Killer Whale Boat Attacks ‘Getting Worse and Worse,’ Say Scientists

by : Emily Brown on : 14 Nov 2020 10:10
Killer Whale Boat Attacks 'Getting Worse and Worse,' Say ScientistsPA Images

Scientists studying the behaviour of killer whales have said boat attacks are ‘getting worse and worse’ as at least 40 incidents have been reported in Portugal and Spain in the last six months. 

Researchers have determined that three whales in particular were involved in most of the incidents; juvenile males named in the official orca record as black Gladis, white Gladis and grey Gladis.


The orcas have been targeting boats off the coasts of the two countries for hours on end, leaving skippers ‘terrified’ as they ram the underside of the vessels.

Killer WhalePixabay

Accounts of the incidents suggest the animals have been targeting sailing boats deliberately, with skipper David Smith, whose boat was attacked in October, saying, ‘They came to us, not the other way around.’

Scientists have been left baffled as to why the killer whales have suddenly started targeting boats so aggressively.


Dr Ruth Esteban, a marine scientist who works at the Madeira Whale Museum, told BBC News she ‘just didn’t believe it at all at first’.

She explained:

These killer whales are always curious around boats, they will approach them. But touching them and causing damage? I just thought people were scared and were misinterpreting what was happening.

Killer whalePixabay

Esteban became more convinced of their erratic behaviour as the reports continued to flood in, so she became part of an informal investigation hoping to get to the bottom of the mystery.

Renaud de Stephanis, whose conservation research organisation CIRCE is leading the investigation, told BBC News the whales’ behaviour is ‘getting worse and worse’. The team determined one of the whales involved in the attacks, white Gladis, had a severe injury on his head which looked to have been caused by a boat.

Though the injury may indicate the whales are out for revenge, Esteban has pointed out they don’t know if it was sustained before or after the first boat attack.

Killer whalePixabay

With knowledge gleaned from years of killer whale observation, the researchers determined that the whales involved in the attacks were playing with the boats.

Esteban said:

They always seem to go for the rudder, and I think that’s because it’s a mobile part of the vessel. In some cases they can move the whole boat with it. We see, in some of the videos, the sailing boat turning almost 180 degrees.

If they see that they have the power to move something really big, maybe that’s really impressive for them.

Killer WhalePixabay

Stephanis added that when whales hunt, ‘you don’t hear or see them’.

He continued:

I’ve seen them attacking sperm whales – that’s aggressive. But these guys, they are playing.

They can weigh 4-5 tonnes and when they play they really play.

Though no humans have been hurt in the attacks, the Portuguese coastguard responded by banning small sailing vessels from travelling in a stretch of sea where some of the incidents had been reported. The researchers will continue to study the animals to determine why their behaviour has suddenly become so erratic.

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Emily Brown

Emily Brown first began delivering important news stories aged just 13, when she launched her career with a paper round. She graduated with a BA Hons in English Language in the Media from Lancaster University, and went on to become a freelance writer and blogger. Emily contributed to The Sunday Times Travel Magazine and Student Problems before becoming a journalist at UNILAD, where she works on breaking news as well as longer form features.

Topics: Animals, Orca, portugal, Spain


  1. BBC

    Have rogue orcas really been attacking boats in the Atlantic?