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Mystery: Killer whales attack fishermen to the north

Several killer whale attacks on fishing boats have been reported in recent weeks. Stories and videos recorded off the northern coast show this large marine predator prowling and then slapping its tail hard at fish-laden boats. Attacks that have caused serious material losses to the victim fishermen.

Unusual behavior, according to specialists, on the part of this sociable and non-aggressive marine mammal in the wild. Contrary to his attitude which can become hostile in captivity. The famous story of the orca “Tilikum” who lived in captivity at SeaWorld Orlando in Florida, confirms the assertions of scientists. This male orca killed three people during his stay in this water park, including a young biologist student, a visitor and his own trainer.

Mystery

While captivity can provoke hostile reactions from this large marine predator, scientists find its aggressive attitude on the high seas towards humans still incomprehensible. Known for its preference for cold waters in Antarctica and the Arctic, the killer whale can however live in tropical seas. “There are about forty individuals in the Strait of Gibraltar, divided into about ten families. It is the only population of killer whales in the Mediterranean known and studied”, already explained in 2020, to the French information site 20 minutes, Guillaume Guinet, Director of Research at the French National Center for Scientific Research.

According to him, these cetaceans come in the summer to feed on bluefin tuna. For his part, Sami Hassani, Director of the association Conservation des Mammals et Oiseaux Marins, evokes a kind of “depredation” practiced occasionally by killer whales in the Mediterranean. “Attracted by the smell of freshly caught fish, these predators, usually capable of hunting their prey, choose the easy way and come to help themselves from the fishermen’s nets,” he explains. A few testimonies and certain videos of the fishermen who were victims of the attacks in the north of Morocco confirm this particular interest in their catches on the part of the killer whales.

This, however, does not explain the direct attacks on these and other craft. An increasingly frequent phenomenon, several incidents have been recorded in recent years off the Mediterranean, on the Spanish coasts but also in the Atlantic on the Portuguese coasts. About sixty attacks have been recorded not only against fishing boats but also against sailboats, yachts and other pleasure craft.

Tracks

“These marine mammals, whose size can reach up to 8 meters for a male, are renowned for their sociability towards humans or, at worst, their indifference. When an orca attacks a boat or other, we often evoke the curiosity of young individuals, ”explains Adil Bounssar, researcher in oceanology at the Research Institute for the Exploitation of the Sea. Baffled by the speed of the boats navigating within their perimeter, the young killer whales would thus be tempted to slow down their momentum by precisely attacking the rudder.

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An impressive attitude from this marine animal known for its great intelligence. Another track mentioned by scientists and which goes in the same direction: “It may be a question of territory. This predator thus defends its habitat, an important territory for the group, a hunting or breeding area. He tries in this way to signify it to humans to repel them and chase them away, ”suggests Adil Bounssar. Another hypothesis has been put forward by scientists following the attacks on Gibraltar in 2021: a phenomenon of mimicry. Explanation ? At the origin of these incidents, a single individual or a single family of killer whales. Attacks against boats would thus have started with the atypical behavior of an isolated case which then spread through an effect of imitation quite present in these mammals.

“We are thus dealing with a horizontal transmission of behavior which is different from the vertical one taking place between the mother and her baby”, explains the oceanologist researcher. The latter notes that it may be that the fishermen are ultimately victims of one and the same orca, a sort of marginal individual who develops his own way of acting. Lots of hypotheses to unravel the mystery of these angry killer whales threatening the safety of fishermen off the northern coast.

Remember that the orca or killer whale is a species threatened with extinction. Half of the population is in danger according to a serious study published in the Revue Science in September 2018. Behind this sad fate we find the plastic that is invading the oceans and seas of the globe. Polychlorinated biphenyls, these toxic substances long used in oil and paint, would indeed be the great danger awaiting this super marine predator. Even after their ban, these chemical components persist in waters, especially in industrialized regions. Thus, the killer whales, the first victims, risk completely disappearing within 30 to 50 years. A situation aggravated by the slow reproduction of this species. An orca does not reach sexual maturity until the age of 20 and gestation lasts up to 18 months.

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