While sharks typically induce the most fear of any animal in the ocean, it’s the orca you should really worry about. The killer whale is gigantic and sometimes aggressive, as evidenced by a rash of incidents off the European Coast that has boaters concerned and scientists perplexed.
According to Smithsonian magazine, orcas have been demonstrating what can be perceived as extreme hostility toward sailboats off the coasts of Portugal and Spain. The whales are ramming boats, targeting the rudders, and causing serious damage. One sailboat attacked by a pod of orcas actually sank, forcing its five occupants to escape to a life raft.
According to experts, however, the behavior shouldn’t be written off as malicious, and “attack” may not be the proper word to use. One explanation is that the orcas are intrigued by the moving rudder, which can produce a pleasant sensation of water pressure against their face. When it stops, they attempt to nudge it to get it moving again. “What we think is that they're asking to have the propeller in the face,” Renaud de Stephanis, president and coordinator at CIRCE Conservación Information and Research, told NPR. When the rudder stops, “…They get kind of frustrated and that's why they break the rudder.”
De Stephanis speculated it could be a “game” played among juvenile males that could cease once they get older.
This type of behavior isn’t without precedent. In 2020, orca pods rammed boats off the Spanish coast, with some scientists speculating at the time that the orcas could be exhibiting frustration at fishing boats, which they perceived as a nuisance.
Whether this behavior continues or trails off is an open-ended question. It’s possible the orcas may adopt it as learned behavior, which is bad news for sailboats.
But don’t be too wary of orcas: While their size and inquisitive nature can make for a scary combination, there’s never been a recorded incident of a killer whale deliberately killing a human in the wild.