Orcas are still destroying boats, but we’ve finally found out why

Orcas have been ramming and sinking luxury yachts in European waters for four years, and scientists are struggling to figure out why these smart, social animals have learned this destructive new trick. But unfortunately it is not their anti-capitalist ‘eat the rich’ agenda, nor does it have anything to do with territory and aggression. The truth is: it’s child’s play.

After years of research, a team of biologists, government officials and maritime industry representatives have released their findings on why exactly this is so Orcinus killer whale group has developed this destructive streak. And it turns out that orcas – especially the kids and teens – just want to have fun. The report shows that a combination of leisure, curiosity and natural playfulness has led young killer whales to adopt this boat bumping ‘trend’, which is not at all surprising for a species known to traditionally exhibit strange, isolated behavior . timing.

In recent years, a dramatic recovery of the region’s bluefin tuna population has been a victory for a group of about 40 critically endangered Iberian killer whales that feed exclusively on the big fish. This has led to them spending less time foraging, leaving room for other ‘hobbies’.

“Additionally, climate change could play a role, causing this tuna to be present in the Gulf of Cádiz continuously rather than seasonally,” the scientists noted. “This year-round abundance means it no longer seems necessary for the whales to chase every fish they come across.”

By analyzing data collected from individual killer whales and through observation, the scientists found that the ‘attacks’ on ships usually involved a few animals at a time, from a core group of fifteen that have so far been observed tampering with boats . But these “attacks” are anything but – at least from the killer whales’ perspective.

Most of the 15 were male juveniles and teenagers, the “most curious and exploratory” of an orca population, suggesting that what started as playful head-butting on boat rudders has escalated as the animals have grown larger. The team notes that this rudder bump behavior was observed around 2017, but the interactions did not result in any damage to the boat. Now that the orcas are bigger, their play has become a lot more vigorous.

And no orca older than 25 years old – when the males are fully grown – has been seen participating in this nonsense. Scientists suspect that younger orcas may have seen older siblings playing with their rudder “toys” and then copied them. (A few females have been spotted, but they are probably just there to look after the children.)

These social, playful animals seem to live up to their reputation
These social, playful animals seem to live up to their reputation

“Orcas are known to play with and damage other objects or animals in their environment (in the southern population of killer whales of Washington, USA, which feed on salmon, individuals will ‘play’ with porpoises as often as killing them, which could be a similar escalation of an initially less harmful interaction), so this behavior appears to fall within that spectrum,” the scientists wrote.

The animals are known to be sensitive to trends, with scientists having observed strange new behaviors that spread through a pod like a TikTok challenge, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Perhaps most famously, in 1987, a female killer whale was sighted in the Pacific Ocean near Puget Sound with a dead salmon on her head; Within two months, killer whales from her pod and two others were also wearing “fish hats.” But it was all a fad.

“Different populations often have different dietary specializations maintained through cultural transmission, and these ‘ecotypes’ typically have a variety of persistent behavioral traditions associated with their diverse foraging behavior,” the authors wrote. “Some populations may also develop unusual and temporary behavioral ‘fads’ and other idiosyncrasies that do not appear to serve any obvious adaptive purpose. Understanding recent boat interactions by Iberian killer whales may benefit from an examination of such short-lived traditions in other well-studied sources. killer whale populations.”

Yet one killer whale’s playtime is another human’s terrifying encounter, as this video from 2023’s The Ocean Race shows (fast forward to about 20 seconds).


Boat owners and authorities will no doubt hope that sooner or later this trend of rudder playing will also be phased out.

As of 2020, the Atlantic Orca Working Group (GTOA) reports that 673 ‘interactions’ have occurred between marine animals and watercraft since 2020, with at least four boats sinking. Just two weeks ago, an unknown number of killer whales – also known somewhat less favorably as killer whales – repeatedly rammed the 15-metre yacht Alboran Cognac in the Strait of Gilbraltar between Spain and North Africa. After the passengers and crew were rescued by an oil tanker, they watched from a distance as the yacht took on water and quickly disappeared beneath the surface.

In the latest sinking, Spanish maritime rescue organization SASEMAR issued a statement warning boat owners not to venture too far from shore and, whatever they do, not to anchor in open waters in the risk zone.

“In an ideal world, there would be a simple strategy that sailors could follow when killer whales come into contact with each other, which would prevent damage to ships and damage to the whales. Unfortunately, such a silver bullet does not appear to exist,” the authors wrote of the research. “The special agreement between the experts at this workshop is that the interactions between Iberian killer whales and ships are not aggressive. The interactions have more elements consistent with rage behavior or play/socialization than aggression. Thus, the use of terms such as ‘attack’ to describe these interactions is inappropriate, misleading and should stop.”

Source: International Whaling Commission

Back To Top