Orcas Send Another Ship to the Bottom of the Strait of Gibraltar

Add another notch on the wall for orcas in the Strait of Gibraltar; the animals have deep-sixed another vessel.

On Oct. 31, a midsize sailing yacht owned by Polish cruise company Morskie Mile came under duress when an unknown number of orcas began attacking its rudder. The creatures menaced the ship, called the Grazie Mamma, for over 45 minutes, eventually laying it to waste. LiveScience reported that all passengers escaped safely thanks to rescue efforts — but the damage was done.

The Moroccan Navy responded to the incident, towing the boat toward safety as it took on water. It sank not far from Morocco’s Tanger-Med port.

Pattern emerges, then persists

The incident mirrors one from the same area in 2022 when a pod of orcas attacked the rudder of a Portuguese fishing boat and immobilized it. That disturbance happened on the same day as another, similar attack, which Portuguese media described as “very much worse than usual.”

The “usual” they referred to has become a pronounced pattern in recent years. Vessels in the Strait of Gibraltar, a narrow waterway between Portugal and Africa, started encountering orcas prolifically in 2020. Fishing boats reported about 50 encounters with orcas that year alone.

Marine scientists pointed out at the time that no human-orca encounter had resulted in an “attack or death,” but the interactions persisted. This year alone, the animals sunk two vessels in the area in May and June.

Researchers seek answers

Orcas, or killer whales, are capable marine predators, known for their group hunting behavior and intelligence. Multiple efforts to explain why they keep damaging vessels in southwestern Europe have generally followed this narrative from biologist Alfredo Lopez. The whales’ behavior could be self-induced or obsessive, based on a “hostile situation in which some specimens had a bad time in front of a sailboat,” he said.

That idea evolved into a theory tied to trauma response behavior in a whale called White Gladis, belonging to the group. The female, Lopez and his team argued, likely endured a “critical moment of agony” in a boat encounter sometime prior to 2020, then started reacting to similar events.

As of this writing, it’s unclear if White Gladis played a new role in the Grazie Mamma’s sinking.

Morskie Mile, the owner of the ship, promised to christen a new vessel in her memory.

“This yacht was the most wonderful thing in maritime sailing for all of us. Longtime friendships formed on board. Very good memories will be transferred to Grazie Mamma II. Love of the sea always wins and friendships remain with us,” the company said in a Facebook post following the incident.

Sam Anderson

Sam Anderson takes any writing assignments he can talk his way into while intermittently traveling the American West and Mexico in search of margaritas — er, adventure. He parlayed a decade of roving trade work into a life of fair-weather rock climbing and truck dwelling before (to his parents’ evident relief) finding a way to put his BA in English to use. Sam loves animals, sleeping outdoors, campfire refreshments and a good story.