In the early hours of Thursday, May 25, a group of orcas rammed the sailboat ‘Mustique’ when it was sailing towards Gibraltar. As reported by Reuters, the cetaceans broke the rudder and pierced the hull of the boat, causing the four crew members of the ship to contact the Spanish rescue authorities. Finally, the Mustique, 20 meters long, was towed by Salvamento Marítimo to the port of Barbate.
A strange behaviour. In addition, in that same area, the Alborán Champagne sailboat was wholesale on May 5th by another group of orcas. These interactions -a term used by Maritime Rescue- between mammals and ships, however, are not isolated events. In the last three years, this type of interactions have been repeated on the coasts of Spain and Portugal, and scientists are now wondering the reason for this behavior by orcas.
Interactions increase. As recently reported by SIC Notícias, interactions between killer whales and boats on the Atlantic coasts of the two Iberian countries began in 2020. According to the Atlantic Orca Working Group, in 2021 there were 197 interactions between Iberian killer whales in the Strait of Gibraltar and the Moroccan coast; in 2022, 207 interactions were registered and, so far in 2023, the registration of interactions amounts to 48.
The cycle of the Iberian killer whales. Of that number, 27 correspond to interactions that occurred in the Strait of Gibraltar in the last two months: 9 in April and 18 in May. This increase in interactions is linked, in part, to the cycle followed by Iberian killer whales, an endangered species: according to Orca Ibérica, only 35 specimens were identified this year.
Through the Strait in spring. The Iberian killer whales have an average length that oscillates between five and six meters, somewhat less than that of other killer whales such as arctic ones -which can reach nine meters- and they feed on bluefin tuna in the Strait of Gibraltar during spring and summer. summer. In autumn they continue their route towards the coast of Portugal and Galicia, plunging into deep waters. In winter they return, staying in the waters of the north of the peninsula until spring, when they repeat the cycle.
Exceptionally strange. Alfredo López, a doctor in biology and a member of GT Orca Atlántica, stated in conversations with the Associated Press that the incidents were exceptional, but remarkably rare. “In no case that we have analyzed have we noticed any behavior that could be considered aggressive,” said López, noting that the cetaceans appeared “calm, nothing like when they are hunting.”
It can be a game. However, López indicated two hypotheses that would explain this strange behavior of mammals. In this sense, the biologist pointed out that his work group identified 15 specimens involved in the recorded incidents: 13 are young orcas and two are adult orcas. Therefore, one of the explanations could simply be that the young specimens are playing, since these animals are “incredibly curious and playful”, according to words recently collected by SIC Notícias.
It can be revenge. Another explanation could be that one -or both- of the adult specimens have suffered a traumatic experience in an interaction with a ship. This would have caused an aggressive reaction that the rest of the younger specimens would have learned by imitation. In this sense, a study published in June 2022 indicated that the origin of this behavior could be an orca named White Gladis, which could have suffered a traumatic experience such as a collision with a ship or having been trapped by a fishing boat. illegal.
The government watches. On the other hand, the Ministry for the Ecological Transition and the Demographic Challenge announced on May 30 that it was working on the “satellite marking of six killer whales to minimize interaction with the boats,” as recently reported by Europa Press. The ministry will have the collaboration of Circe (Conservation, Information and Study on Cetaceans), and will share the data collected with the administrations, which will transmit said information to the navigators.
Tips to avoid having a bad scare. In short, the Iberian killer whales are having a behavior that confuses scientists and sailors. For this reason, it is important to remember some of the advice that the researcher Ezequiel Andreu provided in April 2021 in an interview with Cadena SER in case of interaction. Among them, lowering the speed of the ship, leaving the rudder and -in the case of a sailboat- lowering the sail; contact emergencies and move away from any part of the boat that could fall or turn suddenly.
Imagen: Mike Doherty / Unsplash
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