Orca attacking boat near Scotland marks first in North Sea, following Iberian coast incidents

An orca hit a seven-ton yacht carrying a 72-year-old multiple times on Monday off the Shetland Islands in Scotland, the sailor told The Guardian.

Retired Dutch physicist Dr Wim Rutten said he was sailing solo from the town Lerwick to Bergen, Norway, according to the Guardian. While fishing for mackerel off the back of the boat, Rutten said he came face to face with an orca that he initially saw through the clear water. The mammal soon repeatedly rammed the stern of the boat.

“What I felt most frightening was the very loud breathing of the animal,” Rutten told the Guardian.

The University of Twente professor said the whale stayed behind the boat and then disappeared before returning faster two or three times and later circling him, according to the Guardian. He added the mammal created “soft shocks” through the aluminum hull.

Orcas attacking boats: Spain's coast are seeing more killer whales touch, push and even turn vessels

Incident follows aggressive behavior near Spain, Portugal

Rutten said he immediately thought of the recent orca attacks on Spanish and Portuguese coasts. The Strait of Gibraltar waters were home to 20 orca incidents last month, according to the Atlantic Orca Working Group and orcas have sunk three boats in Southern Europe since last summer.

The Atlantic Orca Working Group reported over 500 orca boat interactions from 2020 to 2023 yet Rutten’s encounter marks the first recent incident reported in the northern seas.

“Maybe he just wanted to play. Or look me in the eyes. Or to get rid of the fishing line,” Rutten said.

USA TODAY has reached out to Rutten for additional comment.

Experts say the orcas could be teaching each other to adapt this behavior. Juvenile Iberian killer whales — a "unique subpopulation of killer whales that lives in the northeast Atlantic," — were first documented touching, pushing, and even turning vessels, including some fishing and inflatable boats, in 2020, according to research group GT Orca Atlántica.

Andrew Trites, professor and director of Marine Mammal Research at the University of British Columbia, told CBS News the reason for the attacks remains to be an “unprecedented” mystery. Trites said something is positively reinforcing the orcas’ behavior suggesting that it’s possible they’re engaging in form of whale “play” or that they’re reacting to traumatic boat injuries.

"Yes they're killer whales. And yes their job is they're the apex predator in the ocean. However, there's never been a documented case of an orca attacking and killing a human being," whale expert Anne Gordon told USA Today in May, adding that the attacks are isolated incidents. "In normal circumstances there is absolutely zero threat to humans in a boat."

Experts recently gathered to address an "urgent need for specific actions based on international coordination between administrations, mariners and scientists to prevent future damage to people, orcas and vessels," GTOA said.

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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Orca attacks yacht near Scotland marking first incident in North Sea