COMPREHENDING ORCAS: Why the Heck Are They Messing With Sailboats?


Oct. 5/2023:  I wrote a tongue-in-cheek post about the orcas-messing-with-boats phenomenon back when the first incidents off Spain and Portugal were reported three years ago. It says something about the state of marine journalism, I suppose, that the most intelligent and interesting article I’ve read on the subject since then was recently published in the London Review of Books. I urge you to give it a look.

It’s a pretty straightforward situation: one pod of orcas haunting the approaches to the Strait of Gibraltar have been molesting sailboats within their territory and have even succeeded in sinking a few. (No humans, however, have suffered any harm or injuries.) There has been one report of a similar incident in Scottish waters, with an ominous suggestion the behavior might spreading to other orca pods, but so far that seems to have been an anomalous event.

Sailors have been adapting to the situation (see this Facebook group here), and it seems the most successful strategy is to simply hug the coast when transiting the area. This chart developed by the Spanish government shows where most incidents have been taking place:

It also very clear the orcas are most interested in messing with sailboat rudders. These images here show typical sorts of damage suffered:

This very excellent video shot by the crew of Team JAJO, when they were bothered by orcas during the Ocean Race this past summer, includes underwater footage of orcas sniffing around their rudders. They escaped unscathed, presumably because they both stopped the boat and made a bunch of banging noises.

Since then there have been reports that an “acoustic deterrent device” originally developed to keep marine mammals from fooling with fishing gear will be tested in Spanish and Portuguese waters to see if it can also help sailors transit the affected area without mishap.

One thing I’ve noticed is that there have been no reports of orcas messing with boats that have rudders attached to the back of a full keel. All incidents appear to involve rudders that protrude from the main body of a hull. So it may be that sailors favoring traditional boats have nothing to fear.

We can only speculate as to why orcas are doing this. As noted in the London Review of Books article: “We may understand less about orcas than they do about us.” It goes on to discuss how orcas and humans once cooperated in hunting whales in a bay on the coast of New South Wales, and how one in particular, a male known as Old Tom, would swim some distance to summon humans to a kill.

Another thing orcas and humans apparently have in common is that both species are unusually relentless in their predation and have in several cases hunted other species into extinction.

Some scientists speculate what motivates the orcas in their attacks on sailboats is simple animosity. That one old female in particular suffered some sort of trauma interacting with a boat and is now leading the pod in wreaking vengeance. But to me it seems likelier, as others have suggested, that the orcas are just having a bit of fun. Messing with us. Jerking on our chains. Just for a laugh or two.

Or could it be—just maybe—the orcas are engaged in an active critique of modern yacht design???

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5 Responses
  1. Olivier

    Alright, that’s a nice recap of reports around this orca issue, however I didn’t the answer toe the question in the title. So whats point were you trying to make here?

  2. First Last

    All the published comments and conjectures, not one proposed the following reason why Orcas are fixated on stand alone rudders. Disabling a fin or flipper would certainly be advantageous for a predator fish to disable its next meal. Skeg mounted rudders don’t present a stand alone appendage. And a spinning prop…these Orcas are not that stupid.

  3. Scott

    it’s “to” not “toe” Keyboard Oliver and be nice. It was a nice article. Say something nice.

    Thanks for post this and your most recent articles.


  4. Dave

    They don’t attack a full keel rudder because that’s not what they’ve been trained for. It will come out sooner or later that Orcas originating this behaviour were trained in places like Sea World for this very purpose.

    1. Charles Doane

      Yes, I agree. They are organizing. Eventually they will take their rightful place as the dominant species on the planet.

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