A sailboat with four people onboard had to be towed to shore after being targeted by orcas, according to local reports.
The incident occurred on Wednesday in the Bay of Biscay more than 70 miles off the coast of the Gironde department in southwestern France, Ouest-France reported.
The Bay of Biscay is a gulf in the northeast Atlantic Ocean that is situated to the west of France and north of Spain.
The interaction between the orca pod and the sailboat is among the latest in a spate of incidents that have involved these whales targeting vessels in the region.
Since 2020, a distinct subpopulation of orca that live in the coastal waters surrounding the Iberian Peninsula—a stretch of land in southwestern Europe that is divided between Portugal and Spain—have been ramming vessels in a behavior that has never been seen before with such consistency.
More than 500 «disruptive» interactions have been recorded off the Spanish, Portuguese and Moroccan coasts and neighboring waters over the past three years. While not all have involved physical contact, these incidents have left many boats damaged and at least five have sunk as a result, although no humans have been harmed.
The interactions often involve orca pods ramming, nudging—or sometimes biting—the vessels, with the whales tending to focus their attention on the rudder.
The reasons why orcas might be targeting vessels in this way remain a mystery, but experts have proposed several potential explanations.
The recent incident in the Bay of Biscay occurred as the sailboat was returning to its home port on the island of Noirmoutier—located just off the French coast—from the northern Spanish city of Santander.
The crew included the captain, identified as 65-year-old François, his 59-year-old brother and two friends aged 70 and 67, respectively.
The incident occurred on Wednesday morning when the boat was around 72 miles west of the coastal commune of Hourtin, Gironde department.
François first noticed something was wrong when his boat changed direction for no apparent reason.
«We were coming back from Santander with calm weather when suddenly, my boat veered off course without me understanding why. I thought it was an autopilot failure,» François told the France Bleu radio network.
«I put the boat back on course and a few seconds, even a minute later, a very violent impact on the back of the boat caused us to turn suddenly. My brother fell from his berth. There, I turned around and saw that the rudder was floating behind the boat. I saw the orcas jumping around.
«We absolutely didn’t expect it. It’s very sneaky because it happens underwater. The orca hit the most sensitive place on the boat, which is the rudder. We have the impression that it’s a bit of a trophy for them,» François said.
The orcas left the scene within an hour of the interaction beginning. While none of the crew members were injured, the boat was no longer maneuverable due to the damaged rudder.
They checked that there were no leaks on the boat and alerted the CROSS Étel, a government agency that is responsible for sea rescues in the region, among other activities.
After alerting the CROSS Étel, the sailboat was towed by a trawler and then by another sailboat to the port of Saint-Gilles-Croix-de-Vie. On Friday, it was taken out of the water to be repaired.
Scientists have proposed several possible motivations behind the orca behavior documented in this region.
In an open letter published last month that was signed by more than 30 marine scientists from around the world, researchers wrote that characterizing the incidents as «attacks» was misleading and potentially harmful to orcas, despite the damage to vessels.
«We are concerned that factual errors related to these interactions are being repeated in the media, along with a narrative—lacking a basis in science or reality—that the animals are aggressively attacking vessels or seeking revenge against mariners,» the scientists wrote.
«We believe this narrative inappropriately projects human motivations onto these whales and we are concerned that perpetuating it will lead to punitive responses by mariners or managers. The whales have shown a wide range of behaviors during the interactions, many of them consistent with playful social behavior.»
On a handful of occasions, the orcas have left tooth marks on the vessels, but the predominant damage to rudders and keels is due to strikes or rams with the head or body, according to the scientists.
«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,» they wrote.
Orca and other cetacean species have also been known to develop cultural «fads» among distinct populations. These are novel behaviors that briefly spread among certain groups, almost like popular fashion or music trends in human societies.
«While these vessel interactions may be a similar phenomenon, they are persisting longer than typical fad behavior, expanding within the population and escalating in impact. Nevertheless, it is possible the behavior, as previous fads have, will disappear as suddenly as it appeared,» the scientists wrote.
«The orca is an intelligent, socially complex species, and each population has its own culture—different vocalizations (known as dialects), prey preferences, hunting techniques, even different social structures and migratory behaviors.»
The Iberian orca subpopulation is categorized on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s Red List as Critically Endangered. There may be fewer than 40 individuals in this population remaining.