Orcas aren’t ‘attacking’ boats: here’s how to avoid interactions that could cause damage

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The Iberian orca subpopulation has been in the public eye recently due to interactions between the killer whales and vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar. These interactions have been sensationalised in the media as ‘attacks’ or signs that the orcas are taking ‘revenge’ on humans – misleading narratives that aren’t supported by scientific evidence and could even be putting the whales at risk of harm.

The WCA and other conservationists are concerned that mariners or managers might cause harm to the critically endangered orcas as punishment or retaliation, instead of making some simple adjustments to their behaviour to avoid the risk of a boat-orca interaction in the first place.

Why are orcas ‘attacking’ boats?

The reality is that orcas are not attacking boats. Ongoing research suggests that the recent interactions between killer whales and boats has nothing to do with aggression. There is no record of an orca in the wild ever harming or acting aggressively towards a human.

These whales are not showing an aggressive attitude or displaying hunting behaviour. If the whales seriously intended to damage a boat, they could do so very easily, which is not the case here. What appears to be happening is simply play or socialising.

Of course, when a 3-tonne juvenile whale playfully pushes a rudder with their nose, there’s a possibility it could break. However, severe damage to boats has only been seen in 20% of these interactions to date. If we recognise that this is simply play behaviour, then what is important is how we can minimise the chances of a boat interaction with orcas that could potentially cause damage.

What can I do to reduce the chances of a boat interaction with an orca that could cause damage?

At the moment, these interactions seem to be almost entirely limited to the waters off the coast of France, Portugal and Spain, near the Strait of Gibraltar.

Here is our guidance for any vessel operators in these waters to help minimise the possibility of a boat-orca interaction that could result in damage. (You can also download this infographic as a PDF.)

Useful resources

Here is a full list of the online resources that you can use to check for the latest interactions and hot spots:



Header photo of an orca with vessel in the Strait of Gibraltar by marcelina1982, via Getty Images.

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