Orcas’ fascination with sailboats: what’s really behind it

Hundreds of interactions have occurred over the years in the waters of the Strait of Gibraltar between orcas and boats. Based on the reports and observations recorded, scholars claim to know why

Orcas, the enormous marine mammals, appear to be captivated by boats, particularly sailboats. Over the years, there has been a noticeable increase in such interactions, prompting researchers to investigate the reasons behind this behavior.

Theories from researchers

While researchers do not rule out a response to the heavy maritime traffic along shipping routes, the true motivation seems to lie elsewhere. This is the opinion of marine biologist Alex Zerbini of the International Whaling Commission (IWC).

During a seminar held in Madrid in early 2024, Dr. Zerbini shared insights that could provide a definitive explanation for this phenomenon.

Playful behavior hypothesis

According to Dr. Zerbini, orcas are likely intrigued by boats, and their behavior should be interpreted as play. This idea has been proposed by other scientists as well. In the report presented in Madrid, Zerbini and his colleagues elaborate on the possible reasons for these interactions:

“The behavior has more in common with tendencies seen elsewhere and appears to be linked to play or socialization, possibly encouraged by the recent increase in prey abundance and availability, reducing the time needed for foraging and negative interactions with fishing activities,” the document states.


@R. de Stephanis via IWC

Misinterpretation as aggression

Therefore, using the term “aggression” is deemed inappropriate. Citing previous studies, the report suggests that this behavior may have evolved in relation to marine resources, but not exclusively.

Increased juvenile population

It has also been observed that the number of young orcas in pods, or groups, has grown. Since younger orcas are naturally more curious, they might have retained this behavior into adulthood.

“A certain level of playful interactions likely began with the young around 2017,” the researchers note.

Monitoring and reporting interactions

According to the latest data available to the scientific community, there have been at least 673 interactions since 2020. The Grupo de Trabajo Orca Atl√°ntica (GTOA) has developed an app to report interactions, advising sailors to follow expert recommendations carefully.

Tracking interactions and informing the public helps mitigate human-wildlife conflict, ensuring greater protection for orcas. This is especially crucial for Iberian orcas, which are currently critically endangered.

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