Iberian Orcas Interacting with Boats: A statement from OceanCare
In recent years there have been a number of incidents where orcas have damaged boats around the coasts of Portugal, Spain, Morocco and, more recently, France, and this unprecedented behaviour has generated tremendous public interest. Some of the media reports have painted the orcas as being malevolent and even seeking some sort of pre-meditated revenge.
OceanCare does not see any evidence for this and, because the way in which this behaviour is being framed may affect how the animals are responded to, we provide the following brief report of our understanding of the current situation and call for people to treat this critically endangered, if currently troublesome, population of animals kindly.
- This is a new behaviour never seen before and it may disappear as quickly as it has arrived;
- Orcas do not eat people;
- Orcas are very intelligent. They live in very close-knit family groups and learn from each other forming discrete cultural units in different parts of the world;
- Orcas are very unlikely to be attacking vessels bent on some fanciful vengeance, they may just be playing and exploring their environment;
- The subpopulation concerned is very small and critically endangered; and
- At this time, no one knows precisely why this behaviour has developed or how to effectively counter it.
Status of population
The orcas exhibiting this robust behaviour towards boats come from the distinct ‘Iberian subpopulation’ of less than 50 animals and because of the low number of adults and a low recruitment rate, this subpopulation is classified as Critically Endangered by the IUCN Red List of Endangered Species. This Critically Endangered status was decided based on the very number of adult individuals and the fact that the whales heavily depend on an endangered prey species (the Atlantic Bluefin Tuna). The population also exhibits very low recruitment (a low number of young individuals) and may be in decline. Chemical pollution may be negatively affecting their reproduction and, like other whales and dolphins in the north-east Atlantic, these animals will be exposed to multiple negative human caused stressors including noise, marine debris and bycatch. 
This subpopulation is distinct from other orcas in the Northeast Atlantic and not all of the orcas in this subpopulation interact with boats.
Range and distribution of incidents
The locations of the interactions with the orcas vary from year to year and so far, within the broad range described here, this is not predictable. The behaviour was first recorded in May 2020 in the Straits of Gibraltar and later spread to the adjacent waters of Portugal, Galicia and France including the Bay of Biscay.
Monthly interaction maps are published here and Grupo Trabajo Orca Atlantica (GTOA) regularly updates a ‘traffic light map’ which shows the probability of encountering orcas in different locations along the Iberian Peninsula. The GT Orcas app (PLAY STORE and APPLE STORE) shows recent sightings and interactions. The Cruising Association (CA) recommends that users use the app to make reports whilst at sea or upon returning to land before submitting a more detailed report to the CA.
Evolution of this behaviour and comparison to other behavioural traits in orcas
Generally the orcas interacting with boats seem to focus on certain sized vessels (on average 12m and with a range 5-21m), mainly sailing boats, and interact in particular with the rudders of these vessels. The interactions are often robust with rudders being strongly manipulated and sometimes broken off and sometimes the whole vessel is swiftly moved around by the animals. In four instances, vessels have been lost.
No one knows why the orcas have started to behave like this. Whilst some of the commentary in the media that suggests motives, such as revenge initiated by one dominant female after she had an unpleasant interaction with a boat, may sound plausible, it is entirely speculative. However, there are some things that we do know about this situation and orcas in general:
- This is a new behaviour never seen before. Although there have been a few historical accounts of robust interactions between orcas and boats, they are very rare and nothing like this rudder-fixation has been previously reported from any other population;
- Orcas are very intelligent and live in very close-knit family groups and learn from each other. This behaviour is being learnt by members of the population;
- Behaviours like this, which seem to have no obvious benefit to the animals, have been seen in orca populations before including, perhaps most famously, a fad when some ‘wore’ dead fish on their heads. These behavioural fads may suddenly start, spread and then end, and we hope this will be the case with this behaviour.
- In the whole history of interactions between people and orcas in the wild there have been no instances of direct attacks on people or any form of predation by them on us;
- In fact, different populations of orcas specialise in eating different prey (this is one reflection of the fact that they exist as distinct cultures). Some, for example, prey on bluefin tuna (the primary prey of the Iberian orcas), some on sharks and rays and others on other whales (even those much larger than themselves), and this is where their alternative name of ‘killer whale’ comes from. It is derived from ‘killer of whales’. Survival skills, including how to capture particular prey and where to find it, will be learnt by young whales from their mother and other older whales; and
- It is extremely unlikely that the interactions between the Iberian orcas and small boats is anything to do with feeding behaviour – we are not on their menu.
There are two accounts in the literature from the 1970s where interactions between orcas and boats caused the vessels concerned to be lost. The details are now vague but what is different about the current situation of robust interactions between small boats and some of the Iberian orcas is that the interactions are persistent now across several years and have spread between individuals within this wide-ranging population. This behaviour appears limited to this one group and has never been reported from anywhere else.
So why are they doing this? These large brained social mammals learn from each other and, like other intelligent mammals, are naturally inquisitive. They learn about their environment by exploring it and by ‘playing’ with things in it. It may be that manipulating rudders and pushing boats around is a form of play behaviour and also shows that they are exploring the things in their environment and gaining more of an understanding of it. It may be that they find it fun and, certainly, they have learned that small boats can be manipulated. The same population has learned to take tuna off the lines of fishermen; in that case the benefit to them is clear.
Common sense responses
Given all the unknowns in this situation and the high risk to property and people, OceanCare does not accept any responsibility for any advice gleaned from this short summary, but we note that various bodies are offering advice to boaters caught in these situations and that for the most part this is common sense. For example, because the interactions are mainly with the rudder, people have been advised that if an orca approaches to stand back and not hold the tiller or any part of the apparatus connected to the rudder as the force that the orca can exert may be transmitted leading to people being hurt.
It also seems possible that the orcas may be stimulated by the responses of those on the vessel and hence keeping quiet and out of their sight, and stopping sailing or motoring may lessen their interest and the interaction may end more quickly.
We strongly urge people not to react violently towards the orcas or seek to harm them in any way. Violent responses – apart from being cruel and unethical (and potentially a threat to conservation of these endangered animals) may have the opposite effect than that desired; making the orcas more interested in continuing the interaction. Orcas are also highly protected under European law. 
For yachts and other small vessels traversing the affected areas, OceanCare recommends keeping up to date with the latest information on the websites listed below.
Plea for tolerance
Whilst we recognise that the orcas’ behaviour is worthy of significant concern and it can be dangerous, we hope that those who see the orcas or who are approached by them will continue to demonstrate patience and tolerance towards them. These interactions are opportunities for us to learn more about these fascinating creatures and to, hopefully, find ways to better protect them and for us to live alongside them in harmony.
 For more information about the threats to whales and dolphins in this region, please see the OceanCare report here: https://www.oceancare.org/wp-content/uploads/2022/11/Animal_Species_Protection_Under-Pressure_Whales-and-Dolphins_EU_Report_OceanCare_EN_146p_2021.pdf
 All cetaceans found in EU waters are listed on Annex IV of the Habitats Directive meaning they require a strict protection regime applied across the entire range of the species and killing or disturbance of these species in the wild is prohibited.
Sources of further information
(OceanCare accepts no liability for any advice provided by other websites)
MITECO (Ministerio para la Transición Ecológica y el Reto Demográfico) [relevant Spanish government department]
ICNF (Instituto da Conservação da Natureza e das Florestas) [relevant Portuguese government department]
Recent authoritative sources
Esteban et al. (2022) Killer whales of the Strait of Gibraltar, an endangered subpopulation showing a disruptive behavior. Marine Mammal Science 38(4): 1699-1709. https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/epdf/10.1111/mms.12947
Why are killer whales attacking boats – questions and answers with Dr Luke Rendell: https://theconversation.com/why-are-killer-whales-attacking-boats-expert-qanda-206223