Killer whales learn to sink yachts off Gibraltar

Killer whales attack a sailing boat off the coast of Morocco - Stephen Bidwell / SWNS
Killer whales attack a sailing boat off the coast of Morocco - Stephen Bidwell / SWNS

A vengeful killer whale called Gladis is teaching gangs of orcas to attack yachts around Gibraltar, and has already struck three boats - sinking two of them.

It may read like something out of Moby Dick, but in this case the truth is stranger than fiction.

Researchers believe that a female orca called White Gladis is seeking revenge after being traumatised by a collision with a boat, or being trapped in illegal fishing nets.

Her attacks are now being copied by the rest of the nearby killer whale population, which has learnt how to ram vessels from their ringleader.

The matriarch is tutoring younger whales in the art of sinking boats; raising the prospect of future generations continuing the war on humans for years.

On May 2, six of the apex predators slammed into the hull of a Bavaria 46 yacht, which was sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar, near Tangier in Morocco.

The hour-long attack left Cambridge couple Janet Morris, 58, a business consultant, and Stephen Bidwell, 58,  a photographer, who were on board for a sailing course, in awe.

The couple were below deck, when the cry of “orcas!” went up.

“It’s an experience I will never forget,” Mr Bidwell told the Telegraph.

“I kept reminding myself we had a 22-ton boat made of steel, but seeing three of them coming at once, quickly and at pace with their fins out of the water was daunting.”

"I couldn't believe it when I saw them," said Ms Morris, 58, “We were sitting ducks.”

“A clearly larger matriarch was definitely around and was almost supervising,” Mr Bidwell told the Telegraph before conceding he could have come face to face with White Gladis herself.

“The experience left us in awe of nature and her power”.

Skipper Greg Blackburn, from Leeds, was already dealing with “heavy weather" of 25-30 knot winds and a rolling swell of six to 10 feet when the whales hit his rudder with two large blows.

He said. “I thought 'oh dear' when I saw them. After reading reports and knowing what has been going on, I just thought we were in for a ride now."

The skipper dropped the main sail and tried to make the boat “as boring as possible”.

The whales eventually lost interest, but not before causing extensive damage worth thousands of pounds, leaving the boat to limp back to port.

Mr Bidwell and Ms Morris are going back to the Straits of Gibraltar again in just two weeks to recoup the missed sailing hours, rather than an Ahab-style quest to face Gladis again.

Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell - Stephen Bidwell / SWNS
Janet Morris and Stephen Bidwell - Stephen Bidwell / SWNS

The attack in the Straits, a vital travel route to reach the Mediterranean from Gibraltar, followed a similar incident in November last year off the coast of Portugal.

The French-crewed vessel sank off the port of Viana do Castelo after orcas "cracked" its hull and it took on water.

A pod of three orcas attacked and sank a third sailboat, piercing its rudder, off the coast of Spain, just two days after Mr Bidwell’s brush with the bully whales.

Werner Schaufelberger, the captain, said he saw the two smaller whales imitating the ramming tactic of the largest orca.

“The little ones shook the rudder at the back while the big one repeatedly backed up and rammed the ship with full force from the side," he told Yacht, a German publication.

“The two little orcas observed the bigger one's technique and – with a slight run-up – they, too, slammed into the boat."

Spanish coast guards rescued the crew of the stricken vessel but the boat sank at the port entrance of Barbate after it was towed to shore.

The couple were enjoying a sailing course off the coast of Morocco when they spotted the pod approaching - Greg Blackburn / SWNS
The couple were enjoying a sailing course off the coast of Morocco when they spotted the pod approaching - Greg Blackburn / SWNS

"That traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact with the boat," said Alfredo López Fernandez, a biologist at the University of Aveiro in Portugal and representative of the Atlantic Orca working group.

This "critical moment of agony" made Gladis aggressive towards boats, and that aggressive behaviour is now being copied by other orcas, he told LiveScience.

Orcas are social animals and can learn from each other. David Attenborough’s Frozen Planet II captured footage of orcas working together to cause waves to knock seals off icebergs and into the water,

Other theories are that the whales are exhibiting territorial, defensive, or play behaviour.

The first reports of aggressive orcas off the Iberian coast began in May 2020. In September of that year, Spanish authorities banned boats from setting sail from the country's northwestern tip after 29 orca attacks were registered.

The assaults have become increasingly frequent. The orcas approach from the stern and hit the rudder before losing interest once they have stopped the boat.

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