A gang of hooligan killer whales are terrorising sailors in the waters off northern Spain as climate change drives them out of their traditional hunting grounds.
The first reports of orcas making bizarre attacks on fishing boats in Spanish and Portuguese coastal waters emerged in Autumn 2020.
But now, as warming temperatures have driven shoals of tuna – the whales’ main food – further north, fishermen have reported half a dozen run-ins with the marine mammals are in the Bay of Biscay near Brittany.
READ MORE: Sharp rise in number of killer whales attacking boats across Europe
Norwegian medical student Ester Kristine Storkson was sailing to Madeira with her dad in a 12-metre yacht when they were suddenly attacked by the group of killer whales: "The whales kept ramming us,” she wrote on Facebook. “We had the impression that it was a co-ordinated attack".
The whales seem to particularly focus their attacks on the boats’ rudders. The Iberian Orca group, which promotes the conservation of orcas off Spain, that nearly half of the boats that are rammed suffer damage to their rudders.
In one early attack, Victoria Morris was aboard a 46ft delivery boat just off Cape Trafalgar when it was surrounded by nine orcas.
The orcas kept up their attack for over an hour, ramming the boat so hard it span on its axis, the rudder broke and the engine failed.
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A Facebook group for small boat owners to share their experiences lists some 15,000 whale attacks – with one sailor saying that the killer whales were “very determined to bite us”.
But a spokesman from the conservation group, Alfredo López, warns against over-reacting to the incidents: "They are not attacks,” he said, “they are interactions.
“That is, killer whales detect a foreign object that enters their lives and respond to its presence, but not in an aggressive way”.
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The group has advised sailors who encounter the hooligan orcas to lower their sails and immobilise their craft, with the wheel or tiller loose to leave the rudder free.
Orcas are very intelligent creatures, and the behaviour seems to have spread through killer whale culture as a sort of fashion.
Christophe Guinet, a French researcher who has written a book on orcas, has said the habit of boat bumping and ramming, "probably started with one rather bold individual years ago and his relatives imitated him little by little so it became a habit".
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