The Reason Why Killer Whales Attack Boats Has Been Revealed

By: Stephanie Bontorin | Published: May 30, 2024

For the past few years, stories of killer whales attacking boats off the coast of Europe have been circulating online. Since May 2020, these stories have caught the world’s attention and many have attempted to invent the reason behind the attacks. 

The whales have been ramming, biting, and even sinking luxury boats. Several vessels off the coasts of Portugal, Spain, and Gibraltar have been affected. However, scientists and marine biologists believe they have finally found the reason.

The Initial Speculation for the Attacks

At first, scientists speculated that the attacks were the cause of a defence mechanism in the whales after an established matriarch, known as White Gladis, was involved in a dangerous boat accident.

A large black orca jumping out of the water next a small piece of land with trees

Source: Thomas Lipke/Unsplash

Killer whales live in pods like a family and will defend each other from perceived threats. Due to the whale’s size and status as an apex predator, the only thing they need to defend themselves from is human activity. After the initial boat accident occurred with White Gladis, it was thought that the pod saw all boats as a threat to their lives.

True Reason for Assaults Has Been Revealed

The truth of the attacks sounds stranger than fiction. Instead of defending themselves from a threat, the whales are actually taking part in a violent game.

A boat still tied to the land at a marina is sunken next to another white boat

Source: Thomas Lipke/Unsplash

A report released by the International Whaling Commission shows that younger whales see themselves as just having fun with the boats. 

Whales Are More Intelligent Than Previously Thought

When fishermen were hunting down whales in the 1700s for their blubber, they had no idea how truly intelligent the massive creatures of the sea really were.

Three killer whales stick their bodies of of a sheet of broken ice

Source: Thomas Lipke/Unsplash

Thanks to advancements in scientific studies, it’s now known that whales have complex thoughts and emotions; they even have their own alphabet to communicate with each other.

Play Is an Important Component for Intelligent Creatures

Playing and making up games is an integral component of early childhood socialization. But it also has other benefits. Scientists have proven that kids who experience more imaginative play are as intelligent as adults.

Three large killer whales jump out of an indoor pool at the same time with two trainers standing at the edge of the pool

The same rule applies to the animal kingdom. Animals that can play for fun are usually the most intelligent creatures. For example, dogs play for fun, but they can also sniff out bombs, open doors, and learn wild tricks like playing the piano.

Details of the Whaling Commission’s Report

The report from the whaling group was originally commissioned by the Spanish and Portuguese governments, who wanted to resolve the conflicts they faced with the orca pod. The attacks have been increasing lately, with over 673 negative interactions reported by captains, boaters, and fishermen.

Two orcas crest the water with mountains and a sunset in the background

Source: Bart Max/Unsplash

The report found that “There was no evidence that the interactions between Iberian killer whales and vessels are aggressive on the whales’ part,” which suggested an alternative reason for the incidents. 


The Behavior Has Been Attributed to “Whale Fads”

Just like humans, whales experience fads and trends. Unfortunately, the trend is for whales to attack boats from below as their friends watch and cheer on their behavior.

Three orcas crest the water with a large white cruise ship, city scape, and mountains in the background

Source: Dick Martin/Unsplash

The common behavior follows similar patterns seen while playing and socializing. Although the attacks do harm people and their livelihoods, the interactions should not be described as aggressive since the whales are acting out of play and friendliness.


Other Trends That Have Been Recorded

The killer whale was named for a specific reason. While many predators have large teeth and hunt their prey, orcas seem to have a particular affinity for taunting, playing with, and even torturing their prey to death. All of this behavior is learned from watching other whales in their pods. 

A single black orca swims through open water

Source: Iswanto Arif/Unsplash

Another example of a trend that was recorded with other orca pods was the practice of wearing dead salmon like a hat. In 1987, researchers reported numerous young juvenile males following the same practice. The fad spread across multiple oceans, which was attributed to young males having more free time to play and explore.


Play Behavior Can Escalate as the Whales Get Older

Like a puppy that jumps to get attention when they’re young and cute, the whales’ behavior is most likely carried through from their youth.

Two orcas swim together in open water

Source: Gabriel Tovar/Unsplash

A bull can reach up to 23 feet long and weigh up to 13 thousand pounds. If a whale enjoys the practice of ramming a boat for play, they’re likely to cause massive damage with their increased size. 


How To Stay Safe if You Experience One of These Attacks

Researchers note that the likelihood of experiencing one of these “playful” attacks is more likely rare. However, if you do find yourself in the same body of water as a pod of killer whales, there are some safety precautions that you should take.

A whale's tail above water next to a range of large mountains

Source: Ryan Stone/Unsplash

Namely, moving away from the whales as quickly as possible. If in a small boat, move away as fast as possible, don’t worry about the noise that the boat might emit.


What To Do if You Encounter Whales While on Your Own

Even if you’re out on open water surfing, paddle boarding, or swimming, whales are not likely to interact with humans.

A whale fin above water

Source: Stephanie Wegner/Unsplash

There have been some unfortunate events recorded with killer whales, though. So be sure to read local warnings and stay out of open water if any recent sightings of orcas have been reported. If you find yourself on open water alone, be sure to keep your arms and legs close to yourself, as a whale might mistake you for a seal swimming about.


Whales Still Need To Be Treated as Wild Animals

However dangerous, orcas are still a delicate species, and people must respect the space around them. In most countries, interacting with and touching a wild animal will result in a hefty fine.

A single orca moves through water alone

Source: Farzn Dehbashi/Unsplash

Last week, a man in New Zealand was fined NZ$600 for attempting to ‘body-slam’ an orca off the coast of Auckland. Local officials have dubbed the incident “shockingly stupid.”