The incident happened in the Strait of Gibraltar last week, when a pod of orcas set their sights on the Grazie Mamma II, a vessel owned by Polish touring company Morskie Mile.
In a translated Facebook post, the company said the group of whales attacked the boat “for 45 minutes ..causing major damage and leakage.”
“The crew is safe, unharmed and sound,” the post assured readers, but the boat itself sank at the entrance to Tanger-Med, a Moroccan port.
It’s just the latest in an ever-increasing trend of the animals attacking and damaging boats off the coast of Portugal and Spain.
Orcas have been targeting ships in the region since 2020 and each year sees more and more attacks.
Marine scientists are still trying to determine what is causing the uptick in orca attacks, but there’s no question there’s been a sizable increase in these incidents. Over the past two years, killer whale research group Atlantic Orca Working Group has found these events have tripled, with more than 200 in 2022 compared with 52 incidents in 2020.
One intriguing aspect of the attacks is that the orcas primarily target smaller boats — those measuring less than 49 feet tend to be a favourite for the whales.
Earlier this year, biologist and wildlife conservationist Jeff Corwin told CBS News that the behaviour boils down the “incredible intelligence” of orcas and he believes older whales are teaching their young pod members these destructive tendencies.
“What we’re seeing is adapted behaviour. We’re learning about how they actually learn from their environment and then take those skill sets and share them and teach them to other whales,” he said.
Some researchers have theorized that a single, revenge-obsessed orca is teaching others to attack boats after she was injured by one in the past, but not everyone is convinced by this theory.
“They could crush the boat in a heartbeat if they wanted to,” Sébastien Destremau, a captain who was involved in a similar attack on May 22, previously told Newsweek. “But they were not aggressive, they’re not wanting to have a piece of you.”
Rather, Destremau told the outlet he thinks parent orcas might be teaching their young how to hunt using boats as the learning prop.
Alfredo López Fernandez, an orca researcher at the Atlantic Orca Working Group, told Live Science that the watercraft assaults might also be a new fad for the animals, encouraged by juvenile whales.
“We do not interpret that the orcas are teaching the young, although the behaviour has spread to the young vertically, simply by imitation, and later horizontally among them, because they consider it something important in their lives,” López Fernandez said.
Most researchers agree, however, that these attacks aren’t malevolent or a direct attempt to harm humans. The majority of the interactions between the boats and whales have involved the animals bumping the vessels but not causing serious damage.
That said, a number of boats have sunk to the sea floor in the past year after they were badly damaged. Other boats were stranded at sea and required a tow back to port after the whales impeded their ability to sail.
“This yacht was the most wonderful thing in maritime sailing for all of us. Longtime friendships formed on board,” wrote Morskie Mile in a eulogy to their lost vessel. It said, however, that upcoming cruises in the Canary Islands would go ahead.