- Sailors in southwestern Europe have been struggling with an increase in attacks
- Animal behaviouralists say they don’t know why killer whales are acting this way
Sailors have started to blast out heavy metal music through underwater speakers in a bid to stop killer whales ramming boats in southwestern Europe.
Such attacks have become a big problem in the region — but animal behaviouralists have no idea why they are on the rise or what is causing the creatures to act this way.
It has got so bad that pods of killer whales have even been known to damage boats and capsize vessels, with sailors resorting to desperate measures in an effort to deter the attacks.
Some say playing heavy metal music is a ‘game changer’ in tackling the problem, but others aren’t convinced.
Boat operators have shared their tips on social media platforms such as Facebook, including via a group called ‘Orca Attack Reports’ which has 60,000 members.
Desperate measures: Sailors have started to blast out heavy metal music through underwater speakers in a bid to stop killer whales ramming boats in southwestern Europe
‘When we had an interaction last year, I’m pretty sure that rattling the hull by playing full volume east European thrash metal was the game changer,’ said one person.
‘They made three approaches and left after 5 mins without doing any damage… which was 2 or 3 minutes into the music.’
When asked for tips on how to deal with killer whales attacking, another Facebook user added: ‘Heavy metal, or drum and bass. Turned up loud…’
However, German sailor Florian Rutsch, who operates a catamaran for voyages in the Iberian Peninsula, told The New York Times that he had tried a similar method and it hadn’t worked.
Mr Rutsch said a pod of killer whales hit the rudders of his vessel and disabled its steering, despite him having thrown sand into the water and playing heavy metal music in an effort to deter them.
‘It is scary,’ said Mr Rutsch, who had to have his boat towed away after calling the Spanish authorities for help.
‘No one knows what works, what doesn’t work.’
That hasn’t stopped someone creating a Spotify playlist called ‘Metal for Orcas’, however.
Among the songs on it are ‘Stretched and Devoured’, ‘Infinite Terror’ and ‘The Blood of Power’.
There has been an increasing number of reports of orcas attacking boats off the Iberian coast since 2020.
Scientists say it could be that the killer whales are just playing games when they ram boats and rip off their rudders, or it may be linked to past trauma.
Baffled: Such attacks have become a big problem in the region — but animal behaviouralists have no idea why they are on the rise or what is causing the creatures to act this way
Under siege: It has got so bad that killer whales have even been known to damage boats and capsize vessels, with sailors resorting to desperate measures in an effort to deter the attacks
Some have suggested the animals could be trying to avenge their matriarch after she was struck by fishermen.
Either way, marine experts think the behaviour is spreading through the orca population off the coast of Spain because younger killer whales are learning it from their elders.
The whales have been captured on video ripping yachts’ rudders off and working in groups in hundreds of coordinated attacks which have left boats needing to be towed back to harbour.
At least three have been sunk since 2020.
In 2022 there were 207 attacks recorded by scientific researchers, compared to just 52 during a five-month period in 2020.
Around 60 orcas live in Spanish waters, with a concentration off the Galician coast and in the Strait of Gibraltar, where the majority of recent attacks have taken place.
Why do orcas attack boats?
A study in Marine Mammal Science last year concluded that the attacks on small boats follow the same pattern: orcas join in approaching from the stern, disabling the boat by hitting the rudder, and then lose interest.
Experts believe orcas may be teaching others how to pursue and attack boats, having observed a string of ‘coordinated’ strikes in Europe.
Some even think that one orca learned how to stop the boats, and then went on to teach others how to do it.
The sociable, intelligent animals have been responsible for more than 500 interactions with vessels since 2020, with at least three sinking.
It does not appear to be a very useful behaviour, and is not clearly helping their survival chances.
In fact, Alfredo Lopez, an orca researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, says the critically endangered whales ‘run a great risk of getting hurt’ in attacks.
Dr Luke Rendell, who researches learning and behaviour among marine mammals at the University of St Andrews, agreed the behaviour does not seem to be an evolved adaptation.
Instead, he pointed to ‘short-lived fads’, like carrying dead salmon on their heads – a sign of sociability, but not a desperate bid to survive.
The answer to the boat attacks might lie with White Gladis, an orca with a personal vendetta against boats or people.
Lopez said ‘that traumatised orca is the one that started this behaviour of physical contact’.
‘The orcas are doing this on purpose,’ he told livescience.com. ‘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.’
Like humans, the orcas have ‘sophisticated learning abilities’ that allow them to digest the behaviour of others and replicate it themselves, a study in peer-reviewed journal Biological Conservation indicates.