Boats attacked by orcas off the European coast: the end of the mystery

Boats attacked by orcas off the European coast: the end of the mystery
Boats attacked by orcas off the European coast: the end of the mystery

Since 2020, orcas have adopted strange behavior by attacking boats off the coast of Spain, Portugal and even Brittany.

A French research team came to the conclusion that it was neither an attack nor revenge.

Watch this report from 8 p.m. on TF1.

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The 8 p.m.

So it was a game. Since 2020, orca attacks targeting sailboats have increased off the coast of Spain. In total, around ten sailboats were sunk in four years. The last one was on May 12. Until now, researchers have not been able to explain with certainty what causes this behavior. Thanks to observations, French biologists were able to confirm that it was neither revenge nor aggression, as we have sometimes heard. Their research was published this month in the scientific journal Plos One.

During an expedition to the Strait of Gibraltar, a TF1 reporting team was able to embark with experts from the Sirsé Institute to observe this phenomenon. In the video at the top of this article, on images filmed from a drone, two orcas at the rear of the ship approach the rudder and push it with their snouts. Underwater, we hear the cetaceans emitting little cries, as if they were laughing. “That’s really the pleasure they get from playing together. It moves when they press it, and what we can clearly see is that the orcs around, those who don’t push, they look“, explains Christophe Guinet, CNRS biologist.

More than 600 attacks in four years

Since the summer of 2020, more than 600 orca attacks on sailboats have taken place off the coast of Spain. The attacks are mainly concentrated in the Strait of Gibraltar, but a few have also been observed off the coast of Portugal and in the Bay of Biscay, as well as in Brittany. This is explained by the fact that the orcas move to pursue the groups of tuna on which they feed. To date, these interactions have not resulted in any casualties. But for those who have experienced it, it is a traumatic experience.

In 2023, Lucile Leprince and her companion had the fear of their lives. In our report, the young woman recounts this encounter, which was confusing to say the least. This August day, cetaceans began to break the rudder of their ship’s rudder. “We were afraid. For about a quarter of an hour, the orcas were at the level of the rudder and biting into it one after the other. From the moment the rudder was broken, she had it on the tip of her nose like a sea lion with a balloon“, she says.

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According to scientists, this behavior developed through mimicry. “Initially, it was thought that it was three young male individuals who were involved in these physical interactions. Very quickly, this behavior spread among the population. There, these are really whole families“, underlines Christophe Guinet. “To my knowledge, this is a unique situation in the world“, adds the scientist. In the event of an encounter, the recommendation is not to stop the boat and to follow the coast as closely as possible in order to let the orcas invent other games, away from humans.


MD | Report: Michel Izard and Nathalie Laurent

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