(ORDO NEWS) — Earlier this month, Esther Christine Storkson was sleeping on her father’s small yacht off the coast of France when she was abruptly woken up.
Jumping out on deck, she saw several killer whales, or killer whales, surrounding them. The steering wheel wobbled wildly. At some point, the 37-foot sailboat turned 180 degrees, heading in the opposite direction.
They “rammed the boat,” says Storkson. “They hit us repeatedly… it looked like it was a coordinated attack.”
“I told my father, ‘I’m not good at thinking, so you have to think for me,'” says the 27-year-old Norwegian medical student. situations.”
After about 15 minutes, the killer whales dispersed, leaving father and daughter to assess the damage. According to her, they lowered the GoPro camera into the water and saw that “about three-quarters [of the steering wheel] were broken off, and some of the metal was bent.”
For any vessel, losing rudder at sea is a serious matter that can be dangerous in adverse conditions, and some sailboats have had to be towed to port after killer whales destroyed their rudders.
Luckily, the Storksons had enough rudder left to get to Brest, on the French coast, for repairs. But the incident temporarily disrupted their plan to reach Madeira, off northwest Africa, as part of an ambitious plan to circumnavigate the globe.
In nature, there is not a single case of a killer whale killing a person. However, killer whales sank two boats off the coast of Portugal last month in what was the worst case since authorities started tracking them.
According to Renaud de Stefanis, president and coordinator of the cetacean research group CIRCE Conservación, based in Spain, the Storksons incident is exceptional. It was much further north, nowhere near the Strait of Gibraltar, nor off the coast of Portugal or Spain, where other similar reports came from.
Therein lies the mystery. Until now, scientists have assumed that only a few animals participate in such encounters and that they are all from the same pack, de Stefanis says.
“I really don’t understand what happened there,” he admits. “It’s too far. I mean, I don’t think [killer whales] could go there for a couple of days and then come back.”
These encounters – most scientists avoid the word “attack” – have attracted the attention of sailors and scientists alike in the past two years as their frequency seems to be on the rise.
Sailing magazines and websites have written about the phenomenon, noting that killer whales seem to be particularly attracted to the ship’s rudder.
A group of more than 13,000 members has emerged on Facebook that exchanges private messages about killer whale sightings with boats and discussions about avoidance tactics. And of course, there is no shortage of dramatic videos posted on YouTube.
Scientists don’t know the reason, but they have some ideas.
Scientists speculate that killer whales enjoy the water pressure created by the boat’s propeller. “We think they’re just asking to be poked in the face with a propeller,” de Stefanis says. So when they run into a sailboat that’s not running, “they get a little frustrated and break the rudder.”
However, this doesn’t quite explain the incident that happened to Martin Evans last June when he helped to bring a sailboat from Ramsgate, England, to Greece.
About 25 miles off the coast of Spain, “nearly short of the Strait of Gibraltar,” Evans and his crewmates were under sail, but they also started the ship’s engine and used the propeller to increase speed.
When Evans was on watch, the rudder began to move with such force that he could not resist, he says.
I thought, “God, what is this?” he recalls. “It was as if the bus was moving. … I looked to the side, and suddenly I saw the familiar white and black colors of the killer whale.”
Evans noticed “pieces of the rudder on the surface”.
Jared Towers, director of Bay Cetology, a research organization in British Columbia, says “there’s something about moving parts… that seems to stimulate them.”
“Maybe that’s why they focused on the handlebars,” he says.
Killer whale populations along the coasts of Spain and Portugal are small, and de Stefanis believes that only a few young males cause damage to boats.
If so, they may simply outgrow the behavior, de Stefanis says. As the young males get older, they will need to help the pack forage for food and have less time to play with the sailboats.
“It’s a game,” he suggests. “When they… start living their adult lives, it will probably stop.”
Towers says such “games” usually go in and out of style in killer whale society. For example, now in the population he is studying in the Pacific, “we have young males that … often interact with shrimp and crab pots,” he says. “It was just a fad for a few years.”
Back in the 1990s, something different was in vogue for some killer whales in the Pacific. “They would kill fish and just swim with the fish on their heads,” Towers says. “We don’t see that anymore.”
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