This article is written in tandem with a podcast recorded with Jared Towers, Director of Bay Cetology and member of the Iberian Orca Working Group, and dives into the story of the Orcas of the Iberian Peninsula who have been recorded engaging in averse behaviors towards boats since 2020.

On May 4, 2023, a group of 3 Orcas took interest in the rudder of a Swiss sailing Yacht called "Champagne." After hours of pulling and prodding the whales departed, leaving holes on the side of the rudder. At this point the crew knew the boat was taking on water and alerted the Tarifa Coast Guard to the direness of their situation. A rescue boat was sent to pick up the 4 crew members, and tow the boat back to shore.

After 11 miles, just before shore, they realized they could not tow the "Champagne" any further as it had taken too much water onboard.

The "Champagne" sank, and the world had quite a few things to say about it.

The World

"(A pod of) Orcas are attacking boats"

"(A pod of) Orcas are seeking revenge on boats for a particular incident where one was struck"

"(A pod of) Orcas are seeking revenge on humanity as a whole for their crimes against the species: captivity, whaling etc"

And my personal favorite - "(A pod of) Orcas understand the complex nature of socioeconomic class structures and are targeting the rich (this is a satirical over exaggeration of a satirical over exaggeration because in many cases there are barriers to owning and operating boats)"

The Whales

In the Iberian peninsula there is a population of 49 Orcas that have resided in the Eastern North Atlantic for quite some time. Now, and this is very important, of that population there are only 15 individuals that are engaging in these averse behaviors towards boats, and they have their own title: The Gladis Orcas.

The term Gladis for these orcas comes from the term Orca Gladiator, as they were colloquially described as being "in battle" or "attacking."

Infograph from GT ORCA ATLÁNTICA website

The Memes

These Orcas will now and forever be a part of everyone's 2023 Bingo card as the internet was quick to stand behind the Orca's behavior. The sentiment behind the internet's response is largely focused around Orcas being a mascot for the middle and lower classes literally taking bites from the assets of those wealthy enough to afford yachts. These instances fed into the phrase "Eat the rich" rather ironically, and everyone wanted a piece of the joke... and the rich.

Top Left: Origin unknown, Top Right: Design by content creator Birdie Sam (one of the most shared), stickers and pins here Bottom Left: Design by artist Hannah Gewickey, their shop can be found here Bottom Right: Graphic by Cosmic Tentacles Studios

As comical as some of this content is, the underlying narrative paints Orcas, and the Gladis whales in particular, as malicious. Attributing malice to Orcas without understanding their behavior and motivations can end up leading people to cause harm to the whales. A closer assessment of this novel behavior might reveal a more nuanced truth.

Why Boats?

The animal kingdom (including Orcas) has three main types of play as mentioned by Jared in the podcast: Locomotor, Social and Object Oriented.

  • Locomotor play is an individual expending energy themselves, such as whales breaching.
  • Social play is made up of animals interacting and playing with each other.
  • Object Oriented play is focused on... you guessed it. An object. (this can include prey, kelp, and many others)

As you see above, when Orcas play they can integrate any combination of the three kinds. For researchers, after analyzing numerous testimonies, images and videos, they believe the behaviors of the Gladis Orcas are more likely related to socializing/play than aggression.

Researchers on the Iberian Peninsula, local institutions, international marine mammal experts, and administrations formed a working group with the Whale and Dolphin Conservation to better understand the averse behaviors of the Gladis Orcas and propose mitigating solutions.

The following excerpt from a letter written by this group explains the thought behind their belief.

"Despite the damage to vessels, we believe characterizing the interactions as ‘attacks’ is misleading. While some parts of the vessels infrequently have teeth marks on them, the predominant damage to rudders and keels are due to strikes or rams with the head or body. The whales are not ripping the rudders apart, as they might if this were hunting behavior. While the behavior may be frightening (and costly) from a human perspective, from the whales’ perspective, it seems to be somehow gratifying." - Open Letter

Earlier, I mentioned that the world speaks as though the Gladis Orcas are attacking vessels. I would like to challenge that narrative with the one you just read, where the Orcas' behaviors could be more attributed to play. The following video was taken by the sailing team JAJO during the summer of 2023 when some of the Galdis Orcas came up to their boat, and with this new information, you might just see it a little differently.

The Research

Cetacean researchers have been following this population of Orcas for many years now. Some of the primary researchers that have studied this population include: Ruth Esteban, Alfredo Lopez Fernandez, Philippe Verborgh, and Pauline Gauffier. Some of the primary organizations focused around this population are GT Orca Atlántica and CEMMA.

Now, even with many years of experience studying these Orcas' diet, population viability and dynamics, habitat and even interactions with fisheries prior to 2020, these researchers and others around the world are still coming together to understand and try to mitigate the Galdis Orcas' new behavior.

One of the papers published by some of the authors above in 2022 addresses this novel disruptive behavior and provides some very useful insights. For instance: spade rudders were the most targeted and damaged rudders, the Orcas usually arrive from the stern of the vessel while its in motion, the more a crew tried to control a wheel, the harder the Orcas would push, and if the Orcas did take interest in a boat they would be present for 30 minutes to a maximum of 2 hours.

What Happens Now?

For The Whales and Mariners

Researchers are still working on mitigating techniques like obstructing access to the rudder, and others that I am currently unaware of.

People are also doing their best to inform boaters of the effective practices when approached by Orcas and some organizations are even trying to lobby countries like Spain to set aside compensation in their budgets to compensate for damage to sailboats caused by Orcas.

For The Rest of Us

Most of us are not sailing in the Strait of Gibraltar. However, the way we talk about the Gladis Orcas can affect their safety.

Orcas have been demonized for millennia which has historically been to their disadvantage. As mentioned by Jared in the podcast, one of the first recorded instances of Orcas in written history is actually from the Mediterranean Sea. In 77ce, Pliny the Elder in his book The Natural History wrote of Orca as a "an enormous mass of flesh armed with teeth."

During the dawn of captivity in the 1960's and 1970's, it was not uncommon for captured Orcas to be riddled with bullet holes from fishermen and mariners alike. At the time, the species was thought to be nothing more than bloodthirsty killers who scared away the fish, which made harming these animals easy on the conscience and the trigger.

This is not solely history, as just this past August there was footage of a mariner shooting at Orcas coming up to his boat, dumping diesel into the water and testing firecrakers on them. With sailors retaining damage to their vessels and the world parading these instances as attacks, this blatant aggression towards Orcas is not surprising. While the assailant was brought to justice, there is still concern of others doing the same.

So, for the rest of us, shaping the way we communicate about these Orcas is one of the greatest things we could do for them.

This post is dedicated to Adam, who wanted more information on what's going on.