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Scientists Believe They've Solved The Mystery of the Orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar

One of boating's strangest stories may be coming to an end. At least, it may be the end of the mystery and the beginning of a solution. What began as a highly unusual string of 'interactions' between Orcas and sailing yachts in the Strait of Gibraltar has captivated the marine community since early 2022. The pod of Orcas in the Strait, which divides Europe from Africa and connects the Mediterranean Sea with the Atlantic Ocean, began approaching and engaging with sailboats by encircling them or otherwise stopping the yacht from passing through.

In many cases the 'interactions' were simply a close encounter with killer whales. But in other cases, the whales began to systemically 'bump' the boat, usually by attacking the rudder or keel, ultimately resulting in the sinking of several vessels.

When the story first reached the mainstream media, the biggest question was why the whales were exhibiting new behavior. Scientists and boaters both began trying to explain why Orcas had taken a sudden liking to sailboats in the Strait. One of the first theories was that black anti-fouling paint was causing the whales to exhibit an unusual amount of interest. The premise was that it was an attractant, and that black-bottomed vessels were more likely to suffer the wrath of the whales.

But as data poured in from over 700 'interactions' between boats and whales, the theory lost its tailwind. As scientists poured into the Strait to research the phenomenon, they quickly discovered that the pod of whales was teaching the skill to its youth. They also observed that the whales were becoming more systematic in their approach -- upping the ante by even going after racing yachts in the Strait. By most media estimates, as many as seven vessels have been sunk. Now the International Whaling Commission (IWC) has released a report detailing what they believe is the root cause of the behavior. The truth is: the whales are just having fun.

The IWC report reveals that a combination of free time, curiosity, and natural playfulness has led to young Orcas develop their unique boat-bumping behavior. Considering that Orcas are one of the smartest animals on Earth, and that they're known to develop unique behaviors when isolated in a particular environment, the report seems to put the controversy to bed.

So what kickstarted the trend? Well, several things happening at once, it seems.

The return of the bluefin tuna population in the Strait brought a resurgence of whales, which in turn has led to an increase in interactions between whales and people. The area is also rich with sailors passing through to explore the various destinations of the Mediterannean coast. When paired with intelligent animals that can learn and adapt quickly, it's a recipe for a unique phenomenon.

An article from News Atlas breaks it down into three main factors-- young whales being quick learners, the intelligence of killer whales to be playful, and their social ability to start a 'trend' or 'fad' that can be shared amongst a pod.

According to News Atlas, "scientists found that the 'attacks' on vessels usually involved a couple of animals at a time, from a core group of 15 that have so far been observed messing with boats. But these 'attacks' are anything but – from the orcas' perspective, at least." No older Orcas have been observed engaging in the behavior. In fact, "scientists suspect younger orcas have seen older siblings playing with their rudder 'toys' and then copied. Some females have been spotted, but they're most likely there just to babysit the kids."

From there, "the animals are known to be sensitive to trends, with scientists having observed odd new behaviors spreading through a pod like a TikTok challenge, only to be forgotten just as quickly. Perhaps most famously, in 1987, a female orca in the Pacific Ocean near Puget Sound was observed carrying a dead salmon on her head; within two months, killer whales from her pod and two others were also wearing 'fish hats.'"

The report from IWC even goes on to explain how killer whale behavior can be regional and can differ depending on a pods location and environmental stressors.

"Different populations often have distinct dietary specialisations that are maintained by cultural transmission, and these 'ecotypes' typically have a variety of persistent behavioural traditions that are related to their divergent foraging, Some populations may also develop unusual and temporary behavioural 'fads' and other idiosyncrasies that do not appear to serve any obvious adaptive purpose. Understanding the recent boat interactions by Iberian killer whales may benefit from an examination of such ephemeral traditions in other well-studied killer whale populations."

So what happens now that the scientific community has reached a consensus? How can boaters be safe in the Strait?

The authors of the IWC report put it succinctly: "In an ideal world, there would be a simple strategy for mariners to follow when killer whales interact, which would avoid vessel damage and harm to the whales. Unfortunately, there appears to be no such panacea. The singular agreement amongst the experts at this workshop is that the interactions between Iberian killer whales and vessels are not aggressive. The interactions have more elements consistent with fad behaviour or play/socialising than aggression. The use of such terms as ‘attack’ to describe these interactions is thus inappropriate, misleading and should cease."

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1 Comment

It's fascinating to see how this mystery is unfolding. snake game

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