in the area.

What to do if an orca attacks your boat?

In the event of an orca attack, safety for both the people on board and the orcas is paramount. It’s recommended to cease navigation and avoid abrupt maneuvers that might further provoke or harm the animals. Don’t attempt to feed or touch the orcas. If the situation allows, try to move away slowly without agitating the animals. After the incident, report it to the local maritime or wildlife authorities, providing as much detail as possible. This can aid ongoing research and contribute to a better understanding of such events.

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