Sailors Are Attempting to Deter Orcas From Attacking Boats With Heavy Metal

Anna Garrison - Author

Nov. 20 2023, Updated 2:48 p.m. ET

Orca whales swimming near boat.
Source: Getty Images

The Gist:

  • Orcas first began attacking boats near the Iberian Peninsula in May 2020.
  • Orca attacks on boats continued into June 2023, when the orcas attracted international attention, and through October 2023.
  • Several reasons orcas may conduct this behavior: learned behavior from another orca whale named White Gladis, play, or curiosity.
  • In November 2023, sailors attempted to deter orcas from attacking boats by playing heavy metal music underwater.
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When reports began to surface that orca whales were attacking boats near the Iberian Peninsula, many people on the internet responded with surprise. Although pollution affects every aspect of marine life, humanity has dismissed the idea that creatures would fight back against the repeated destruction of their natural habitat.

Researchers have begun studying the fascinating phenomenon of orcas attacking boats, but the million-dollar question remains: why? Here's everything you need to know about this behavior, plus the orca that may have started the phenomenon.

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Two orcas swim side by side in the ocean.
Source: Getty Images

Why are orcas attacking boats?

According to Business Insider, reports that orcas were attacking boats and sailboats began in May 2020. By 2023, researchers have documented "hundreds" of incidents of orcas colliding with boats, following the same pattern of behavior: swimming to the back of the ship and hitting the rudder until the boat stops entirely.

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Researchers have theorized several reasons why orcas are attacking boats.

The first theory suggests that other orcas are following the lead of one orca in particular, who may have been previously traumatized by a boat collision or tangled in illegal fishing nets, reports Live Science. Biologist Alfredo López Fernandez explains, "The orcas are doing this on purpose, of course, we don't know the origin or the motivation, but defensive behavior based on trauma, as the origin of all this, gains more strength for us every day."

Orca whale spotting by researchers on a boat.
Source: Simon Infanger/Unsplash
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Boat captain Werner Schaufelberger told the German magazine Yacht that on May 4, 2023, his sailing yacht was dismantled and ultimately sunk in an hour by three orcas led by a matriarch he nicknamed White Gladis. "There were two smaller and one larger orca," he said. "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."

A separate incident in the Strait of Gibraltar on May 4 featured a pod of six orcas targeting a sailboat. Greg Blackburn, who was on board the vessel then, told 9 News that he witnessed several adult orcas teaching two calves how to dismantle the boat using the rudder-dismantling technique.

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Orcas have continued the behavior of attacking boats through Oct. 31, when a pod of orcas attacked a sailing yacht owned by Polish cruise company Morskie Mile off the coast of Morocco, reports Live Science. Despite receiving aid from the Moroccan Navy, the boat did eventually sink after orcas hit the yacht's rudder to cause damage. It is currently unclear how many orcas participated in this event.

Two orcas swim together in the light.
Source: Felix Rottmann/Unsplash
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The other reason orcas attack boats is more straightforward: they could be playing. According to Live Science, the behavior could be a "fad" or a behavior started by one or two creatures imitated by the rest of the group before being abandoned.

Deborah Giles, an orca researcher at the University of Washington, said, "They are incredibly curious and playful animals and so this might be more of a play thing as opposed to an aggressive thing."

If people worry that orcas attacking boats will become widespread, they shouldn't. Business Insider notes that the amount of orcas around the Iberian Peninsula is an estimated 39, and it's unlikely that the behavior may spread to other orca populations around North America due to different ecotypes. Some orcas are much less social than others and, therefore, unlikely to pass on the behavior.

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A pod of orcas swimming in front of a yacht.
Source: iStock

Sailors have been employing different methods to deter orcas from attacking boats.

On Nov. 15, 2023, German sailor Florian Rutsch told The New York Times that he had been playing heavy metal music underwater to deter orcas from attacking their boats on the Iberian Peninsula. Rutsch used a heavy metal playlist he found through sailor forums. After trying it once, the sailor admitted to The New York Times that the orcas were not deterred at all.

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Andrew Trites, director of the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia, told Business Insider that the sailors might have accidentally told the orcas where to find them instead.

"Initially, the playing of loud sounds underwater might mask the signature sounds of sailboats — but ultimately, the whales would catch on and use it to more easily locate vessels playing it," Trites explained.

Trites ultimately recommended against playing underwater music as a deterrent for the orcas.

This article, originally published on June 6, 2023, has been updated.

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