Orcas Have Sunk Another Boat in Europe — Here's What to Do If You Are Under Attack

15 May 2024 By Kate Lardy

Kate got her start in the yachting industry working as crew. She spent five years cruising the Bahamas, Caribbean, New England, and Central America, then segued that experience into a career in marine journalism, including stints as editor of Dockwalk and ShowBoats International.

Experts are baffled as Orcas continue their reign of terror in the Strait of Gibraltar, disabling rudders and, in some cases, sinking boats. Is it revenge? Trauma? Boredom? Here's what you need to do if you find yourself under attack...

“We need assistance,” went the call out on channel 16. “Immediately,” a second voice is heard saying in the background of the Instagram story. “We need assistance immediately,” the crewmember repeated. “We are sinking, we are sinking.”

The 20-meter S/Y Mustique had been en route from the Azores to Gibraltar when a pod of orcas approached. The crew shut off the engine, hoping the cetaceans would simply investigate and leave, but as darkness descended they stayed, repeatedly pushing their three- to four-tonne bodies against the rudder, causing shudders on deck, until the rudder broke.

The crew prepared the emergency rudder, but the killer whales’ relentless assault made it impossible for them to install it. They made a pan-pan call when they lost steering, requesting a tow, while they prepared the tender to be launched and gathered life jackets and grab bags. This was escalated to a Mayday when the orcas tore a hole in the hull so large that the bilge pump couldn’t keep up; the crew of four were then forced to bail seawater by bucket to keep the boat afloat.

This real-life worst-case scenario has a somewhat happy ending in that a tugboat and a helicopter with an industrial pump answered Mustique’s Mayday. Once the pump was in place, the yacht was able to be towed to port — with the orcas still following — and hoisted. On the hard, the damage was plain to see: the rudder was destroyed, and where it met the hull bottom, there was a sizable hole, from which several deep cracks webbed into the fiberglass hull. Amazingly, Mustique was the fifth yacht with rudder damage by orcas that particular week in May 2023, the authorities told crewmember April Boyes, who posted this account on her blog,

Other yachts sailing in the same area haven’t been as lucky, such as the 13-meter Jeanneau Grazie Mamma, which sank on October 31, 2023. “[The orcas] hit the rudder for 45 minutes, causing major damage and leakage. Despite attempts to bring the yacht to the port by the captain, crew, and rescuers from SAR, port tugs, and the Moroccan Navy, the hull sank near the entrance to the port of Tanger-Med,” reads the Facebook post by Polish charter company Morskie Mile.

These interactions follow a similar pattern, with several sea mammals targeting the rudder, and all involve a particular subpopulation of the killer whale called the Iberian orca, which migrates between the Strait of Gibraltar and the north of the Iberian Peninsula. The 2023 census of this critically endangered subpopulation identified just 37 members, of which only 18 would be considered adults.

The “disruptive” behavior of touching boats was first witnessed in 2020 among a few juveniles, says the Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atlántica (Atlantic Orca Working Group), or GTOA, made up of cetacean experts convened to monitor the interactions. The behavior spread to other juveniles and adults; by 2022, there were 15 specific orcas that had been identified as interacting with vessels. Fifty-two incidents were recorded in the second half of 2020, which rose to 197 in 2021 and 207 in 2022.

Why it is happening, no one is certain; it’s a totally new behavior not recorded anywhere else on the planet. Theories among scientists range from the interactions being playful and curious to being the result of past trauma, but it is doubtful that any skipper who experienced it would use a word as lighthearted as “playful.” The skipper of S/Y Alboran Champagne, for example, called it a “brutal attack” in the German magazine Yacht. His yacht didn’t survive the rescue tow and sank just outside of port. While it may feel like an attack to crew, GTOA is quick to point out, “There is no evidence of aggressive intent in this behavior. Orcas cannot be accused of living in their own environment, where we are the intruders.” And while a yacht sinking is alarming, what is also of concern is that two orcas in this small subpopulation have died due to unknown causes since 2020, which is beyond the normal number.

Ninety-one percent of the vessels affected have been sailing monohulls and catamarans of 12 to 15 meters in length, says marine biologist Dr. Alfredo López of GTOA. But the orcas have touched boats up to 38 meters, he says, and in Portugal’s Algarve region they are pushing on the tubes of 10-meter RIBS, the type and the length that a superyacht might have. About half of these orca interactions lead to vessel damage, and of those, 40 percent (or 20 percent of all interactions) result in serious damage that requires a tow, according to GTOA.

If orcas do approach, GTOA says, “The speed of the ship and the resistance of the rudder cause [the orcas] to persist in action. Stopping the movement, stopping the engine, and letting go of the rudder causes them to drop their interest, ceasing the interaction in most cases. It has been shown that animals tend to hit the rudder harder as they feel more pressure on it and the damage to ships tends to be larger. Orcas can be stimulated by human actions to interact with the boat, so please try to stay out of their sight and do not shout, hit them, or throw things at them.”

To avoid hot spots, boaters can consult GTOA’s website at and its GT Orcas app, available on Google Play and the App Store, which include maps showing the latest interactions. López further recommends, “Avoid sailing at night and get closer to the coast, as far as possible.”

GTOA also encourages boaters to share recorded sighting information via email, including photographs and videos, to aid in its mission to categorize these orcas and track the interactions.

The good news is no one is predicting the unique actions of these Iberian orcas will spread to other parts of the world. “Orcas transmit behavior by imitation, one learns from the other. But it is a cultural and identity behavior, very unlikely to be transferred to orcas from other populations,” López says.


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